A Musician Profile by Eric Sandberg
Michael Lee Wolfe grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Point Breeze in the 70's, graduating from Taylor Allderdice high school [the school that gave the world Marty Allen and Wiz Khalifa, among other luminaries] in 1979. An avid music fan, Mike embraced what is now called classic rock, jazz and jam bands like the Allman Brothers and The Grateful dead. He took up guitar in his teens, playing with friends taking a year of lessons from Pittsburgh jazz legend Ken Karsh but...
"I wasn't a very good student so I mostly taught myself."
Mike's parents wanted him to become a lawyer but he felt there were enough of those already. After finishing his studies at the University of Michigan he spent the summer "Eurailing" where he eventually met up with a school friend living in Leon, Spain, a classical guitarist named Cy Williams.
While there, he was introduced to some people from Oviedo, the capitol of Asturias in northern Spain, who invited him to come up and party like it was 1984. Within minutes of stepping off the train in Oviedo Mike met Monica, the woman who would eventually deign to marry him. He wrote a song about it for one of his many musical projects Maraya Zydeco.
Maraya Zydeco: Flechazo [Love]
Despite only taking one semester of pass/fail Spanish 101 at Ann Arbor, a connection was made. It wasn't long before Michael Lee Wolfe started making other kinds of connections in Asturias — musical connections. In 1991 Wolfe founded Michael Lee Wolfe Productions and began a career as a successful concert promoter.
"I brought over a bunch of American jazz, blues and gospel acts and ran a bunch of festivals," Mike wrote to me from his home in Spain. "I worked with a fair number of European artists: Celtic musicians from Ireland and Scotland, Fado [a traditional form of folk and popular music] singers from Portugal and even a terrific songwriter from France who writes in Yiddish and surrounds himself with incredible players.
I never had to worry about ticket sales. Like health care, the government picked up the tab for everything. I was really just an organizer and tour manager. This lasted until the economic crisis in 2013. I still promote some events here and there."
But Wolfe wasn't just promoting concerts and festivals, he was proving himself a capable musician who was able to adapt his skills and play with the folk and jazz musicians of Asturia.
"Being a musician with "a Jazz mentality" musical associations began to form naturally. Music is a wonderfully promiscuous endeavor. If you stick at it, you get much better at it and it turns out I'm a natural producer type. So, if the idea is clear, it's not hard to get a new repertoire going."
The preceding is an unquantifiable understatement. The wealth and breadth of music that Lee Wolfe [his professional name] has produced in support of and in collaboration with other artists and on his own is simply staggering. Over the past thirty-five odd years Wolfe has parlayed his love of music — playing, composing, producing and organizing, into becoming a historic figure in Asturian folk music.
Wolfe's first band in Spain, Xaréu, had made a couple of records for the small label FonoAstur, but after a falling out with the label over promotional support [a tale as old as time] the band became an indie act, with all the pitfalls that come with it.
"Our first indie record was made with my old friend Carlos Pinto. He said he had a studio and a label but the studio was really crappy. He had one studio monitor with a busted cone and someone had to keep his finger on the multi-track recorder to keep the tape from spooling on the floor, which it inevitably did anyway. A lot of songs had to be spliced back together so it took a grueling six months of endurance and patience to complete our third album which was the first to be issued on CD."
After this experience Wolfe became determined to take control of the recording process for his work and utilized the experience he had acquired over the years, going back to making living room recordings with friends back in Pittsburgh, to become a producer. Through his concert promoting connections and his own musical efforts, Wolfe built a reputation as an efficient, reliable and knowledgeable project director with an elite musician's ear and skill.
Over the following twenty-five years Wolfe became a driving force in the music scene in northern Spain as a promoter, a producer and a musician. He has played with and produced albums for Asturiana Mining Company, Ubiña, Astura and Anabel Santiago, the premier neo-folk singer in Asturias.
Asturiana Mining Company
In addition to adapting his skills to the folk music of his adopted homeland, Wolfe promoted his own brand of traditional roots music, blues and singer-songwriter styles as a solo artist and in a series of newer bands including Maraya Zydeco with accordionist Maria Alvarez, The Pink Rangers and the "Don't call us jazz" outfit De Miguel, Wolfe & Quintana featuring the gifted pianist Jacobo De Miguel and brilliant scat-singing percussionist Mapi Quintana.
The trio's one album Xota Pa Tres [Dance With Three or, if you go with the Portugese translation -- With Three Vaginas], co-produced by Wolfe, is an astonishing musical work that transcends labeling and description.
During his career Wolfe and his various compadres have played in Cuba, France, Switzerland, Scotland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Corsica, Algeria, Venezuela and Chile, as well as all over Spain.
"Since the economic crisis we still get out and travel a bit — play some festivals, but it's mostly a bar club life now for me."
Wolfe embraced and added to the culture of Asturian music but is also a bluesman and a jazzer at heart — music that figures prominently in his many projects. Rather than delve into a complex timeline of Mike's career in the limited space we allow ourselves here at Knock and Knowall, I want to share as much music with you as I can, sprinkled with comments from this amazing and humble musician.
"Tielve" [the name of a Parish of Asturia] is a traditional song from Patrimoniu by Asturiana Mining Company, produced by Michael Lee Wolfe and issued in 2000 by Lochshore Recordings, Glasgow, UK. Wolfe: "We are an Asturian folk band. We did the theme song "Trova del Mineru" [Mining Ballad] for the movie Pidele Cuetas al Rey." [a film about a miner who walks from Asturias to Madrid to petition the King for miner's rights].
Asturiana Mining Company performing live on Spanish Television
The hilarious "[I Put Your] Pussy on Facebook from The Last Day I Got Laid by The Pink Rangers, a splinter group from Asturiana Mining Company which performs American roots music.
"La Islla de Brasil" and "Tabaco de Pipa" [Pipe Tobacco] Two remarkable live television performances of tracks from Xota Pa Tres by De Miguel, Wolfe & Quintana. Wolfe: "We got great feedback from the biggest jazz guys around Spain and yet my partners didn't want to see what we did as jazz, which pretty much stopped forward progress on this project."
Wolfe performing "Ay un Galán d'esta Villa" on Spanish television with Anabel Santiago "The female voice of Asturian folk" from the Wolfe produced album Desnuda.
"Louisiana," from Lee Wolfe's 2003 solo album Corners of the World, shows off his instrumental chops and versatility while the next video for "Reunion" presents Wolfe in fine singer/songwriter form.
In 2009, Wolfe released the compilation album Lee Wolfe: Xotes Asturianas 1984-2009 which featured highlights from his twenty-five years of shepherding, supporting, producing and playing Asturian folk music.
