Short Stories: Power Ballads by Will Boast (University of Iowa Press) and Round Mountain by Castle Freeman (Concord EPress)

Lately I’ve been listening to my Paul Desmond LPs. “In his music, as in his life, the absurd cohabited with the familiar,” wrote Nat Hentoff. “His was the realm of an urbane dreamer all too aware of how close yearning is to feeling ridiculous.” One hears a longing grown sophisticated to challenge a blunt awareness that in turn casts shadows on the desire. There are only so many notes. Style, said Dizzy Gillespie, is how you get from one note to another. The enigma exists in the spaces between notes, things.

BoastCover.jpgLiterary style works much the same way. The tension between antagonistic forces inhabits the writer’s sentences as a phantom signature. In the ten stories of Power Ballads, Will Boast creates characters who make music – in Wisconsin roadhouse polka bands, church choirs, and recording studios – as aging rock stars, DJs, vocalists and drummers. Lives-in-music are what his stories are about, just as Paul Desmond’s “Skylark” is about a bird. But they engage the reader by way of their frictions and tones. In Boast’s work, the tensions flare between desire and resistance, confidence and disgust, freedom and need, aspiration and limits, commitment and detachment.

The title story is narrated by a jazz drummer who once had been recruited to play for Soldier, a hard rock band attempting a comeback in the Midwest. The band, who wear military get-ups and are led by a guy named Billy, play a one-hit wonder called “DMZ.” The narrator says, “In front of the fans he never broke character. He was inscrutable, stoic, depthless. He was the samurai. You’d never have known that by day he did tax preparation. ‘That’s the song gotta connect. That’s the one gotta hit. It’s a power ballad. You know what that means, don’t you?”

BoastBand.jpegBut Power Ballads isn’t built with the brio of amp’d-up power ballads. Rather, Boast cultivates a restrained sense of foregone conclusions. Sometimes a weariness, presumably the residue of life on the road and uncertain achievement, hovers over the telling. There is a now I know better tinge to the voice that skirts sententiousness. At the outset of “Power Ballads,” the narrator says, “Sleeping in my practice space when I couldn’t make rent, living off Easy Mac and Korean hot noodles – oh, yes, I believed I was doing it the authentic way, that I wasn’t just another white kid from the sticks trying to hang. I believed I was earning my soul, my right to play.” Billy’s want ad for a drummer had specified “No bullshit, no egos, no posers, no jobbers” – but the narrator reveals himself as a jobber par excellence. Boast won’t let the reader settle easily on contained roles. The bandmates are both fully committed musicians and inevitable wash-outs, and the narrator is both candid observer and traitor.

Some of the stories feature “Tim,” a drummer who joins up with a band. In “Dead Weight,” he signs on with Justin and Jayson, the duo called “VD3.” Here is Boast writing about music itself, accomplished with intuitive ease and insight derived from his own experiences as a musician:

“How can I describe this music? It managed to meld everything popular on the radio – metal riffs, skittery electronic beats, melodramatic breakdown sections, white-boy rapping, self-help lyrics, and endless, yelping iterations of the word girl -- into one market-conquering protogenre. Thanks to some sophisticated recording software, it sounded glossy and crunchy, slick and jagged, sensitive and angry all at once. The sound track to your next teenage riot, and Grandma could still buy it for you for Christmas.”

BoastSeeds.jpegThe core of “Dead Weight” is the narrator’s muted but still audible self-assessments, an urge to explain exactly why he was involved with VD3 and their retinue: “My trip has never been about money, though I’m proud to scrape out a living playing music. How many of us can ever hope for an honest shot at transcendence?” Tim finds it in certain moments of performance (“not that it mattered much if I fucked up”) while waiting “to set myself up for the next year and maybe longer, to keep playing the angry, pure, fire-breathing jazz I loved and couldn’t live without.”

Boast conspires to make his reader his co-interloper. We read at a cool distance. But because he understands and empathizes with his characters, we draw close even as we draw back. In “Dead Weight,” Tim “discovered another rule of the road: Stop pretending it’s art; go on muscle memory.” There is something of that, I suspect, in the making of Power Ballads itself – a disinterest in the potential of prose to disorient, to make language sound more than merely spoken in a conversational manner. There may be a kind of muscle memory, given to plain speaking and conclusiveness, at work in his approach.

