Book Review: 'The Song Is You' by Arthur Phillips

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By Marie Arana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009


By Arthur Phillips

Random House. 254 pp. $25

Life gets rough and we turn to our own private music like sinners to deliverance. It's a salve akin to prayer, a foil against the dust of life, a near perfect antidote for spiritual hunger. Or so, at least, it seems to Julian Donahue, a successful Manhattan adman, ex-husband, ex-father and baleful hero of Arthur Phillips's incandescent new novel, who numbs his existential pain with transporting shots of song. When he isn't photographing vacant beauties for glittery ads, he lives in an embrace of earphones, suspended in a world of sound.

Father of a dead child, chaff of a decaying marriage, purveyor of vapid, pixilated promises, Julian is a middle-aged man on the verge -- of just what, he does not know. With a passion approaching desperation, he listens to rock, to jazz, to old recordings by Billie Holiday that once sustained his war-ravaged father: "The songs now offered him, in exchange for all he had lost, the sensation that there was something still to long for, still, something still approaching, and all that had gone before was merely prologue." Julian, in other words, is a shattered soul, trawling his iPod for salvation.

In this general frame of mind, he wanders into a Brooklyn bar on a winter's night and hears a young Irish rock singer who is, herself, a soul on the verge, unsure of her art, looking for -- just what, she does not know. She sings with her eyes "half-closed, hooded with sleepy availability," dark red hair tumbling over her face; and though her music doesn't exactly thrill Julian, she is appealing enough to make him want to buy her demo, if only "to try to keep up, a little, for work." In time, he finds himself standing on a subway platform, listening to her croon, "Will you leave no trace at all? . . . Will you leave no trace at all?" and he is hooked, wondering how a songwriter could understand him so well, how a voice he hardly found interesting on initial hearing now seems to plumb his heart. He returns to the bar -- an old man in a sea of children -- and leaves her a series of cartoons, doodled on the backs of 10 paper coasters, instructing her, as an adman might coach a performer, on ways to improve her craft. "Indulge no one's taste but your own," he advises. "Discard mercilessly."

Little by little, he begins sending her fan notes, follows her bookings on the Web, calls in when she's on a fundraising talkathon, but he remains the stranger at the bar, unwilling to reveal himself, obsessed -- maybe even in love -- but fearful to lose his tenuous hold in a face-to-face meeting. She, too, is captivated, believing the scribbler who issues potshots from the dark to be the first man to truly know her, weaving his suggestions into her act as she climbs steadily to rock-and-roll fame.

It's a daring concept in a novel, this strange ballet between two damaged lovers -- two souls so mortally afraid of tainting their dreams that they go to extraordinary lengths to keep each other at a distance. But longing and anomie are not new themes for Phillips. He has made a career of writing about characters who inhabit the fringe and harbor impossible fantasies. His first novel, "Prague," which won him immediate recognition, is a keenly perceptive story about American youths in Budapest after the fall of communism. "The Egyptologist" is an inventive comic novel about the eccentric discoverer of King Tut's tomb. "Angelica" is a clever Victorian ghost story, a literary trompe l'oeil. Now, in "The Song Is You," Phillips navigates an ostensibly arid present that turns out to be richly human, filled with unexpected grace, surprisingly connected by cellphones and instant messages. Along with these up-to-the-minute merits, a burning urgency animates the tale.

But "The Song Is You" is more than a cliff-hanging love story. Phillips's descriptions of his characters are filled with startling intensity. Julian's wife subsists on pills, washes them down with zin, trying to rid herself of the grief of no longer being a mother. Julian remembers their baby son, strapped into his pack, whispering a ghostly "hoo-hoo-hoo!" as together they ride the F trains. Julian's father lies between life and death in an Army hospital, cocking an ear to a live recording of "I Cover the Waterfront," listening for his own voice in the audience. But it is music -- its visceral kick, its numinous wonder -- that takes center stage. From Miles Davis to Carly Simon, from Bach's Cello Suites to Nat King Cole, we find ourselves wandering a labyrinth of memory, our ears, like Julian's, filled with song.

At times, Phillips can overdo the musical references. An author's note at the back of the book attests to his efforts to work song names into his prose. This schoolboy showiness is jarring in so gifted a writer. If I had a few barroom coasters in front of me, I might be tempted to write: "Indulge no one's taste but your own, Mr. Phillips." And "Discard mercilessly." But those would be potshots from the dark. Mere scribbles from an admirer.

Arana is a former editor of Book World. Her latest novel, "Lima Nights," was published in January.

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