While Lee's depictions of carpet-laying and hotel room tidying are, top notch, can his novel about an aspiring guitarist trapped in a dead end job learn to sing?
In the 21st century, few artistic avenues seem as easy to break into as music. You’ve got a guitar, a couple of songs and an empty hat? Go perform in the park or the subway and make a few bucks. Bam, you’re a professional musician though, of course, only on the smallest of scales. It’s when one tries to move up to the next level that the great disillusionment arises. There are an awful lot of fine musicians out there who never progress beyond the subway-platform-for-change level or, worse, make a go of it briefly only to wind up back at the bottom.
Yadin Park, chief protagonist of Lonesome Lies Before Us, is one of the latter, a talented singer and guitarist who blanched at the first stirrings of success and now, years later, is stuck in what he fears is a dead-end job, with what is possibly a dead-end relationship and facing the rapidly dwindling opportunity to record one last album of his songs.
Lee gets right many little details. His depictions of carpet-laying and hotel room tidying are, I imagine, unparalleled in American letters and I mean that sincerely. Unless one gives it some thought, one doesn’t really know how thorough the process for cleaning a first-class hotel room truly is. Along the same lines, his depiction of the carpet business, from piles and styles to the medical conditions that come from working with them – especially something called “prepatellar bursitis”, which made me wince – is spot-on. His truly revolting passage on the vicissitudes of zit-popping has to be the apex of that genre.
What I don’t get though, at least not often, is a sense of music. Yadin’s is described by genre, the instruments and recording devices he uses to create it are mentioned, sometimes in overwhelming detail but nothing about these passages, if you’ll forgive the unintended pun, sings. It’s a tall order I realize but if one is going to write about music, the reader really needs to somehow hear it. The whole thing seems rather too clinical. The sole exception to this is when Yadin and former bandmate Mallory, who’s having her own artistic crisis, briefly get together to record. Lee’s description of them singing to each other in Yadin’s shabby little home studio brings to mind nothing so much as Johnny Cash and June Carter in their early days.
Credit is due for Lee’s willingness to show his characters as true to themselves. They are at times stupid and unlikeable. They are at times decent, generous and forgiving, a lot like real human beings and because so, the reader wants to root for them, not matter what trajectory they appear to be on. Will one have an affair that will transform their life? Will one find their way back on to the artistic track they lost years earlier? Will one find redemption and lost love through their music? The answers, while not exactly surprising, ring true; there are no clean answers or easy resolutions here.
Don Lee’s clean, plain prose properly conveys the thoughts and actions of his characters, who are not very bright. They’re carpet installers and chambermaids primarily due to their own mistakes and lyrical flights wouldn’t suit them. When Lee does elevate his language and style, it’s because the character has had something of a revelation as Yadin does when he finds his long sought personal form of prayer. It comes in an unexpected form and that may be the true idea behind Loneliness Lies Before Us, the notion that each of us has a yearning and a convoluted path towards a fulfillment that we may never reach.