A singer wants one last come­back amid sac­ri­ficed dreams


Early in his fourth novel, “Lone­some Lies Be­fore Us,” Don Lee re­peats the old joke about what hap­pens when you play a coun­try song back­ward: The wife comes back, the dog comes back and so on. But Lee strips the gag of its hu­mor. His song­writer hero re­ally could use a chance to rewind his life. “His over­turned pickup would roll back onto its tires,” Lee writes, as if get­ting your life in or­der were a magic trick. For the char­ac­ters who pop­u­late this smart, down­beat novel, it can be.

The man telling the joke is Yadin, an erst­while singer-song- writer who now lays car­pet in a San Fran­cisco sub­urb. His girl­friend, Jeanette, is a house­keeper at an up­scale re­sort. How up­scale? So up­scale that it at­tracts guests like Mal­lory, a coun­try su­per­star who was Yadin’s mu­si­cal and ro­man­tic part­ner years ago. Cue the love-tri­an­gle cri­sis: Does Yadin re­live the past with one woman or sol­dier on with an­other?

You’ve heard that song be­fore. But Lee’s novel isn’t sim­ply a ro­mance. Nor is it even re­ally a novel about mu­sic, though he’s plainly im­mersed him­self in coun­try­rock and the mu­sic in­dus­try, go­ing so far as to so­licit a work­ing mu­si­cian, Will John­son of Cen­tro­matic, to help craft some of Yadin’s lyrics. (Smart move. As any­one who’s read Jonathan Franzen’s “Free­dom” knows, even good nov­el­ists tend to be wince-in­duc­ing lyri­cists.) What Lee has writ­ten is a sub­tle novel about how peo­ple on the edge of a fi­nan­cial cliff are forced to sac­ri­fice their am­bi­tions.

Con­sider Yadin’s par­tic­u­lar strug­gle. A gifted but shy song­writer stuck with an un­mar­ketable, pock­marked face, he’s re­leased a hand­ful of al­bums that earned him a small cult and a lit­tle money. A decade af­ter giv­ing up on mu­sic, he’s de­clared bank­ruptcy, his house is un­der­wa­ter, and he has hefty med­i­cal ex­penses for treat­ing Me­niere’s dis­ease, which is wreck­ing his hear­ing. But, thun­der­struck by the po­etry of Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins, he’s moved to write again, and he’s squir­reled away enough cash to record a come­back/farewell al­bum in his home. You root for him, deeply: Rockand-roll mythol­ogy de­mands that his scruffy lo-fi record­ings and earnest de­meanor trans­late into airplay, sales, mag­a­zine cov­ers

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