Conveyed in journal entries, “Beautiful Music” follows Detroit native Danny Yzemski as he enters an uneasily integrated high school and deals with the sudden death of his father. His relationship deteriorates with his mother, a woman racked by grief and still scared senseless by the 1967 riot. Danny takes refuge in his late father’s stereo equipment, exploring the outer reaches of the radio dial and amassing a vinyl collection of his own.
A bully magnet with a fast-deteriorating home life, Danny falls under the spell of Led Zeppelin, MC5 and Iggy Pop. Zadoorian describes marathon basement listening sessions as an immersive undertaking, one that will seem impossibly foreign to readers who treat digital recordings as endlessly accessible and disposable. For Danny, cracking the seal on a fresh piece of wax and dissecting cover art and liner notes are acts of nigh religious experience that unveil to him a community of fellow rockers across Detroit.
Zadoorian, whose 2009 novel “The Leisure Seeker” was recently adapted into a film starring Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren, relies on name-dropping of bands and deep cuts, a perpetual litany like an FM playlist. He also struggles to find a believable tone for his adolescent narrator, and the absence of angst in the voice of a suffering, solitary high schooler seems particularly off. Danny and his peers speak with an earnestness devoid of teenage self-consciousness.
In the 1984 song “My Hometown,” Bruce Springsteen evoked his own high school days: “There was a lot of fights between the black and white; there was nothing you could do.” Unfortunately, Zadoorian’s analysis of racial tension doesn’t go much deeper. Danny isn’t a racist, but he doesn’t particularly sympathize with his protesting black classmates. When the long-simmering dissidence erupts in a campus riot, he’s just excited to be caught up in the action.
The book’s final act charts Danny’s struggles with his mother, a bigot, addict and manic-depressive who, in ’70s parlance, is diagnosed with simple melancholia. Like a wistful AM radio staple, their song doesn’t end with a clear-cut resolution, leaving Danny, as ever, to dowse his sorrows in the comfort of hi-fi headphones.
It’s in these small moments — a lonely boy experiencing premature nostalgia — that Zadoorian shines, ensuring that even if “Beautiful Music” isn’t a smash hit, it’s a passable B-side.
Pete Tosiello is a writer and critic based in New York City.