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White Tears: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 14, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of March 2017: Thrumming with humor and revelation, White Tears by Hari Kunzru (author of the 2012 novel Gods without Men) is a smart, incisive portrait of music, male friendship, and race. At its most basic level, Kunzru weaves a story of two best friends who get caught in the deadly underworld of record collecting. When their new song is mistaken for an authentic and rare 1950s recording, violence ensues and the dangerous quest to discover the true 1950s musician unravels the reality of racism. The novel’s brilliance and beat is derived from the story Kunzru tells about white privilege, the exploitation of black culture and how they reverberate through life and music. Kunzru is a skilled writer – his descriptions of 1950s blues will make any music buff start tapping their toe; and his ability to render America’s relationship with race is as haunting and unforgettable as the song the novel is centered on. --Al Woodworth, The Amazon Book Review
Resounding praise for Hari Kunzru and White Tears
"White Tears is distinguished by a knowledge of blues at its deepest, a gift for observation at its most penetrating and stretches of plain old marvelous writing, some swallowing up the pages around them the way a single song . . . swallows up the side of an album. . . . Kunzru brings a canny and original insight to his American subject. . . . [His] awareness and discernment have particular value in an America of the moment where nothing less than the country’s meaning is at stake.”—Steve Erickson, The New York Times Book Review
"White Tears is a book that everyone should be reading right now. . . . The reverberations of [this book] echo long after it's done. Part ghost story, part travelogue, White Tears is a drugged-out, spoiled-rotten treatise on race, class and poverty of the soul."—Claire Howorth, TIME
"[White Tears is] a novel that's as brave as it is brutal, and it lets nothing and nobody off the hook. . . . Stunning [and] audacious . . . an urgent novel that's as challenging as it is terrifying. . . . completely impossible to put down . . . [Kunzru’s] writing is propulsive, clear and bright, whether he's describing an old blues song or a shocking act of violence. . . . [White Tears] will shock you, horrify you, unsettle you, and that's exactly the point."—Michael Schaub, NPR
"[A] truly impressive novel. . . . White Tears is Kunzru’s best book yet."—Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe
"Captivating. . . . Kunzru’s graceful writing is exquisitely attuned to his material. . . . [White Tears is] neither a clever Time and Again story of time travel nor a tricky Westworld sort of past-present parallel. White Tears is a profoundly darker and more complex story of a haunting that elucidates the iniquitous history of white appropriation of black culture."—Katharine Weber, The Washington Post
"Simply extraordinary. . . . Kunzru is a master storyteller and this is both a thrillingly written ghost story and an exploration of race conflict in America which is surely one of the best books you will read this year. Don’t miss it."—Alice O’Keeffe, The Bookseller (Book of the Month pick)
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Carter Wallace is a privileged white trust fund baby, scion of a conglomerate whose sinister tentacles hide some dark business matters. But Carter likes to claim that he disinherited himself from his family. He collects vinyl records of old black blues music, and, as he gets older and more sophisticated about music, focuses on rare pre-war recordings from around 1928-1941. His obsession with black music lay in his belief that it was “more authentic and intense than anything made by white people.”
Seth is a middle-class suburban student who meets Carter at a small liberal arts college. Seth had been producing audio recordings since high school, such as loops of his breathing, the sounds of floorboards creaking, leaves rustling, the hiss and crackle of his surroundings. They team up as connoisseurs of analog sound engineering, and with Carter’s money, they buy esoteric equipment from the pre-digital era and achieve expertise in sound production. Their preoccupation with audio becomes a rapidly growing business, and they are hired out by musicians/bands looking to add production values to their recordings. According to Seth:
“I was trying to hear something in particular, a phenomenon I was sure existed: a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds I could hear without trying.” Carter was seeking the perfect rare record, or song, but Seth sought a more abstract otherness from analog recording, “…a past version of the future, temperamental, unstable, half-alive.”
One day, while recording various sounds, Seth comes home to realize he had inadvertently recorded some blues lyrics sung by one of the chess players in Washington Square, and old black man whose face was obscured to him. The voice was mesmerizing, electrifying, with the ability to make one word into three tones, “the middle one spiking into a piercing falsetto buzz.”
After sharing the recording with Carter, his partner insisted that Seth use his technical talent to clean it up in order to clarify all the lyrics, and then dirty it down to make it sound like it had been buried and forgotten under someone’s porch for half a century. Carter hectored Seth into producing it for the collectors market, and even made up a false name for the singer--Charlie Shaw. But something about the recording was disturbing to Seth, and the finished product sounded like “the kind of recording that only exists in one poor copy, a thread on which time and memory hang."
The description I shared above is in the early pages of the book, and sets the stage for a remarkable drama that unfolds ultimately in a surreal latter half, which Kunzru masterfully controls. The opening segues to the thrust of the story, most of which I am leaving out for the reader to discover. Narrated alternately in the first person, the reader is transported to a former time and place that is continuous and connected to all that comes after. The narrative is an alchemy—no, a vivisection, of genres. Literary fiction; murder mystery; racial exploration; and a hint of dystopian, inverted.
Have you ever walked into an ancient church or basilica in Rome? I am secular (and so is Kunzru), but it isn’t religion that I feel in these churches; it is the echoes of continuous and collective pain, prejudice, suffering, love, compassion, endurance, guilt, oppression, and humanity. It’s all there between the walls, in the vapor, the perpetual voices long gone, shattered, but still heard. That is what I feel when I read Kunzru--a timeless echo of voices from the past, permeating the future. We are all connected and separate, islands of ourselves but bound infinitely in our memory and consciousness. “Slip, drop it, and that memory lies in pieces. Smashed, unrecoverable.”