Now in his late fifties, with two grown children, and seven years into the era of government fiscal austerity, Wolfe has slowed things down a bit, but he continues to play music live regularly, most recently in partnership with Puri Penin as the roots music duo Hoot 'N Holler and still takes on the odd project with any number of the horde of people he has worked with over the decades. His unlikely musical journey is far from finished.
Michael Lee Wolfe
A Select Visual Discography:
Eric Sandberg reviews David Lindley live at McCabes Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, CA 5/4/19
What better place to watch maxi-instrumentalist David Lindley perform than a guitar shop. In fact the packed house was rife with guitar enthusiasts. it was a long running joke for former McCabe's emcee Lincoln, while introducing the show, to ask the audience members to each grab a guitar on the way out in case of a fire. My Knock and Knowall partner Mike killed the time before the show by rating the guitars on the wall on their extraction worthiness with the guy sitting behind us.
At 8:00 PM sharp, with little fanfare, the seventy-five year old Lindley ambled down the creaky wooden stairs and tiptoed through a minefield of exotic and expensive looking stringed instruments strewn about the floor.
Except for his brightly colored shirt, which he claimed to be Christian Dior, Lindley looked like a long haul trucker who never saved a dime — with requisite cap and billowy white sideburns. From his perch Lindley scanned the floor around him. "Looks like shit!" He mentioned that it had been a while since he'd been here and that he took a year off.
"I've been on tour constantly since I was sixteen. I decided maybe I should [sotto voce] slow.....down. My father's mother — I called her grandmother — had a hernia from moving a couch. Her philosophy was just keep movin.' keep liftin."
With that, the former sideman for Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan and many others bent over and retrieved a Turkish oud that was perched precariously on a flight case and began plucking a mesmerizing raga which finally resolved into "Ain't No Way" from Lindsey's brilliant first solo album El Rayo-X.
With each song Lindley bent over, laying one instrument down and picking up another: Ouds, bouzoukis, Weissenborn acoustic lap slides, but he never touched a traditional guitar — that would have been boring. He paid homage to the late Warren Zevon with two songs, "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me' and the exquisite "The Indifference of Heaven."
"When I heard Warren Zevon had written a song called "[Beneath] The Indifference of Heaven" I said 'ooh...I've got to hear that. That sounds good...and it was."
After Praising Danny O'Keefe to the rafters, "If he's playing, cancel what you're doing and go," Lindley performed O'Keefe's humorous ode "[He Would Have Loved You] More than Eva Braun," a song O'Keefe himself has performed on the same stage.
The hour and a half set included many more stories, instrument switches and Lindley's unique singing voice which occasionally channeled deepest Appalachia. Lindley wrapped things up with a funny story about Ry Cooder receiving a phone call as they were about to begin a rehearsal one day.
"Ry listened to the caller with a concerned look, occasionally saying 'that's too bad.' After a while he began rocking back and forth on his heels. He held the phone away from his ear and made a face. He finally told the person he was in rehearsals and people were waiting for him and he'd call back. Ry told us 'That was a fella who is in the self-meat grinder.' I thought 'Now there's a song!"
After performing his wry and lengthy concert favorite "Meat Grinder Blues" Lindley thanked the audience for coming but stayed seated as he received a standing ovation.
"Okay, Okay," he said and played us one more song. When you're seventy-five you get to perform encores without actually leaving the stage. It was just another sublime evening with a charming, witty and talented man who, I can only imagine, has been a joy to tour with for all these years.
If you live in Southern California, be warned that David Lindley continues his guitar shop tour, bringing his stringed menagerie to The Fret House in Covina Saturday, May 18th.
Concert review by Eric Sandberg — The Fab Four Live at the Rose in Pasadena, CA 4/26/2019
Like the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine, The Fab Four are playing a four game home stand which began Thursday evening at the Canyon in Santa Clarita, followed by the Rose in Pasadena last night, with the final two games...er...shows at The Saban Theater tonight and the Canyon in Agoura Hills Sunday.
If last night's show at the Rose is any indication, you must buy, steal or Lyft yourself into one of these remaining shows if you live in the greater Los Angeles area. The Fab Four have never sounded, or looked, better.
After two support acts [the first played while I was eating a Holy Aoli burger at the Dog Haus on Hill Street, and the second as I sat on the Rose's patio checking on the aforementioned Dodgers] and a hilarious introduction by Ed Sullivan impersonator/stand up comedian George Trullinger, The Fab Four promptly took the stage at 9:00 PM, dressed in their accurate Shea Stadium finery, and played a sparkling set of favorites from the first half of The Beatles' career, including "Love Me Do," "A Hard Days Night," "Eight Days A Week," Twist And Shout," "Yesterday" and several others.
George "Ed Sullivan" Trullinger warms up the crowd for a rilly big shoo.
As the band, consisting of Joe Bologna as Ringo, 'Liverpeuwel' native Gavin Pring as George, ageless founding member Ardy Sarraf as Paul and newcomer Adam Hastings as John, played these timeless, perfectly crafted pop songs...well...perfectly. I kind of wished they could stay in those gray suits all evening. The addition of Newcastle upon Tyne native Hastings has delivered a noticeable upgrade to the Fab Four's close harmonies. With eyes closed, or even just squinting a bit, it was impossible to tell them from the real thing.
Just squint a little and pretend you can't hear them over the screaming
Newcastle's most famous exports include ships, Sting, Brian Johnson and now you can add Adam Hastings to the list.
Trullinger's Sullivan again entertained the capacity crowd while the band slipped into their colorful 1967 uniforms for the second set. How much, I wonder, does Gavin Pring rue the fact that George was the only Beatle to wear a hat the size of a schooner during that era? They played the opening and closing pairs of songs from Sgt Peppers sandwiched by "Taxman" from Revolver.
The closing set was signaled by the appearance of Adam Hastings in a white suit jacket and long hair. He did some quite funny bits involving a list he had in his pocket before broaching the serious subject of hunger. Pre-orders are now being taken for a special "Imagine No Hunger" California license plate with proceeds to benefit the California Association of Food Banks.
With that, Hastings sat down at the piano to play John Lennon's iconic solo number, joined by the rest of the band on the second verse, which allowed the rapt audience to imagine what could have been.
Despite my preference for The Beatles' earlier songs, I would not have traded this show's encore for anything. The band were joined onstage by Eric Clapton emulator extraordinaire Doug Couture, who gave the impression he had just leapt out of a cab on Green Street as he bounded onto the stage to strap on a Les Paul. His performance on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" not only reminded everyone how great Eric Clapton is, it also put an exclamation point on how thrilling it can be too see musicians of this caliber giving you everything they have in a live venue.
