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