Early in his fourth novel, “Lonesome Lies Before Us,” Don Lee repeats the old joke about what happens when you play a country song backward: The wife comes back, the dog comes back and so on. But Lee strips the gag of its humor. His songwriter hero really could use a chance to rewind his life. “His overturned pickup would roll back onto its tires,” Lee writes, as if getting your life in order were a magic trick. For the characters who populate this smart, downbeat novel, it can be.
The man telling the joke is Yadin, an erstwhile singer-songwriter who now lays carpet in a San Francisco suburb. His girlfriend, Jeanette, is a housekeeper at an upscale resort. How upscale? So upscale that it attracts guests like Mallory, a country superstar who was Yadin’s musical and romantic partner years ago. Cue the love-triangle crisis: Does Yadin relive the past with one woman or soldier on with another?
You’ve heard that song before. But Lee’s novel isn’t simply a romance. Nor is it even really a novel about music, though he’s plainly immersed himself in country-rock and the music industry, going so far as to solicit a working musician, Will Johnson of Centro-matic, to help craft some of Yadin’s lyrics. (Smart move. As anyone who’s read Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” knows, even good novelists tend to be wince-inducing lyricists.) What Lee has written is a subtle novel about how people on the edge of a financial cliff are forced to sacrifice their ambitions.
Consider Yadin’s particular struggle. A gifted but shy songwriter stuck with an unmarketable, pockmarked face, he’s released a handful of albums that earned him a small cult and a little money. A decade after giving up on music, he’s declared bankruptcy, his house is underwater, and he has hefty medical expenses for treating Meniere’s disease, which is wrecking his hearing. But, thunderstruck by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, he’s moved to write again, and he’s squirreled away enough cash to record a comeback/farewell album in his home. You root for him, deeply: Rock-and-roll mythology demands that his scruffy lo-fi recordings and earnest demeanor translate into airplay, sales, magazine covers and Bonnaroo sets.
But Lee’s too much the clear-eyed realist to peddle that myth, and it’s wrenching when Mallory characterizes his home-brew sessions as “down to the level of a bad demo or bootleg.” Yadin could accept her charity, even introductions to label honchos — but that would require undermining the careful humility that life has beaten into him.
Jeanette knows the feeling, too, having been forced to abandon her college-age dreams of activism and photojournalism for the security of cleaning rooms, a job Lee describes in high definition, from the folds of the bedsheets to the arrangement of shower soaps. And because we know her to the marrow of her grinding workday, it sets her difference from Mallory into stark relief. When Mallory condescendingly asks, “Haven’t you ever had a dream?” she shoots back: “None of us can afford to be romantics. It’s something you would never understand.” It’s a palpable hit, coming from the woman who’s just tidied up Mallory’s room of high-end makeup and handbags.
If Lee had dwelled exclusively on the friction between his three main characters, he’d have delivered a thoughtful working-class tale burnished with some Dylanesque wisdom. But Lee also weaves Yadin and Jeanette in a matrix of larger social pressures. Will legislation forcing hotels to use fitted sheets lead to layoffs at Jeanette’s resort? Will police cutbacks nix Yadin’s next carpet job, and will privatizing the library upend a family that’s had a positive influence in both their lives?
If “Lonesome Lies Before Us” isn’t the best American novel of the year, it’s one of the most American American novels. It’s intensely concerned with the civic institutions that shape everyday lives and with who’s affected when they disappear. That’s too much weight for the average country song to bear, but Lee’s novel carries it just fine.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest,” a book of literary criticism.
By Don Lee
W.W. Norton. 334 pp. $26.95