Categories
Music Nonfiction

WICKED GAME: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey by Michael Goldberg

The first time I heard Jimmy Wilsey was on the radio—Austin, 1987, on the cover version of “Heart Full of Soul” from Chris Isaak’s eponymous second album. I liked the singer well enough, but the guitar playing was what made me lunge to crank up the volume. Long, legato bends shimmering with echo, notes fading in from nowhere and dissolving into piercing harmonics, a lonely, mournful, desolate sound that soon moved into my CD player and stayed there.

It was four years later, on 17 April, 1991, that Isaak finally played a show in Austin. The venue was the Austin Opera House—not the fancy theater that the name implies, but a 1700-person room without seating, carpeting, or decorations—my idea of a great venue, and just the right size for most of the bands I saw there, from Crowded House to Steve Earle to the Replacements to Melissa Ethridge. But between the time Isaak had been booked into the Opera House and the night of the show, “Wicked Game” had become a huge hit on both MTV and radio and the club was mobbed.

At the time, I thought maybe that rush of success was responsible for some of the uglier things I saw that night. Isaak made vicious fun of Jimmy all night long, changing the lyrics of the songs to target Jimmy and telling insulting stories between numbers. After the encore he invited women from the audience to join him on stage, where they danced and sang with Isaak and he ogled them in return. The atmosphere was less rock show than frat party, and Jimmy seemed humiliated by the whole enterprise.

Now that I’ve read WICKED GAME, the excellent new biography of Jimmy Wilsey by his friend and fan Michael Goldberg, I know this was a regular occurrence—and far from the worst that Jimmy received at Isaak’s hands.

WICKED GAME is not a technically perfect book. There’s a lot of repetition, and some of his interviewees wander into the weeds. Goldberg tries to structure the story thematically as well as chronologically, leaving me unstuck in time in a couple of places. But at 410 pages of fine print, it feels complete. I got the gearhead stuff I that I love and the behind the scenes gossip I can’t resist. I felt like I knew all of these people, from his family to the friends from his days in the punk band The Avengers; from Isaak’s other backing musicians to Jimmy’s girlfriends, wife, and son; from the people who tried to save him to the ones who aided and abetted his addiction and death. I could see the heartbreaking arc of his life from beginning to end. I felt like I understood him. That is an astounding accomplishment for any biographer, and a gift to all of Jimmy’s fans.

The quality that people most seemed to remember about Jimmy was his sweetness. If, at the end, in the grip of a heroin addiction that he couldn’t control, he was willing to take advantage of anyone he could, this was the coda to a life where he was repeatedly generous and kind and thoughtful. Like Tim Hardin, or Janis Joplin, or Kurt Cobain, or so many others, the thing that was the core of his music, that made people respond so passionately to it, was a sensitivity that left him in deep emotional pain. His unwillingness—or inability—to confront the source of that pain—that source being life itself—cost him his life.

WICKED GAME is required reading for anyone who loved the anguished cry of Jimmy WIlsey’s guitar, and recommended to anyone who cares about the way that art is made.

Categories
Historical Fiction

THE RETURN OF FARAZ ALI by Aamina Ahmad

What seems at first to be a CHINATOWN-style detective novel awash with political corruption turns into something far more tangled and unconventional. Our detective, the Faraz Ali of the title, was born in the Mohalla, the sex-business district at the center of Lahore. Kanjars, the denizens are called, as if they were a bit less than human. Being a kanjar is generally a life sentence, but Faraz was kidnapped as a boy by agents of his biological father, Wajid. From a distance, Wajid saw to Faraz’s education, then got him a job with the police.

Now, however, there’s a problem. A 15-year-old girl was “accidentally” killed by a bullet through the throat. Wajid has ordered Faraz to move back to the Mohalla (the first of several “returns” that Faraz makes) to take over the investigation. Or, rather, to crush it. Wajid wants the case closed as soon as possible. A suspect has already been chosen, and he’s to be convicted and executed with a minimum of publicity.

Faraz understands what’s expected of him, and yet he can’t manage to do it. Even as he keeps asking inconvenient questions, he’s looking for his mother and his older sister, whom he hasn’t seen since his childhood, and whom he barely remembers. He has uncomfortable questions for them as well—how could his own mother have cooperated in his kidnapping? Did she feel nothing for him, have no desire to contact him in all the time they’d been separated?