Eric Sandberg speaks with Ardy Sarraf, The Fab Four's own Paul McCartney, about their upcoming live performance of Abbey Road to honor the albums 50th anniversary
Ardy Sarraf as Paul McCartney Photo courtesy of Manny Dominguez Photography
I've never been overly fond of tribute bands. I'm not against nostalgia but I'd rather listen to someone sing his or her own songs, or at least spirited versions of classic songs by a variety of artists, than see a band fall all over themselves to look and sound like one established act. I especially don't get tribute acts for bands that are still around. What is the point of a Cheap Trick tribute band when the real Cheap Trick is more than likely going to play your town four times this year?
My general disdain for tribute acts has one notable exception — Beatles tributes. Among the thousands of rock and pop acts to emerge since Little Richard began abusing his piano in public, The Beatles are a law unto themselves and an integral part of worldwide culture. When Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil no one calls it a Mozart Tribute act. The Beatles are on that level.
There are many, many Beatles tributes operating throughout the world. Notable ones include Rain, The Fab Faux, England's Bootleg Beatles and, of course, Southern California's The Fab Four who, in my opinion, are the best of them all.
They do it right. For example: Ardy Sarraf, who has been portraying Paul McCartney since the show's inception in 1997, is normally a right-handed player. We've all tried to write, throw, or maybe play an instrument with our opposite hand at one time or another — it ain't easy. That's dedication.
It doesn't stop there. There are the costumes, the accents, the banter, the staging, the Ed Sullivan impersonator; along with the breathtaking skill and attention to detail brought to the musical arrangements and performances. Over the years The Fab Four have progressed from a Tuesday open-mic night lark, to a Disneyland attraction, a Vegas headliner and, ultimately, the globe-trotting, ticket selling phenomenon they are today.
Over the years there have been several changes to The Fab Four cast, the most recent being the semi-retirement of founder and President Ron McNeil from performing as John Lennon. Ron has been ably replaced by veteran John Lennon impersonator [and dead ringer] Adam Hastings who most recently held that position with Bootleg Beatles. This leaves Ardy Sarraf as the only constant cast member since the show's inception, currently abetted by Joe Bologna as Ringo and Liverpool native Gavin Pring as George Harrison, along with Hastings.
Ardy Sarraf and Gavin Pring
"It's different..."Sarraf tells me on the phone from Baton Rouge where the Fabs are preparing for a gig. "...but because we've all substituted for each other over the years it's not that big of a deal. We're all used to seeing different guys on stage with us but, you've seen pictures of Adam [It's uncanny], he looks great on stage and, to be honest with you, the blend that Adam and I have is like the Everly Brothers. Everyone knows John and Paul were going for that Everly Brothers vocal sound with the contrast between Paul's soft, smooth voice and John's gravelly voice.
With Ron, we never quite had that sound because our voices were too much alike. Ron doesn't have that nasally type of tonality. So vocally, we sound much better. Instrumentally, it's hard to touch Ron, especially with the keyboard stuff, but I will say that Adam has been working very hard, with us and on his own, which is commendable.
People have been saying for years 'If only the John from Bootleg Beatles would join the Fab Four — that would be the ultimate.' Now it's happened and it's a big boost for us as a whole. It gives Ron time off to be with the family. Adam is excited and we're excited to have him."
Though The Fab Four are continually playing gigs all over the world, they always come back home to Southern California and one of their most important traditions is to play a huge, special show at the Pacific Amphitheater every summer during the Orange County Fair. I recall seeing them perform a tribute to Beatles movies a few years ago, featuring appropriately costumed sets of tunes from A Hard Day's Night, Help! and Let It Be. For this summer's extravaganza the theme is obvious. 2019 is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' brilliant swan song Abbey Road.
For me, Abbey Road is the album that set the standard for the FM radio revolution that was to come. Without the sonically superior Abbey Road you never get to The Dark Side of The Moon or Steely Dan's Aja. It was certainly an album that was never meant to be performed on stage.
As I peruse the back cover of my Abbey Road LP a number of challenges spring to mind in terms of performing all the tracks live — not the least of which include how to keep the patrons from heading to the bathroom during "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Octopus's Garden" [thank goodness the can't miss "Oh Darling" sits between them].
"It's funny..." Sarraf muses, "...because Ringo didn't even play it ["Octopus's Garden"] a month ago when I saw him. That was one of the songs he did not play, which was...interesting. But it's a fun song, I like that song. We'll be able to pull it off."
On performing "Because": "That is a great vocal harmony. It's not that tricky because we are competent musicians and singers — we each know what part we are going to sing. We've already started dissecting this stuff and putting them in our set here and there.
On "Maxwell's Silver Hammer": "We're trying to work out who is going to play what. Joe is probably going to play the synthesizer part because the song has no drums. Ron is also going to be playing on stage with us for some of the songs because you can't recreate the whole album with just four guys. There's places that need tambourine, there's acoustic and electric [guitars], extra percussion...so we'll have Ron and Joe, when he's not playing drums, on keyboards, percussion or whatever else is going on.
I've played "Maxwell's Silver Hammer before and it's a bit tricky, especially on bass when you're also singing. I might be performing it at the piano this time just to change things up. I think that and "She's So Heavy" are going to be the most challenging ones for vocal and sonic reasons. Luckily we have Mike [Amador, the band's original George Harrison and current manager] mixing us because he knows the stuff, he's played the stuff, so he knows what to listen for. By now you know what it's all about...the devil is in the details, still."
On Playing the big side two medley: "The medley...well that's...it's not like it's sacred or anything but everybody knows it. For us it isn't any different than doing the Sgt. Pepper's album which we did a couple of years ago. That was a bitch to do that stuff live. "Lovely Rita on the bass, left handed, while singing — that was a little bit of a chore but we pulled that one off.
We're trying to work out where I will switch to guitar [for the famed three-way solo-trading section]. Visually it would look cool if the three 'Beatles' were up there trading the solos. I've never done it like that, I've always just played the bass and let the other two handle the solos. We'll have to see how it works out.
Gavin, Joe and I have never done "You Never Give Me Your Money" all the way through. "Sun King," "Polythene Pam," "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" — to me, that's the tricky stuff right there. Even when there is no singing going on, all that instrumental stuff, solos and counter solos. It's all about relearning and rehashing it. It's fun stuff for sure."
How will they handle "Her Majesty?": "I don't want to give it away."
