Dirt Road and Frankie Presto: Novels about Music

DIRT ROAD (2016)
By James Kelman
Catapult Books, 407 pages.

By Mitch Albom
Harper Paperback, 368 pages.
★★★★ ½

I love music so much that when I read about it, it's usually a novel. I generally avoid books about actual musicians because they are so formulaic. Kid grows up loving music and either has to overcome a tough childhood or flee from stultifying boredom. Works hard, gains fame, gets screwed up, and dies young. Biography. Gets screwed up and finds religion, rehab, or a true soul mate that lights the path to sobriety. Autobiography.  So let's go with the novels.

James Kelman is a heralded Scottish author who won the 1994 Man Booker Prize and has been shortlisted three other times. His 1994 win was, however, so controversial that several prize committee members resigned. More on why in a moment.

Dirt Road comes from observations Kelman collected during periods in which he has lived in the United States. Its protagonist is a 16-year-old Scottish lad named Murdo who is even more adrift than most boys his age; after all, both his beloved older sister and his mother died before he's had a chance to grow up. He's shy and lives with a loving but stern and emotionally distant father, Tom, whose nose is always in a book. These would be burdens enough for any teen, but Murdo is also anxious about his future. Dad speaks of college, but Murdo knows he's no scholar and he'd like to quit school, but to do what? Just one thing excites him: music. He's good at it, as in really good. He can hold his own on guitar and figure out new instruments, but give the boy an accordion and he dazzles.

Murdo's dad thinks they both need to get away and proceeds to book a short holiday to Alabama. Why there? It's where his brother John relocated decades ago and where he lives with his Southern-born wife, Maureen. What Murdo doesn't know about America is—everything. Imagine a morose 16-year-old Scotsman plopped down in a place where he knows nothing of race relations, the gun culture, evangelical religion, foodways…. A mix-up forces Murdo and Tom to spend a night in a Southern backwater town, where Murdo has a chance encounter with African-American musicians. Murdo doesn't know that a white boy doesn't just wander into the middle of a black picnic/jam session, but music draws his like a moth to the flame. His innocence overcomes suspicion, as does bemusement over the fact he's never heard of zydeco or the star of the occasion, a legendary performer known as Queen Monzee-ay. But when she hands him first a guitar, then an accordion, Murdo gains instant respect, is gifted with two CDs, and receives an offhand invitation to drop on it if he happens to be going to the big festival in Lafayette.

After long days of hanging out with Uncle John and Aunt Maureen, Lafayette becomes an obsession—wherever that might be. His dad's idea of a holiday is to hang out with family, which would be a 16-year-old's dream never! You can probably see where this is headed.  Along the way you'll meet some colorful characters: a transplanted Celtic musician named Declan; sensitive Maureen, who does her best to try to understand Murdo; conjunto star Diego Narcisso; and Queen Monzee-ay's entourage. Will Murdo find his way through music?

Let's cut to what makes Kelman controversial: his favored style is stream of consciousness writing. This means that Dirt Road is sometimes a bumpy one. Great stream of consciousness writing takes us into the minds of characters, but how much time would you like to spend in a 16-year-old's brain? Kelman does a good job with this, but Murdo's mind is nonetheless a jumble of reoccurring questions about the future, sex, new ideas, ennui, frustration, his sorrows, and a lot of stuff he simply can't fathom. As a reader, you must impose structure and order that exists outside of Murdo's thoughts. I ended up admiring this book more than I liked it. Like Murdo, I was only absorbed it when it was about music and I felt just as claustrophobic when he was with his family. That was, of course, Kelman's idea. As a reader, though, I wanted more dirt roads and less suburbia.
By contrast, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is one of the most inventive books I've read in some time. Let's start with the fact that the book is narrated by Music personified and that we meet our main character at his own funeral, which feels more like an apotheosis. This novel is what you might get if you blended Searching for Sugar Man with Zelig, Forrest Gump, The Bible, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Frankie is Francisco de Asis Pascual Presto, who was born in a burning church during the Spanish Civil War, was rescued Moses-like by nuns, and eventually raised by Baffa Rubio, a blind musician who schooled him like a tyrant on the guitar. But the war raged on and at age 9, Frankie is packed into the hold of a smelly boat and sent to the United States with his sole possession: Baffa's gift of a guitar with six strings that have the power to change fate. They are also akin to a cat's lives; when one glows blue and breaks, Frankie's life also alters. The novel is a stroll through postwar American musical history—from Detroit's 1950s jazz scene to rockabilly and Elvis, a hit record, the Sixties, Woodstock…. Along the way Frankie meets the greats, including Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, The Byrds, and scores of others. What they all agree upon is that Frankie Presto is the greatest guitar player who ever lived.

What they don't know is much about him as a person, including the fact that he is forever searching for Aurora, the love of his life, whom he first met trying to stay alive in the streets during the violence of his childhood. She weaves in and out of Frankie's world like a sad tune caught by the wind. Here's where author Mitch Albom throws us a real curve. He is a screenwriter and former writer for the Detroit Free Press who knows a lot of people and has lots of musician friends. He convinced them to collaborate with him by giving "interviews" about their thoughts on Frankie Presto's music. Thus readers get a triple perspective, the omnipresent reflections of Music, Frankie's internal thoughts and private experiences, and the mediated "memories" of music insiders such as Burt Bacharach, Darlene Love, Lyle Lovett, Roger McGuinn, Ingrid Michaelson, Paul Stanley, and many more.

And there's the matter of those strings, which are magical under Frankie's fingers but also potent in their own right. The entire novel is suffused in a gauzy light that is where legends, magical realism, spiritualism, and spirituality overlap. Albom's book is like a deeply moving musical composition—so much so that it also spawned a soundtrack CD. What a book! It is one to be read and re-read because there are times in which we all need to swing upon a magical string.

Rob Weir

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