Less than 20 pages in, the novel switches to the viewpoint of Faraz’s sister. Rozina is a former soap opera star, now the mistress of a high-rolling crony of Wajid’s. Her teenaged daughter, Mina, was friends with the dead girl, and some of Mina’s friends know too much about the murder. Rozina’s lover has been seeing other women, and she knows she’s aging out of the game with no other source of income.

It’s 1968, and as in Paris and college campuses across the US, there are student uprisings on the streets of Lahore on behalf of the Pakistan People’s Party, whose supporters include Wajid, Rozina’s lover, and a somewhat mysterious official named Ghazi Ashraf.

Next, the novel flashes back to North Africa in World War II, where we get an entirely different view of Wajid: British officer, Sandhurst graduate, target of constant racial slurs, a man of wit and ambition. We watch the friendship develop between Ghazi and Wajid.

Then we’re off again. The partition of Pakistan in 1947. The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Several more returns for Faraz Ali. That’s a lot of history to cover in 331 pages, but Ahmad keeps us grounded in physical details and powerful emotions. Nor does she forget where she started—the murdered girl even gets the last word.

Ahmad is a product of the Iowa and Stanford writing programs, but FARAZ ALI is not your typical workshop novel. The prose is strong, unaffected, and peppered with Urdu slang that gives it authenticity. The characters are vividly drawn. She condemns the way women are brutalized by powerful men without ever preaching or rendering her male characters as monsters—with one notable exception. There’s a graphic rape scene involving a little girl that felt gratuitous, a hoarse scream when Ahmad’s calm and rational voice had already won us over.

FARAZ ALI is not an easy read, but it’s an unforgettable one.

Categories
Historical Fiction

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler

NOTE: Though Karen Fowler is a dear friend, I believe I’m capable of reading her work objectively. Nonetheless, I might have passed on reviewing BOOTH, had it not been for attacks in the New York Times and the Times Book Review that I considered failures not only in objectivity, but in basic reading skills. Consider this not so much a review as a riposte.

 

The Buddha said that the greatest cause of human suffering is the inability to accept the world as it is. I include under this heading the inability of some to read what is actually on the page, and not what they wish was there. I’m guilty of this myself. I might wish, for example, that Karen Fowler’s magnificent new novel had been written in past tense. But she has reasons for her choices, and she has long ago earned the benefit of the doubt.

To begin with, the book is called BOOTH. It’s the story of an entire family, not just one man who happens to have murdered a President. Even at 464 pages, there’s no room for all of the story, and it’s important to note the choices that Fowler made to get it to fit. The first is the use of an omniscient narrator who steps out of close third person to summarize, to talk about the future, or to catch a reaction from another character. This voice has a personality of its own, reminiscent of the one in MIDDLEMARCH. The second choice is to focus a good deal of her attention on characters who are not in the (literal) limelight—the Booth women. Childbirth is as important here as swordfights, emotional pain as transforming as ideology.

The novel begins in 1838, shortly before the birth of John Wilkes Booth, the next-to-youngest son. The paterfamilias, Junius Brutus Booth, is the one of the most famous actors of his generation, already beginning a long descent into alcoholism and madness. All of the Booth children, to greater or lesser degrees, will struggle with the same demons. The three older sons will attempt careers in the theater. Living in the shadow of his two older and more successful brothers, seemingly born with tendency to violence and cruelty, John only finds his true calling as an agent of the Confederacy.

Fowler’s great accomplishment here is to vividly invoke the mid-nineteenth century—through sensual detail, vocabulary, attitude, and incident—and simultaneously to remind us of its connection to the present. As Fowler affirms in her Author’s Note, there are more similarities than differences between the secessionists of 1860 and the insurrectionists of 2021. And the present-tense, faintly astringent voice of Fowler’s narrator is a constant reminder that we seem doomed, as a nation, to fight the same battles over and over again.

Racism is baked into the novel in much the way it’s baked into the U.S. Constitution (see THE 1619 PROJECT by Hannah-Jones et al.). Not Fowler’s racism—obviously—but that of the times and her characters, even the most well-meaning of them. Only in the final pages does it become clear that racism is what we’ve been talking about all along.

The novel is full of the pleasures of fine writing. The characters are vivid, unique, and unforgettable. The portrait of this stunningly dysfunctional family is convincing, heartbreaking, and even occasionally funny (“Edwin will not give up his own status as most put-upon Booth without a fight.”). The dialog is sharp, the research amazing. Fowler’s sympathy for her characters never wavers, even when they repeatedly disappoint her. And the last hundred pages are as relentlessly suspenseful as a thriller.

Come to this book without expectations and find the jewel in the lotus.