Finally, I asked Sarraf, as the last man standing, how much longer he'll be doing the Macca Mambo with the Fabs. Is it starting to get old for him? "No but I'm starting to get old though! It's funny because Ron and I started out about the same time, playing in other bands. I played with different Beatles bands around the world, I went to Japan when I was twenty.
It's just like any career, especially with all the traveling. You've got to know when to hang up the boots. On stage you've got to look good and sound good. I've got a few more years yet, before I hang up those boots.
The Fab Four return to Southern California next week for four shows before heading out for a run of shows up and down the eastern seaboard. You can check for dates near you at the link below.
Album Review By Eric Sandberg
In 2019, the era of fourteen writers and producers on one song, there is no better sound to hear on a record than the buzzing of a single coil guitar pickup fed through an analog spring reverb — a sound that signals what you are about to hear could just be perfect in its imperfection.
In order to achieve such perfect imperfection it seems one must travel to the northern Sahara and Niger to seek out Mdou Moctar a Taureg (not the Volkswagen) musician who is the first to play traditional Berber music with an electric guitar — a lefty Fender Stratocaster, no less. Moctar was raised in a strict religious family where music was not permitted. He made his first guitar out of a plank with wire and nails.
After years of practicing in secret Moctar earned his living playing at weddings. He was discovered by the western world via cell phone recordings of his performances collected by tourists. Eventually some genius went out of his way to deliver an electric guitar to the musician and the results are, frankly, stunning.
Ilana (The Creator) is Mdou Moctar's first album recorded with a full band, including a rhythm guitarist, bass and drums. The band sounds like they have been playing together for decades — a desert Grateful Dead but infinitely more intense. I have always been fascinated by the music of the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Morocco, but Moctar uses the traditional Berber music as a launch pad for some of the trippiest psychedelic guitar excursions and non-traditional fleet-fingered soloing ever committed to tape.
Each track on this nearly perfect album takes you on a different journey through an unfamiliar world. It is mesmerizing and it reveals more of itself with each listen — and you will be compelled to listen, again and again. The centerpiece of the album is the epic seven and a half minute "Tarhatazed" [I can find no translation]. This song has it all: a massive groove, a great riff and an extended guitar solo that would make Eddie Van Halen weep.
This song is followed by the upbeat and hopeful sounding [I have no idea what he's singing about] "Wiwasharnine" which can be seen and heard below as Moctar performed the song live on KEXP. The live performance confirms his assertion that he is not familiar with the techniques of western rock guitarists and developed his chops on his own. His finger positioning on his fretting and picking hands is unlike any traditional rock guitarist.
"Wiwasharnine" live on KEXP
I cannot recommend this album strongly enough. It's not just a record, it's an evolving experience.
Interview by Eric Sandberg
At fifty-eight years young, Stewart O'Nan has seen seventeen of his works of fiction published along with two non-fiction books, one of which is Faithful [with Stephen King] a best-selling bleachers-eye-view of the first championship season for the Boston Red Sox since Babe Ruth was traded. All of this since he, with the full support of his saintly wife, Trudy, abandoned his career as an Aerospace engineer to earn his MFA, ultimately publishing his first collection of short stories In The Walled City [Drew Heinz Literary Prize] in 1993.
His first novel Snow Angels was adapted as a film and at least two other novels are in pre-production with names like Tom Hanks and Emily Watson being bandied about. Early in his career, Granta named him one of America's best young novelists.
Stewart O'Nan and I both grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. We went to the same schools [he lived right across the street from Linden Elementary where we first met in Kindergarten], though we didn't routinely hang out [and start a band] together until high school.
We reconnected after my father brought me a copy of Snow Angels he stumbled across in the Faulkner book store in Pirates Alley, New Orleans. Since then, I've been just one in a legion of avid readers of O'Nan's works all over the world.
With his new novel Henry, Himself set to publish on April 9, I reached out to Stewart to ask him if he would allow me to exploit our acquaintance by granting me an interview. He foolishly agreed. If you're a fan, I guarantee that you'll not read a Stewart O'Nan interview quite like this one anywhere else.
Eric Sandberg: When Scott Turow writes a new book it's going to be in a courtroom, if it's Kathy Reichs, bones are sure to figure heavily. You are a literary writer with a healthy curiosity and we fans never know what your next book is going to be about: A family tragedy, a crime spree, World War II, fire and plague, a restaurant about to close — I could go on...and on.
Yet with all this variety in your work, you've managed to write three books about the same family. What keeps bringing you back to the Maxwells?
Stewart O'Nan: I guess it's that feeling that I haven't told the whole story. That goes way back to being a short story writer — the amount of compression that goes on. In order to get that compression, you leave a lot out. When I was writing Wish You Were Here I thought the book was going to be all about Emily Maxwell but, as it turned out, I thought the other characters were just as interesting so I followed them as well.
I really didn't get to tell her whole story, so when I started writing Emily Alone I needed to give her some room. And then, just thinking about Henry, he's dead and there's two other books. So we have hearsay about him from the other characters but we don't really know him. I started thinking 'Who exactly was Henry?'
I'm always attracted to a life story. Emily Alone is a life story the same way Henry, Himself is a life story. I figured let's give Henry his room and go back and see what I could find.
Eric: I recently read an essay by the Argentinian novelist César Aira in the Paris Review where he discussed at great length his theories on the "Law of Diminishing Returns" in analyzing the source of his writer's block. I will admit that much of it was over my head, but one section particularly caught my interest as he discussed the necessity of creating all the "circumstantial details" required to flesh out a novel. "Once they are written down," he states, "their necessity becomes apparent", but while inventing them, they seem "childish" and "silly" and fill him with an "invincible despondency" (laughter).
I thought of you, [SO: Thank you.] whose best works are tapestries of circumstantial details that create a whole greater than their parts and, based on Aira's experience, I wonder how you've made it this far without topping yourself.
SO: John Gardner said, in The Art of Fiction, a lot of what's in a novel isn't there because the novelist wants it there, it's because the novelist needs it there. It's like that Laurie Anderson line "You know, I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?"
You want to build a world that is your character's world and you want that world to challenge your character — to challenge everything that is dear to that character. But you've got to have that world there otherwise, what is to be lost?
If Henry dying doesn't lose us that good world around him, if we don't see and feel that world, then we'll never feel the loss. We're not losing anything. There are a lot of stories I like to read, and I like to write, which involve character or character consciousness trying to save what is lost — trying to salvage a world that is gone.
Older people, in their seventies and eighties, that's what they're trying to hang on to...or make sense of — both of those things at once. They're trying to hold on to both the good and the bad. But in order to have the good in the bad, you have to have that whole world with all the little stuff, like luggage, a dead deer on the roadside, everything. That's the fun of it. That's the discovery, finding the stuff that you didn't know was there — that you didn't know that you needed — that end up meaning a lot to the characters.
