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A memoir of family, race, poetry and stereo systems

A $2,000 stereo setup in 1980 included English speakers, a Scottish turntable and a Japanese receiver for top-quality sound. Essayist Garett Hongo's memoir describes his own “passionate quest” for the ideal audio equipment. ( Julian Kevin Zakaras/Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

I expected poet-essayist Garrett Hongo’s “The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo” to recount the author’s obsession with finding and building the ideal listening equipment. But it turns out you don’t have to be a nerdy audiophile to completely love this volume. “The Perfect Sound” contains multitudes.

The book is dedicated to the author’s father — Albert Kazuyoshi Hongo — who died more than 35 years ago, when his son was 32. Garrett Hongo came of age in the 1960s and has warm memories of helping his tinkerer father build amplifiers, which then filled the family room with “big band sounds and Hawaiian hotel music.” Hongo, a professor at the University of Oregon, is Japanese American. His fixation with finding the perfect sound is his “search to reconnect” with his father. Born and raised until age 6 in Hawaii, he reveres his (and his parents’) Hawaiian roots.

“The Perfect Sound” braids together multiple threads. Hongo gives us his parents’ history; his coming of age, mostly in and around Los Angeles; an ecumenical love of music and writing intimately tied to that coming of age; his quest for the best equipment on which to experience each new musical discovery; and race, inescapable in America.

What was race?” he wondered as a high school student listening to music that was either White or Black, but not both. “What about us Buddaheads, Japanese kids loving and singing the same songs, dressing in styles we learned from our Black classmates from Compton?”

The book testifies to Hongo’s keen observational skills, exquisite hearing and way with words. He recounts an incident when his White high school girlfriend’s father discovered the pair in a compromising position. Instead of exploding in rage, the father invited Hongo into the kitchen and described being rescued by “the Four-Four-Two” — the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team — during World War II when his battalion was encircled by Germans in the Vosges Mountains in France. Hongo feels “a kind of mixed grief and gratitude for the strange and intense recognition. … It was all rivering through my body — a sticky flotsam of race, arousal, legacy, and music.”

Hongo lauds his early influences. His college roommate introduced him to John Fahey’s album “Blind Joe Death.” Wakako Yamauchi (1924-2018) was a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American, who became the teacher of Hongo’s “heart, kokoro in Japanese, a word for mind and spirit together.” He started visiting her after he dropped out of graduate school and supported himself as a meter reader for the L.A. Department of Water and Power. “She was, for me, a kind of Colette and Chekhov at once, an elder who shared with me the insights and passions of her life and those she’d witnessed.”

It is impossible to do justice to the breadth and depth of the topics Hongo explores. Want to know how audio progressed from mono to stereo? Study the scholarship on sound waves, starting with the Roman Marcus Vitruvius Pollio from the 1st century B.C.? Follow how Aristotle’s descriptions of cicadas connect to the Aeolian harp, King David’s lyre and the lyre adorning Keats’s gravestone in Rome? Compare the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda with Charles Wright, a contemporary poet from Tennessee?

As he went for an MFA and traveled to writing gigs, Hongo made friends in every port. In Portland, Ore.,we meet George Radulesk, an expert on how to control the muddying vibrations from audio equipment — with “little polymer feet, carbon fiber shelves, ceramic cones, and myrtlewood blocks” placed under the CD player or preamp. Hongo discovered hog calling walking with poet Etheridge Knight at a writing fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in the 1990s. Hongo’s friend Jeffrey Jackson of Experience Music in Memphis demoed Goto Unit tweeters and compression-driven horns in Vancouver. In 2014, Hongo visited with Michael Fremer, the “All-American guru of analog.” From these myriad connections, we see Hongo as delightfully social and a voracious student of, well, everything.

According to the Poetry Foundation, “ekphrasis” is “a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.” Hongo’s work embodies ekphrasis — his capacious mind roams across art forms. He wants to listen the way he observes primitivist painter Henri Rousseau — “as if one were suddenly just given the gift of sight.” Here is Hongo channeling his love of painting in the opening of “Blues With a Feeling, Cassis”:

“It’s a hazy day and an onshore wind blows in from off the Mediterranean/ in Aeolian puffs that billow the straw-colored drapes I’ve drawn aside for this Dufy-like/ view of pleasurecraft, Zodiac boats, and double-deck tour cruisers off to the Calanques and their narrow bays of glittering Byzantine blues.”

“The Perfect Sound” is illustrated with wonderful photographs throughout. My one quibble is that these photos need captions. Overall, however, it was a joy to spend time with Hongo’s book. His roving intellect plants surprises on every page.

It seems best to give the last word to Hongo, author and/or editor of eight previous works of poetry and prose. “The main story lies in my own passionate quest, evolving from an audio ephebe into … someone who can mix a batch of disparate machines and equipment, tweaking things with cables and different audio tubes, taking a pair of American Sylvania ‘Bad Boy’ 6SN7-GTAs from 1952 and combining them with an English military Brimar CV1988 pair, placing them in the input and driver sections of a KT88 stereo amplifier so that they together might form an electronic synergy that will play arias from Puccini and Donizetti that can make a grown man weep.”

Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, “Three Muses,” will be published in September. She completed 26 years running a social justice foundation in 2020.

The Perfect Sound

A Memoir in Stereo

By Garrett Hongo

Pantheon. 526 pp. $30.