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Harmony Junction

by Goddard Graves

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Harmony Junction: A Polyphony of Love and Ideas in the Fullness of Time
By Goddard C. Graves

'…the concert opened with Nancy glowing over the little joke she'd asked Colin to pull, to which he'd agreed readily, namely to organize a band which would be all women in the manner of Vivaldi's own Ospedale della Pieta, and our own days' La Pieta.'

The quote is representative of one aspect of this novel, which is that even if a reference is not lost on you—who doesn't know of Vivaldi?—it's likely to be lost on you. A classical music lover myself, I have heard of perhaps 10% of the classical composers in the book, though some, like Charles Ives, I have rarely, or perhaps never, heard. And when it comes to more obscure works, I am utterly without familiarity to the references. I do not say utterly without a clue, for in reading the book, plenty of vivid description is offered, and I am perfectly happy to allow the characters to have their esoteric, compared to me, pastures of knowledge as long as they remain alive and interesting, or are interesting until they die and continue to resonate. Fortuitously that's the case. Yet I can image readers—like those who don't like 'big words', who likely fall into the category of those who don't like references they don't get, setting the book aside rapidly. That's unavoidable, but a shame nonetheless, for this novel falls into the category of those few who can teach a reader how to live. (Another example, if quite dissimilar, is Kazantzakis' Zorba.) I have no interest in persuading such readers to change, so I suppose this is a warning. But as with most ego-related deficiencies, such readers disqualify themselves from a unique and fulfilling experience.
Another anticipated dispute with the book is that it is simply too fucking big, coming in at A4 size and about 700 pages. The author has referred to it as a door stop, but I find it more useful as a place to put my computer when watching a movie in bed, allowing for circulation so that machine does not over heat. Giant books are interesting in that one is generally ambivalent if one finds the book a pleasure to read: we are both reluctant to end it and grateful that we can move on to something we can finish in less than a month. So there you have Harmony Junction: the characters know too much that you don't and it doesn't fit in your pocket. So don't read it, unless you want a fully (in time) drawn out story of people of the 21st Century rooted in several important components of US history, such as the labor movement, the music scene (hillbillies welcome, too—but again, you probably never heard of the Goose Island Ramblers), the short life of the classic US railroad songlines, migration, intellectualism, cussedness, and, of particular import and exalted elucidation, family love.
This last, well, not my schtick. (Much Yiddish in the novel, by the way.) I write love the way Shostakovich wrote odes to Stalin. Graves writes love on virtually every page, and by god you can get sick of it, but you have to ask yourself why, particularly because the book is filled with precise and evocative scenes throughout. Everybody is in the habit of punning and humming musical references or jokes or both and though naturally the book delivers tension, the main couples begin in love and remain that way, and Graves can make you ashamed to be sick of it. It is one of those books that is utterly uncompromising—in its intellect and its politics and its message of enduring love. Sure it's more entertaining to hear the neighbors argue, but why? Well, in this book the back and forth between mates is clever, too clever for most of us, but witty and interesting nonetheless and if we find ourselves squeamish we have something to think about. I certainly did. For I found nothing wrong with the book whatsoever, was pleased to read a book that was written smart, pleased to read a novel that encounters the early insanity of the next US century.
The protagonists are Harry MacDonald, who is working on a translation of a poem by Lorenzo D' Medici, his wife Nancy, assistant dean of the music school of the local University, her Jewish anarchist intellectual parents, their son Will, and their newfound friend from Canada, Colin Fitzhugh, who is an expert violist, which in no small way leads the reader into the obscurity of music. Mozart's viola quintet? In various combinations throughout the book the bunch of them pair off in extended scenes, trading witticisms and confounding the reader with obscure references. But as they have feelings, various problems arise that it would be ill-mannered to delineate, except to say that the more bizarre behavior is entirely believable and the general life view of the most protagonal of the leads, Harry, is conveyed with an odd sort of ease that perhaps is appropriate to his deeply humane worldview, not to mention his intolerance of the ugly aspects of modernity. Harry is the Whitman of the book, carrying the load of quotidian observation virtually to the end of the book. Where most novels are paying of the readers for their patience after 500 pages, in this one Harry is the same as he was in the early pages, quietly and closely observing nature and the nature of others.
That is not to say the book does not deliver a climax here and there, and even one where the reader expects is—at the end. The only hint in that direction I will offer is that it involves the odd, singular and single violist Colin, who arrives with a mystery inside him and his mystery provides for the final drama of the book—though the reader may not expect that to be the case. Yet the most accomplished climax is of an entirely different order, a climax of joyful creativity brought off so well that even the most perverse and bloody-minded and cynical of readers (me) can't help but smile and enjoy the great luck, talent, and well-deserved rewards of the characters.
Clearly I don't like to speak much about plot—I want a reader to be interested if I like a book, but I want them to find out everything for themselves. But here's a plot move that I find very funny in retrospect. Around the pages 620s or so of 685, when the Feds should be chasing young Will to Canada, instead Graves has a used book dealer visit an old, presumably dying, anarchist to go through his books. This provides her and the reader a long lesson in the history of US labor strife and literature—and you best pay attention because the Feds are not coming. What? No more about the war in Iraq and the fighting age anarcho Will? For various reasons I thought it inevitable that the book would end on this note—the happy note of Will getting escorted out of the US and into Canada—Harmony Junction, Prince Edward Island. But no, Grave blew it.
Or did he? I spent hours thinking about this. Was this an unresolved plot issue? Maybe. But, first, does it not conform to my own insistence on untidy, even absurd plotting?, my aversion to formulaic tight plots, etc.? Sort of. And second, most importantly, whose book is this anyway? I'm the reader, as every critic ought to realize and either I accept what I am given or I do not. And as you can tell, I obviously said yes to this book early on, and so yes, like Molly would say, yes, I accept the happy ending sans headhunt. Would my ending have been better? Not unless I wrote the previous 600 plus pages.
Here's some of the reasons why:
'Ruth's hands were eager, like so many prisoners let out into the yard after lock-down.'
'Her voice was pitched a half-step above her normal tonic, had an up-sweep, and an eagerness that was almost hunger.'
'Together we drink the liquor of esoteric doctrines.'
'…tunkering…'
'Harry recalled the odd fact that the simply movement of ninety degrees from the vertical to the horizontal of a bed's surface could make a person almost unrecognizable. It was one of many reasons he had a horror of hospitals.'
'…laundry being an activity which, like televised Congressional proceedings or drying paint, afforded much open mental pasture.'
'…pestilentially trite phrase…'
I go through streaks of underlining and even twere it otherwise I am not going to reprint the book here. Suffice it to say that the prose is lucid, intelligent, nicely observing, and easily accessible while maintaining its intellectual adult standards. Nor is it without humor, but a laid-back humor; the humor of its characters is at a different rhythm, quicker. In the prose itself, the humor arises like part of its landscape. And by the way, the references include, as should be the case in a book that is part ode to Wobbly, the lowbrow as well, Groucho getting several references, including one that if you don't know it should send you off to the cultural spanking wood shed: 'Swordfish.
It is a virtual formula for a review to end with a cavil or few. I hate cavils. If I owned a gun I would shoot them. Another formula is a rating system. In this case it is stars. Luckily I have a system for stars for a fat book. I give one star for each 100 pages that remains brilliant and true to the author's intent, minus those 100 pages with a major fuck up. I'm stuck, though, giving five stars, where seven are due. ( )
5 vote RickHarsch | Jul 15, 2013 |
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To Florence and Ann . . . to Raina Fehl . . . to, and with, and for Suzy
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