Eric: It sounds like you're the opposite of César Aira, you revel in the circumstantial details.
SO: For particular books I guess that makes sense. For other books maybe it doesn't mean that much. A book like A Prayer For the Dying weighs in at about one hundred and forty manuscript pages, there is a ton of stuff that is left out. It's all action.
I was reading a book called Understanding Comics [by cartoonist Scott McCloud] the other day. It talks about the structure of comics and how, in different cultures, the movement from frame to frame differs. In some cases the next frame will take you to another scene and in others the next frames are different moments within the same scene. I think, in this book, I'm doing that a lot more than moving from scene to scene. I'm hanging on to the scene. I'm doing that close up stuff like in a French film. There are a lot of one person scenes — a lot of scenes with no dialogue.
Eric: In Henry, Himself. Henry is fascinating in his dullness. He has the odd hobby, but the only thing that seems to inspire — and I hesitate to use the word - passion in him is the almost futile need to restore order no matter how mundane the thing that has gone slightly awry — not necessarily with his family, but with stopped up drains, bald patches in the grass and broken garbage disposals.
SO: This goes back to the big question of who is Henry? We're the sum total of all the things we do — that we dream. Henry is very tamped down in a way. He's part of the "Greatest Generation". They're there to be steady, they're there to take care of things and make sure that things work. I think that their passion was in their work.
Their wives were supposed to take care of the home and they were supposed to go out and have a career. By the time that we meet Henry his career is long passed. He can hearken back to it and think about it, but it's pretty much gone.
There is also this lingering effect of his war time experience that keeps him steady and not too excitable about things because nothing is ever going to be as wild and chaotic and maddening as his war experience. When he comes back all he wants is for things to be quiet and peaceful.
I knew your brother and your mother but your father was like Phyllis's husband Lars to me. I never saw him, never met him and if I ever asked about him, my guess is I didn't get a memorable answer. How much of your father have I finally met after reading this book?
SO: Not that much, I think. It's a combination of my father and my grandfather, who plays much more into it, I think. That's the time frame. Also the job — my grandfather worked for Westinghouse. The house where the book takes place is based on the house they lived in on Grafton Street in Highland park.
Eric: When we were lads I don't mind telling you now that I looked up to you quite a bit. Aside from you being several inches taller, you always seemed to be a bit ahead of the curve and you saw things differently than most people. You were the funniest person I knew. Walking to school with you was often a master class in observational humor. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile that Stew with the often harrowing tales written by the Stewart O'Nan I discovered much later in life.
An acquaintance of mine, a singer-songwriter named Peter Himmelman, writes serious songs of great depth and passion which touch on the human condition, much like your books. But in person, he always has everyone in stitches. Do you have an explanation for this dichotomy, and are you still funny?
SO: It's hard to say if you're funny or not...
Eric: I suppose I should ask Mrs. O'Nan that question.
SO: It's always up to the crowd. At the time we were growing up there was a great irreverence. We were seeing Monty Python on channel 13. This was fresh stuff when we were eleven or twelve years old. I think we were thirteen when when Saturday Night Live debuted. Richard Pryor and George Carlin were probably the funniest men in America. It was a very funny time — the freewheeling late sixties/early seventies, anything goes.
You could poke fun at anything, and probably for good reason. The major institutions in the country had been debunked and seen as morally bankrupt, which is still true today. So I think it was just about getting into that spirit. We were watching f*cking Laugh In!
My first major influence, if we were to throw out Tarzan, would be the Peanuts comic strips. It's still some of the best American writing I've ever read. It does everything. It has a huge range. It's about jokes but, in a weird way, it's deadly serious about these little kids and what they represent.
At the beginning of my writing I think was more influenced by serious stuff but I was also influenced by Horror and Science Fiction. That's what I read mostly from my teen years up until my early twenties. If my earlier books are a bit more dire that's the influence of the Horror and maybe some of that morbid Science Fiction.
Another big influence was the Horror comics I used to read at the Squirrel Hill Newsstand. Tales of the Unexpected, Creepy, Eerie and, God forbid, Vampirella. I liked that morbid, mordant sense of humor and the idea that 'you're going to get yours' — that weird sense of macabre poetic justice. Yeah, it's hard to be funny on the page, unless you're George Saunders, I guess.
Eric: I've heard you speak at readings about your writing process - boxes and boxes of legal pads, yada, yada, and what you choose to write about seems to be sparked by your own curiosity — and how satisfying that curiosity can lead to a book. West of Sunset, for example: you were doing research for a book about Los Angeles and got caught up in a footnote about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. Your curiosity about that led to a very different book.
I recall visiting you at your apartment at Boston University and you played me cassette recordings you had made of late night street interviews you conducted with pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers in the Combat Zone. For someone who was studying Aerospace Engineering at the time, I wonder if that was the germ of the curiosity that led to your ultimate career choice?
SO: It's that documentary curiosity, that wondering about how other people live beyond my own small scope. That's always been there, I think. It also goes back to just reading. Even though I was there to study Aerospace Engineering, I was still reading voraciously because I had a library card there so I would go into the stacks at BU's Mugar library and check out Camus and Flaubert — I was going through a big French phase at that time.
Again, I'm not sure why. I had no big plans for being a writer but, whether it was comic books, Peanuts, Stephen King or Harlan Ellison, I was always a reader. At least that's always been my explanation for how it happened — how I went from being an Aerospace engineer to being a short story writer in my basement after work. I just love to read.
Eric: I just finished a little light reading, a book called The Sentence Is Death by Anthony Horowitz. One of the red herrings in this murder mystery was that a noted literary writer was secretly the author of a series of trashy, sex-fueled million-selling fantasy novels [laughter]. Her agent defends her, stating "You know the market for literary fiction, Anthony, it's tiny, almost non-existent."
Once again, I thought of you.
SO: That's what they always tell us, but that's where the big fellas come out of. Everyone said Anne Tyler would sell three thousand books her whole career and now she's at the top of the Best Seller list. 'Alice Monroe, you're not going to make any money writing short stories...' Nobel Prize. If it's good it will sell.
Eric: It's not a very well kept secret that you wrote a spy novel under a nom-de-plume [A Good Day To Die, James Coltrane]. It wasn't made into a movie with Matt Damon, or even Mark Wahlberg. Was it hard to resist making it just a tad too literary perhaps?
