Thursday, January 24, 2008


Disappointment artists

The other day I dug out my copy of Prince of Darkness and Other Stories. In theory this yellowing Vintage edition has been put out to pasture by the spiffy NYRB reprint of The Stories of J.F. Powers. Yet I still like my old paperback, whose days on earth are surely numbered. I read "The Lord's Day" and "The Old Bird, A Love Story"--two very different tales of mortification--and then savored "Prince of Darkness," a kind of dress rehearsal for the author's subsequent novels about the American priesthood. Powers had an extraordinary gift: he was always satirical, and always in earnest. He also grasped the special torture of protracted disappointment. The protagonist of the title story, Father Burner, has spent at least twenty years longing for his own parish. In his personal hell (note the sulfurous connotations of his name), he meanwhile commits at least a couple of the Seven Deadly Sins on a daily basis, gluttony being his favorite. Here he is at breakfast:
Father Burner grimaced, the flesh rising in sweet, concentric tiers around his mouth, and said in a tone both entrusting and ennobling Keefe with his confidence, "The syrup, if you please, Father." Keefe passed the silver pitcher which was running at the mouth. Father Burner reimmersed the doughy remains on his plate until the butter began to float around the edges as in a moat. He felt them both watching the butter. Regretting that he had not foreseen this attraction, he cast about in his mind for something to divert them and found the morning sun coming in too strongly. He got up and pulled down the shade. He returned to his place and settled himself in such as way that a new chapter was indicated.
There will be no new chapter for Father Burner. Meanwhile, I was reading the new Charles Baxter novel, The Soul Thief, and came across this little riff about "God Only Knows," which the protagonist hears on his car radio:
The unearthly beauty of the music fills the car. Nathaniel listens: muted horns, strings, tapped blocks, sleigh bells, a linear vocal line lightly harmonized in thirds until, three-quarters of the way through, the music becomes vertical rather than horizontal, as the voices pile up in a series of increasingly complicated harmonies in a refrain--God only knows what I'd be without you--repeated and repeated and repeated, with a frightening emphasis on the word "what," until the voices fade out, having absolutely nowhere to go. This is the song, Nathaniel knows, in which Brian Wilson handed over his heart to God and simultaneously lost his mind. The song is Brian Wilson's favorite, the one he sold his soul for. After "God Only Knows" there were other songs, certainly, "Good Vibrations" and the rest of them, but the spirit had abandoned him: addressed not to a California girl, a sun-bleached surfer chick, the refrain had been spoken to his own spirit, his genius, which, in one of those ironies of which life is so fond, left him there and then.
Baxter's novel takes place in the glorious Seventies, so his protagonist couldn't have known that in the long run, Wilson fared slightly better than Father Burner. After decades of disarray and drug-induced sloth (Wilson has admitted that he didn't even bathe for years at a time), there was a new chapter: Smile. The angelic falsetto was gone, but somehow his "teenage symphony," with its zany bursts of Americana, now hung together. Will there be another chapter to come? God only knows.

When Baxter's on...

Coincidentally, I was reading up on "God Only Knows" just yesterday, and according to Philip Lambert's terrific Inside the Music of Brian Wilson, that "angelic" voice belonged to Carl Wilson, enjoying his sole solo vocal on Pet Sounds. Tony Asher wrote the beautiful/creepy lyrics.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing that bit of Wilsoniana. I'll have to nab a copy of the Philip Lambert book. Interesting you mention Tony Asher's lyrics. I often find them completely insipid, but he made a few smart, counterintuitive moves this time around. There's the opening line, "I may not always love you." And there's this equally non-lovey-dovey couplet, with its assertion of (fake) indifference: "If you should ever leave me / Life would still go on, believe me." So everybody was playing at the top of his game in "God Only Knows."
Is The Soul Thief out yet? Do you recommend?
It comes out on February 12. I'm only halfway through, and am also reviewing it, so I'll hold my tongue. But I'm a big fan of his work.
Richard: Yes, it rocks.
It is an amazing novel. But doesn't only half of it take place in the 70s?
That's right--it opens in the Seventies, but about halfway through, there's a jump cut to 30 years later. Very effective, I must say.
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