Tim and his girlfriend Kate return again in “The Bridge.” They visit Kate’s mother and family; the mother is slipping into dementia. Tim’s self-reflectiveness once again sounds a note of the confessional. “When the diagnosis came,” he says, “I’d felt it would be wrong to work up some kind of great, false sympathy for the entire family. When you try to throw yourself into other people’s suffering, I thought then, you end up making it all seem like a trinket – flashy, cheap and tasteless.” Power Ballads is very much absorbed with the task of figuring out exactly how to “throw yourself” into other people’s predicaments – how to arrive at the most appropriate tone.

BoastColor.jpgIn fact, these stories seem to exist primarily to play that tone for us. Boast wants very much to make it sound earned -- thereby risking the impression that his constructions are too willed, too ruled by the limitations his narrators discover around them. It’s a risk ably taken and consciously accepted. Boast is immensely talented – and willing to let the opposing forces in his materials and outlook clash and resolve, at least formally.

His fine story “Sidemen” is narrated by the wife of a touring musician. Disgusted by the fifteen-minutes-of-fame that everyone seems to want, she says, “Now everyone wants to be lauded on their own merits, adored if possible. Does getting by no longer constitute a life?” The stories of Power Ballads are the kind that ”get by” – honest labor, straightforward sense, humble aims, paycheck in the bank. Along the way, they deliver some of the most modestly nuanced prose about music and musicians in recent memory.

[Published September 16, 2011. 174 pages, $16.00 paperback]

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FreemanCover.jpgThe twelve linked stories in Castle Freeman Jr.’s Round Mountain pivot mainly on the character of constable Homer Patch and the ordinary episodes of minor conflict in his small Vermont town. In “The Women at Holiday’s,” a summer resident named Gretel Trowbridge asks him to investigate a break-in at a shack on her property which like so many other places there was formerly a farm. (She had called on a Tuesday; it is now Thursday.) Freeman’s prose is a terse vernacular, seemingly casual. He wants the reader to understand the abiding nature of this locale – when he takes time to describe a setting, it is for a reason. The details of the Holiday place, related in the third person, are a commentary on what sorts of things Homer notices:

“They didn’t much keep the place up: a was-white house now the color of an old stone except over darker patches where the walls were wet; a rusty screen door; at the corner of the house a big old lilac, tall as the second-story windows but full of dead branches; grass not mowed and grown up with dandelions and the little blue flowers like, what, daisies, that come in the mowings; up top, a shake roof that ought to have been replaced thirty years ago and daylight visible through the chimney. There wasn’t any reason somebody couldn’t have come out when she called Tuesday.”

Freeman is a comic writer but not taken to jokiness, humorous ironies, or winking at country ways. The lightness comes first from the snappy, perfectly heard dialogue, and secondly from the stories’ sensible, shadowy resolutions – even as the action seems to carry on, as if to the next day, at the final word. In “The Women at Holiday’s,” Freeman’s anonymous narrator backtracks, fills in bits of Homer’s life (this occurs throughout Round Mountain), hints gently at the relationship between Gretel and Bernadette Liszt (who apparently has vacated the scene), and with a masterly light touch tells us a great deal about unfulfillment, a sort of wispy essence that mixes in with pine scents. Homer solves the mystery of the intrusion at the former sugarhouse (someone has been sleeping there for the past few nights) – but the calm and wise way he handles it is the whole deal.

Homer Patch is a man patched up – separated from his wife, father to a developmentally delayed son (Homer and his friends, of course, wouldn’t use that term to describe the boy), wedded to his memories, patient with trouble. His psyche, insofar as it emerges beyond his telling gestures and recollections, is a whisper – but the reader eases into the steady task of listening intently for it.

FreemanColor.jpegThe humility of attitude, the unabashed embrace of his characters’ humanity, the placid and deceptively simple measures of the prose, and the subtle fittings of suggestion combine to make Round Mountain every bit as satisfying as another recent title that shares some of these characteristics, namely Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers. Freeman is every bit as accomplished.

Round Mountain was first published by the Concord EPress, the for-profit sister of the Concord Free Press, the innovator in generosity-based publishing. Profits from the EPress (authors get half of them) are plowed back into the Free Press which distributes books, what else, for free. Now, Round Mountain has been issued as one of the free book titles in an edition of 3,000 paperback copies. Recipients of the free books make contributions of any amount to any cause, institution or person, record the donation at the CFP website, and pass the books on to others to do the same. CFP has now generated at least $260,000 in philanthropic giving. Meanwhile, the EPress has published 16 titles including Matthew McBride’s Frank Sinatra in a Blender, Wesley Brown’s Darktown Strutters, and Viator by Lucius Shepard.

[Published May 28, 2011. 182 pages, $7.77 Kindle edition or download from the Concord EPress website.]

You may click here to request a free copy of Round Mountain.