SO: If I could have sold it as a literary novel I would have but I had too many books piled up at that point. I had three, if not, four books ready to go. I just wanted them off of my desk. That book is basically a twist on For Whom the Bell Tolls. I want to say that City of Secrets is also kind of, too.
Here's that lone figure that is part of a revolution but doesn't know exactly where he stands. Having grown up in the sixties and seventies, and lived through all those weird hijackings and bombings, the SLA, Entebbe, Munich, all that stuff, you think about all the people who got caught up in that. For young people, with no direction it can happen very quickly.
It's always a fascinating one for me. It's like Graham Greene: is this one of his entertainments or is this one of his deadly serious spiritual quest books? Or is it the two of them together? Robert Stone had that same problem. When I was writing City of Secrets I was thinking a lot about that. That apocalyptic strain in pop fiction versus serious fiction versus how it is in actual life.
It's like making movies. It's very stylized. I can see where that author doesn't want to go in that direction —paint the setting, move the characters around. It's not a very flexible business model, I guess.
Eric: You seem to be doing OK.
SO: For me it's always a challenge. What kind of book is this going to be? Is this going to be a 'square' book or is it going to be a funky, weird book? I like the funky, weird books where you pretend it's square but its actually funky and weird. It's a shell game that you play with the whole business. There's a Henry Rollins lyric "Soul in the mainstream is such a labeling dream." You have to appear to be doing one thing when you're actually doing another. It's tricky.
A novel can be anything at all. The question is can you get an audience in the door, with the how? and what will they stand for? And at what point can you close the door behind them so that they can't escape? Something like The Speed Queen and A Prayer For the Dying, which are overtly weird, whereas something like Emily Alone and Henry, Himself appear to be pretty square but are, in fact, very odd. But will the reader sit still for it and, if so, what reader?
That's always the question but, by the time you write 'em, it's too late. You do the best you can, you throw them out there and try to move on to whatever is next. That's always the hardest part — figuring out what's next.
Eric: That segues perfectly to my final question: is there anything new that has peaked your interest that you're getting started on, and can you give us an oblique hint as to what it might be?
SO: I got nuthin'.
Album Review by Eric Sandberg
When Founding Yes singer Jon Anderson announced the forthcoming release of of his fourteenth solo album 1000 Hands —Chapter One-- I was bemused, at best. Of the dozens of solo albums released by the various members of Yes [hundreds if you include keyboardist Rick Wakeman's catalog] only a couple are worthy of the band's best work.
Jon Anderson's first solo album Olias of Sunhillow  was written, composed sung, played and produced by Anderson by himself. He spent countless hours out in a barn teaching himself to play a myriad of instruments and recording multiple overdubs of his unique high tenor voice. The result was stunning.
In and out of Yes, throughout Anderson's spotty solo career, Anderson became increasingly less inspired and, frankly, lazy when it came to making albums, preferring to solicit completed music tracks from other musicians, both known and unknown. He would take these tracks and warble nonsensical hippy-dippy platitudes over them, exposing a voice weakened by the acute respiratory failure he barely survived in 2008, just prior to a planned Yes 40th anniversary tour.
Much to his chagrin, Yes replaced Anderson with a stand-in and he has been an exile from the band he founded ever since. Well, sort of. Over their fifty years of existence, Yes has had over thirty-five different members pass through the ranks so it's not too difficult put together another version of Yes [or twelve] from among the remaining cardholders.
At the age of seventy-four, through disciplined physical and vocal workouts, along with the support of his second wife Janee, Jon Anderson has miraculously brought his voice back to near full strength, and has been fronting Yes: featuring Anderson, Rabin & Wakeman on several world tours over the past few years.
All of this brings us to 1000 Hands, Anderson's first solo album since 2011's Survival & Other Stories, an album of music he solicited from random musicians via social media. Anderson has been working on bits and pieces of the album for a number of years, which is why it features many guest musicians, including the late Chris Squire and the estranged "other Yes" guitarist Steve Howe.
The album, which was recently completed by Anderson in Florida with producer Michael Franklin, features contributions from a veritable host of world-class musicians including: Larry Coryell, Stuart Hamm, Alan White, Billy Cobham, Chick Corea, The Tower of Power Horns, Pat Travers and features some tasty flute work by Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson on one track.
With all of this, the question still remains: what did Jon Anderson bring to the proceedings? The answer is just about everything he has. After the opening prelude track "Now" Anderson unleashes the full power of his voice and melodic skills on "Ramalama" a song that actually brought a little tear to my eye.
Though the rest of the album doesn't quite match the heights of "Ramalama" it is a remarkably consistent collection of strong melodies, beautifully arranged, played and sung. The lyrics are more focused but still retain Anderson's usual message of love, peace and light. They are easily swallowed when paired with the more inspired music accompanying them this time around.
If you are not a fan, or just a casual fan of Yes, I am not encouraging you to seek out this album, but if you are a long-suffering devoted fan of Jon Anderson's I can tell you that 1000 Hands is your reward.
Sadly, the album is only available from Jon Anderson directly at this time and, although his team has done a remarkable job of getting the word out, they have failed just as badly at letting people know where they can buy the album. I was unable to find a way to obtain it until I complained in a comment on a Facebook post promoting a review of the album, and another fan sent me the apparently secret link. All in all, it's just another example of the chaos that has ever swirled around Anderson's long career.
By the way, here is the link:
Your welcome, Jon.
Book review by Eric Sandberg
Anthony Horowitz is a clever Dick...er, Tony. His name made its first attempt at penetrating my hardened transom some years ago as it appeared on my television screen as the writer of various TV episodes of Poirot and Midsomer Murders [this was before opening credits meant one last peek at Facebook before a grisly murder occurs].
It wasn't until Foyle's War, a show I looked forward to as much as a new series of Inspector Lewis, that the name Anthony Horowitz achieved a foothold in my addled pate. Even then I was more in awe of the remarkable performance of Michael Kitchen than I was of the writer putting words in his mouth.
The first book I purchased by Horowitz was not for myself, but for my father, who is a fan of Foyle's War and, as a young man, loved reading Ian Fleming's James Bond. As Trigger Mortis promised to contain original material by Fleming and was written in the style of the original novels (no futuristic gadgets or metal-mouthed giants chomping on tram cables), I thought he would enjoy it, and he very much did.
A few years ago, I heard a radio interview with Horowitz who was describing the plot of his then forthcoming novel The Magpie Murders. A book editor becomes embroiled in the murder of her most popular writer while clues abound as to the identity of the killer in the victim's final, yet to be published manuscript. A book within a book. That was enough for me.
