The opening of Don Lee’s Lonesome Lies Before Us isn’t chapter one so much as it is side one, track one.
Fittingly for a novel that centers on a struggling musician’s push to record his latest batch of songs, Lee frames the story so that it unfolds like an album—the chapter titles turned into song titles, annotated with running times that evoke songwriting’s greatest magic: the ability to distill the emotions and experiences of days and years into mere minutes and seconds.
It’s 2011 when Lee introduces the reader to Yadin Park, a 46-year-old musician who was once an underground cult favorite. The true measure of Yadin’s artistic talent is wildly divergent from the financial straits that have him laboring as a carpet installer. Financially stable for the first time in his adult life, Yadin has given up his music, partly because he never quite made it and partly because of the progressive hearing loss brought on by Meniere’s disease.
Lee’s passion for music shows throughout the book, and his insights into the behind-the-scenes nature of an artist-in-process make for a deft character study. (The song lyrics come courtesy of singer-songwriter Will Johnson, who worked with Lee on the novel.) The action develops slowly, plot in service to character, the pacing perhaps a bit too steady. In many ways, the novel itself reflects Yadin’s description of his new music: “Simple, quiet stuff. No frills, just slow, raw songs.”
Lee builds much of his narrative out of beautifully layered contrasts, with the same subtlety that works in song. Yadin is shown in the present as a man in search of simple fulfillment, but flashback passages show a divided character with deeper aspirations. Yadin’s girlfriend Jeanette has her own set of failed dreams as well. Separately but in parallel, their promising futures turn to dreary presents, year by year succumbing to heartache and disappointment, until loneliness drives them together. But is that companionship enough, merely because time and place have aligned two lonely souls?
Yadin grapples with a spiritual yearning, attempting to find deeper connections yet flailing helplessly through art, religion and nature. In a sharply comic scene, Lee shows Yadin on a cold, windswept beach, a stack of poetry in his hand, waiting for some divine answer: “He wanted to be shaken alive with God’s majesty.” Instead, he feels nothing.
A musical cousin of sorts to Thomas Cobb’s Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, Yadin ultimately seeks redemption in his music. “Music was the only thing he’d ever been good at, the only thing that could fill the hole that was inside him,” Lee writes.
But can a final album make good on Yadin’s once-promising musical career? What does recapturing a bit of the past cost him in the present? Will writing new songs sustain his passion? Or cost him all that he has left?
Like a beat-up guitar case, Yadin has flaws for all to see. But in Lee’s genuine portrait of struggle and persistence, there’s plenty of magic inside.
Eric Swedlund writes about music, books, science, travel, food and drink. He lives in Tucson.