Songs Only You Know by Sean Madigan Hoen

Books Reviews
Songs Only You Know by Sean Madigan Hoen

Vladmir Nabokov once described the project of fiction as “what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

Accessing those “other states of being” is, of course, one reason we turn to books—and in Sean Madigan Hoen’s debut memoir exist several lives worth and variations of Nabokov’s “aesthetic bliss.”

Hoen’s nonfictional world is incredibly violent and tender—his memories of growing up in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit; his father “muscling up the ranks” at Ford Motor Company; his mom working as a speech therapist in public schools; his younger sister, Caitlin, in high school and how she is already “earning more than I did, once you counted her tips”; the ripples of betrayal felt by the family upon learning of their father’s crack addiction; a parents’ divorce. It all comes while an 18-year-old Hoen attempts to escape this incomprehensibility with his punk rock band, Thoughts of Ionesco, which had “gored their way onto the scene.”

The three band members didn’t fit the punk rock protocol, Hoen admits. “Me, barefoot with my home-cut locks. Ethan in cock-printed shorts and a five dollar Ceasar he’d commissioned from an Ohio barber. Repa was sallow and jowled, a dark horse ready for any apocalypse that might rain down.” Whatever they felt lacking in punk rock appearance, they “played as if the sunrise depended on it.”

In the opening scene of Songs, Hoen stalks through his neighborhood in the middle of the night, “possessed by a harsh internal music,” wielding a baseball bat and looking for confrontation, perhaps a sight of his father, whose crack addiction is fresh news to Hoen.

“One night he’s chiding me for having slacked on college in order to keep my band going; the next, he’s a confessed addict. Twenty-one days in detox was supposed to do the trick, and I’d honestly thought it would, had not believed we were in a major situation until he hijacked Caitlin’s Escort and shot to hell the chances of anything ever being the same.”

Within hours of being released from the Brighton Center for Recovery, Hoen’s father disappears, presumably to smoke crack. Hoen swings at postboxes, “chopping in rhythm with my tune in the making, certain it would dissolve before I’d ever pluck it on my guitar. In the distance, a sprinkler system began clacking away, giving me a beat to work with—the rat-tat of it.” Here is a writer with a musician’s awareness, the deep breath in before a long scream, the cocked bat, that “harsh internal music” building as one of Songs strongest themes tries to comprehend the incomprehensible: how the author’s father, “an early-rising warhorse of a man,” was not what he appeared to be.

Hoen’s life inside Thoughts of Ionesco, the group’s all-night binge rehearsals, self-mutilating performances, a tour across the country in a van dubbed “The Orgasmatron,” all explores a dark, supernatural world of intimacy, where “the phobias and honorary customs were the ligaments that held together our traveling creep show.” Many of the book’s most euphoric scenes happen on stage. In Denton, Texas, Ionesco sets up in an old ranch-style house with a “lawn of dirt.” After they played everything they knew, “only a few stood before us, naked and sweating, pleading for another.” They kept playing, as if pulling from some inhuman energy source.

“We improvised a five-chord pattern, six-eight time. A leg breaker—never to be re-created, scalded once and for all into the plaster of that Denton bedroom. If only for a moment, we’d taken the reins of a sound we’d been chasing.”

Before another show, the writer accidentally takes a hit from a joint laced with crack—Hoen remembers the moment well. “That’s if I was to trust a guy named Jason Heck, who’d coughed and said, ‘Don’t mind the rough spots, it’s just a little crack.’” Later, “when the band hit the stage I threw the microphone into the crowd and screamed at the floor, and no one there seemed to mind.”

No one there seemed to mind. There is an honest indifference at work in the writing here, a recalling of an intense scene that would normally, by its ecstatic nature, not be remembered. But Hoen’s project, it seems, is to go into into these paradoxical scenes (he hates his father for smoking crack), and by acknowledging these incredibly euphoric and destructive moments, hope they might add up to something that can be released. Something. Who knows exactly what? Guilt, confusion, grief, passivity to the past?

Regardless, Hoen’s powers of retrospection, line-by-line inquiry and admission, achieve a resurrection of past euphoria, and gives him a chance to re-experience life as a different person. It’s as if one were reading fiction, feeling a different state of being that necessarily follows a pure and sudden escape into a new life.

Into “aesthetic bliss.”

Hoen’s father died several years after his family believed he had successfully kicked his addiction. But Hoen, who has inherited and moved into his father’s condo, finds himself in the throes of his own drug dependency, far from understanding the deep secrets of his father’s life.

“I was giving Dad’s toilet seat a serious workout . . . so much Vicodin had cinched my bowels. When enough was enough, I flipped the roll of toilet paper, and as the cardboard cylinder spun, I heard a clink on the tile floor. Looking down, I saw a glass tube, inches from my toes and stuffed with a steel-wool knot. I put it to my lips and sucked, tasting the unlit resin.”

The ability to originally describe how the world works is worth noting, “the cardboard cylinder spun,” as is the way Hoen captures in this scene becoming his father and purging him at once—sitting on the same toilet, the same pipe touched to his lips. I found it one of the most powerful scenes in the book, and in this compression of time—of the writer looking back at his younger self—Hoen faces the totality of his incomprehensible life: Violent expressions of male friendship. A father’s addiction to crack. A parents’ divorce. A younger sister’s clinical depression. The geography of a childhood spent driving around the industrial neighborhoods of Detroit, prostitutes in the car, crack, alcohol by the gallons, and music, hard, brutal, the sound of a hammer hitting a thick chunk of sheet metal, the terror of it all finding a person in one particular moment.

Well into the last half of Songs, that moment has yet to catch Hoen. At his father’s funeral, he read his dad’s eulogy, “a loppy, unreligious account of family anecdotes, the pages marked by sweat as my voice hoarsened and faded.”

Hoen writes:

Afterward I walked outside down the church steps, intending to embrace the heat wave, which was now being publicized as a regional crisis. The moistened asphalt smelled like chemicals. And it might have been the Vicodin I’d crushed and swallowed, because as I stood in the sweltering daylight, I was positively unafraid. If only in that sunblind moment, I could have laughed. You could have dug your thumbs into my eyes, and I wouldn’t have minded.

The young Hoen seems fearless, but also predictable in his constrained range of emotional perception and urges to escape. Songs, however, feels boundless, containing whole worlds of darkness and sweet domestic family life: “… at your worst moments you are forgiven by those who see all the way into you, clean through your fears, to the thing you truly are, what you could or couldn’t be.”

Hoen gives this performance everything, as though his life depended on it.

Jay Goldmark is from eastern Washington. He farms there with his wife, young daughter and extended family.

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