Anglophile that I am [I briefly got the taste of living in London as a ten year old in the early 70s] I ordered the book from Amazon UK before some US editor could 'translate' the dialogue from delightful idioms such as "Go on in and 'av a butcher's" ['Go inside and have a look for yourself']. The book was nearly impossible to put down — complex threads woven into an easy read. I had barely finished it when I saw a new murder mystery from Anthony Horowitz was imminent.
The Word Is Murder promised a new, hook: one of the two main protagonists would be Horowitz himself. As he narrates his own story, Horowitz introduces us to the latest in a long line of brilliant, quirky English detectives, Daniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne is an ex-police detective, fired from the force for mishandling a prisoner, but is called in to consult whenever a case is a "sticker — that is, a case which presented obvious difficulties from the start."
In Daniel Hawthorne, Horowitz has created another intriguing, inscrutable, imperfect character, shrouded in mystery but, like all the best literary detectives, is always three steps ahead of everybody else. Hawthorne's [seemingly uncharacteristic] desire to have his exploits chronicled by a biographer leads Horowitz to become Watson to Hawthorne's Holmes.
Of course Dr. John Watson is as much a fictional character as Sherlock Holmes, but Horowitz is a real person and he cleverly adapts real aspects of his life into the story. In one memorable scene Hawthorne interrupts a critical meeting Horowitz is taking with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg about Horowitz's rejected screenplay for the next Tin Tin movie.
Throughout the book the fictional Horowitz wrestles between his common sense telling him he should not not be involved with Hawthorne, and his extreme curiosity about this gruff, intrusive and brilliant detective. It is this curiosity, and an unhealthy itch to solve the case before Hawthorne, that nearly gets him killed — which begs the question: if you die in your novel, what happens to the real you?
The real Anthony Horowitz
Another aspect of Hawthorne's character that the fictional Horowitz must endure is the blatant homophobia Hawthorne exhibits as he questions witnesses and suspects that appear to scrum for the other team. Horowitz's discomfort is ours as well and this keeps these books from from being too precious and makes us all the more curious about Hawthorne's murky past.
At the opening of the second Hawthorne novel, The Sentence Is Death, Horowitz again intertwines his real life with the story, describing in elaborate detail what goes into creating one simple scene in an episode of Foyle's War, in which real life actress Honeysuckle Weeks steps off of a period bus. One thing after another goes wrong and, as time is running out, the film crew's one chance at a successful take is spoiled by the sudden appearance of you know who in a modern taxi.
Another sticky murder has occurred and Hawthorne has been called in to consult. Even with urgent script rewrites, his agent breathing down his neck for a sequel to his Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, fictional Horowitz can't resist a new game being afoot. It's another complex case, full of red herrings, widows, ex wives, spelunkers, lawyers, businessmen, and a couple of unpleasant cops who do not want to be embarrassed by Hawthorne.
As the investigation progresses, fictional Horowitz continues to conduct his own clandestine inquiry into the mystery of Hawthorne. He uncovers one secret that explains an aspect of Hawthorne's mystique, only to encounter something else that only deepens the mystery of his past.
As in The Word Is Murder, the solution to the murder was unexpected, though the clues were all there. My one quibble with this story was a particular secret uncovered by Hawthorne [a red herring] that the real Anthony Horowitz, writing the book, perhaps over-telegraphed. It didn't quite ring true that the fictional Horowitz was gobsmacked by a revelation that most astute readers had sussed out a few chapters earlier.
This distraction [for me, anyway] was either intentional and meant to put the fictional Anthony Horowitz in his place, or a sign that the real Anthony Horowitz just might have a little too much on his plate — with Alex Rider (his popular Young Adventure series) novels and TV scripts, Tin Tin screenplays, Hawthorne novels and God knows what else he's committed himself to.
In any case [and I hope there are many more cases...and a TV adaptation], I eagerly await the promised third installment of the Hawthorne mysteries but, no pressure, Mr. Horowitz. Take your time.
An album review by Eric Sandberg
Ian Brown is possessed of a natural gravitas of the sort Liam Gallagher desperately aspires to. Ian doesn't have Liam's snarl, but his once pot-ravaged voice has settled into a soft, pleasant timbre that carries a big stick.
Where Liam writes lyrics that are painfully naive, Ian's words range from knowingly innocent to jaded omnipotence. Everything the former Stone Roses front man does is brimming with confidence and a quiet swagger.
After conquering the world with their 1989 debut album, The Stone Roses fell into the 'we need to get out of this record contract and sign with a major label' trap, delaying their Geffen Records follow-up, the appropriately titled Second Coming, until 1994. By then, visionary, atmospheric producer John Leckie had moved on and Ian Brown's voice had been reduced to a rasp from smoking pot.
I met three of the four members of Stone Roses [Guitarist John Squire was the no-show] at a sparsely attended record release party in a tiny restaurant on the Sunset Strip in December of that year. Mani and Reni, the Rose's world-beating rhythm section, were jovial and friendly while Ian did his best but seemed preoccupied. After the event, as I drove by the front of the restaurant, I saw Ian standing alone on the curb with his hands in his pockets, staring into the night's sky.
"What am I going to do now?" I now imagine he was thinking.
My Second Coming CD booklet signed by Ian Brown
The sweepstakes for who would have the most successful post Stone Roses career seemed to favor guitarist/artist John Squire. Despite its failings Second Coming was a showcase for his fluid, lugubrious and sinewy guitar chops. But never count out sheer chutzpah and the willingness to start from scratch to reinvent yourself.
Aided and abetted by endlessly imaginative knob twirler, Dave McCracken, it was Ian Brown who found a completely new musical direction. Salvaging his faded voice and emphasizing his lyrical wizardry, Brown and McCracken created a sea of colorful and varied soundscapes married with intriguing word play and themes.
Brown's solo career took off — four straight Gold albums, "Best Solo Artist" and "Godlike Genius" awards from New Musical Express and Q Magazine's "Legend" award, along with the briefest, but coolest, cameo ever in a Harry Potter film.
Confirming what we all knew: Ian could not possibly be a Muggle
This run of ingenuity and continuous reinvention ran up to his fifth solo album, 2007's The World Is Yours, which paired his rap-savvy rhymes with powerful string arrangements, delivering enough Bond theme songs to lead off the next twelve movies. After a Greatest Hits package Brown released one more album My Way in 2009 which showed him, for the first time, seemingly unsure about his direction, as evidenced by his puzzling cover of Zager and Evans' "In the Year 2525."
The next move improbably turned out to be a full-on Stone Roses reunion. The band played several headline gigs and festivals and released a new single "All For One." The song divided fans. John Squire's trademark guitar pyrotechnics were paired with arguably the most inane and simplistic lyric Brown ever wrote. A follow up single, released only on 12" vinyl sounded like an outtake from Second Coming.
As the band attempted to record a new album, Brown was captured on video outside the studio proclaiming what was happening inside to be "glorious!" This proved to be disingenuous as Brown closed Stone Roses final UK appearance in Glasgow with “Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy that it happened.”
Ian waves goodbye to Glasgow on behalf of Stone Roses and their career
Now, at the age of 56, Brown has released a new solo album Ripples. After fronting his old band for a spell, Brown has opted to continue in that format utilizing simple guitar, bass and drum arrangements with minimal gimmickry. The lead track "First World Problems" is announced by a soulful retro harpsichord riff and Brown's patented barbed lyrics.
This is followed by the Stooge's influenced "Black Roses" and "Breathe and Breathe Easy (The Everness of Now)" which features Ian alone on acoustic guitar, plaintively singing "Wake up for the war on your mind." It almost sounds like he's having a go at good old Liam on this one. 'This is how it's done, son!'
The album continues with a pleasing assortment of R&B inflected rock tunes with Ian testing his new found confidence as a real singer. Sadly, the album ends on a bum note with a half-hearted attempt at reggae which should have been relegated to a B-side.
Ripples doesn't break any new ground, and is not an album I would introduce to an Ian Brown newbie, but it is a welcome return for long-time fans who are either still smarting over, or relieved by the fizzled Stone Roses reunion .
Book review by Eric Sandberg — Master of the Mundane: Stewart O'Nan - Henry, Himself
Since 2002 Henry Maxwell has loomed large as a literary character without actually appearing in a book. Henry is first mentioned in the opening pages of O'Nan's novel Wish You Were Here. In this book, which takes place a year after Henry's death, we learn about Henry obliquely, as if the words are separated and arranged to form a white silhouette of him on the page.
The central theme of Wish You Were Here is the impact of Henry's absence on his family: Emily, his wife of fifty years, his older sister Arlene, his grown children Kenny and Margaret and their children. The family is gathering for one last summer at their cabin in Chautauqua, a tradition dating back to Henry and Arlene's childhood.
Wish You Were Here continued a subtle shift in O'Nan's approach to his particular brand of storytelling begun in his previous novel Everyday People. Up to this point O'Nan had garnered a reputation as a master of literary horror. Not the kind of horror that his friend Stephen King churns out like regular issues of a comic book, but more of a modern take on the horror of Edgar Allen Poe - the sort of horror that inhabits our daily lives - the horror derived from our poor choices, our disappointments and denials that we subconsciously run from and inevitably are forced to turn and face
Stewart O'Nan with Stephen King — Go Sox!
O'Nan's first novel Snow Angels (later adapted as a film starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell) starkly deals with a heart-wrenching series of tragedies in a bleak, small Pennsylvania town, while his third novel The Speed Queen has the narrator describe her own murderous crime spree (to Stephen King via cassette recordings) while simultaneously absolving herself of her actions.
O'Nan's examinations of the nature of evil achieved a new level of sophistication and profundity in his 1999 novel A Prayer For The Dying. Set in the backdrop of fire and plague A Prayer For The Dying chronicles one man's descent into a literal and figurative Hell and is required reading in some college Literature and Psychology courses.
With Wish You Were Here O'Nan laid claim to a new title - master of the mundane. Not a lot happens in its 517 pages - no crime sprees (well, maybe one small one), wars or murders - just a family coping with the loss of a patriarch and their stories of disappointment and hope. It is an engrossing read. "Stewart O'Nan sees with a vengeance" one New York Times reviewer wrote early in O'Nan's career, and see he does - all the humdrum details that make a life.
After four more acclaimed novels, including the bestseller Last Night At The Lobster, O'Nan decided to check in on Henry's widow. Emily Alone finds Emily Maxwell ten years on from Henry's death and struggling with a creeping sense of 'what was it all for?' as her kids and all the families of her Pittsburgh neighborhood have long since moved away or died, her children's lives in chaos. When her only friend/sister-in-law/nemesis Arlene suffers a stroke she is jarred from the monotony of her life into making a bold move.
But what of Henry? The specter of the late Henry Maxwell is the driving force behind two critically acclaimed and popular novels. Who was he? In O'Nan's forthcoming sixteenth novel (excluding a collection of short stories and two non-fiction books) we finally meet Henry, himself, and he's not a terribly interesting guy. It is, in fact, Stewart O'Nan's great gift as a writer that he can make the last good year of a boring man's life so compelling.
Henry, Himself provides the reader with a glimpse of the Maxwell clan intact, Henry is in relatively good health (if not in good shape) in the year he turns seventy-five. Readers familiar with the other two novels in this trilogy will feel an added sense of tension as they try to piece together the timeline between this story and the first book. I won't give anything away except that the final paragraphs are among the most poignant I have ever read.
The book unfolds in a series of self-contained short stories ranging in length from two paragraphs to eight pages. Many chapters focus on such earth shattering topics as a broken garbage disposal, a basement drain crisis, dead grass patches from dog pee, rodent infestation and a gift left in a toilet bowl.
Midway through the book, as each prosaic aspect of Henry's routine is revealed, I become paranoid that O'Nan has been secretly remote viewing my own life, so keen and universal are his observations. Like a good stand-up comic, O'Nan turns a trip to the john into comedy gold, except we're not laughing.
Each episode, many of which revolve around holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, tell us more about Henry and, by proxy, ourselves. The narrative style only becomes tedious in one chapter which goes into excruciating detail about all eighteen holes played at a Putt Putt golf course in Chautauqua. The segment tells us nothing we don't already know about the characters and has thoroughly cured me of any nostalgic notion of going putt putting the next time I visit my father on the Outer Banks.
What's most fascinating and ironic about Henry is his seeming detachment from his own family, their foibles and crises, preferring that Emily bear the brunt of their alcoholic daughter's misadventures, and his hesitancy to broach the subject of a crumbling marriage with his son-in-law. Henry bonded his family more through a strict adherence to tradition than he did by being emotionally available to them.
Strewn throughout are Henry's reminiscences from his own childhood, his job as an engineer on an important project which was ultimately shelved, a previous, heady love affair before he met Emily, and perhaps most telling, his experiences as a foot soldier in World War II. His ability to detach from his grim experiences in Europe informs his emotional remoteness from his family.
Henry, Himself is a satisfying and hopeful rumination on the human condition as only Stewart O'Nan can write it. It is not absolutely necessary to read the other two books before reading this one. Knowing what happens in the future is almost a distraction from the story being told here but that knowledge most certainly enhances the poignancy of its conclusion
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.