The nine stories in Sam Allingham’s The Great American Songbook include: an experimental modular tale describing the differences between the composers Rogers and Hart; the retelling of a quirky and complicated relationship between two baristas seeking love and finding confusion; a second-person epistle emoting on a relationship’s ending; a tragedy in which a newly widowed mother turns to hunting; an exploratory list of the characters we encounter in life; a hard-boiled parable (a lá George Saunders) about four assassins set against each other; a straight-forward first-person recounting of a childhood neighborhood friend who devoted his life to building the town in miniature; a bar joke that goes virtual and a talking duck becomes protagonist; and concludes with the lost letters of Artie Shaw to various friends before going off the deep end in a remote cabin. The Great American Songbook is a tour de force of style, theme, image, and wit.
“Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” is the most traditional story in the collection, perhaps the best. The narrator catalogues his friendship, after moving to yet another new town, with Trevor, a strange fellow who is building a replica of the town in his basement. Trevor is weird, a voyeuristic creeper who is always looking in bedroom and living room windows, constantly measuring the world of this small American town. While the narrator’s stability is disturbed by his sinister buddy, he must deal with his father succumbing to a mental illness, the 9/11 attacks, and the local bullies who were, “pug-ugly, built for hockey, grunting and hurling each other against the goals.” The narrator becomes a bully, finds and loses a girlfriend, matures, all while maintaining contact with Trevor. The narrator leaves town to join the navy and forgets about Trevor until a lawyer calls many years later with the information that his old acquaintance has died and named him curator of his lifelong project: the town replica:
I don’t know what I’ll find when I open up that dusty house. Maybe the town will have grown still higher, buildings tall as my chest, straining against the walls, houses inside houses. It doesn’t matter. The only question is how to put an end to it. I could pour gasoline on the floor, trailing a little bit through the screen door, and drop a match—if not for the neighbors. Who Knows? I’m sure the story of Trevor has gotten out by now, and maybe they are as frightened of that tiny city as I am.
Honest and vulnerable, Allingham keeps the narrative threads bubbling in subtext. The growth and dissipation of a friendship, two families, a small town, perhaps a whole nation, allows the story’s emotional intelligence to push into the sublime. What will the narrator do next? Is Trevor an architectural genius or disturbed pervert? Do these childhood friendships even matter? When a story is told with such exacting detail, universal questions arise, and the reader can focus on the underlying conflicts while unconsciously enjoying surface plot. By using the traditions of the form, Allingham has struck narrative gold.
The title story, which concludes the collection, is a series of fictionalized letters from Artie Shaw to various people in his life: Lana Turner, Billie Holiday, Buddy Bechet, Sal Figgliero, and his deceased mother. While full of intrigue and fantastic scenes, the story as a whole feels more like the seed of a great idea rather than a complete, fully-formed, structured arc. Imagine the early notes of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy The Kid or the inspirational kernel of Colum McCann’s Dancer, a fictional biopic based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev. There are some brilliant flashes in this story:
I gave the man his clarinet back and walked into the snow. Think of nothing under the curtain of white. Head out into trackless country. Listen to trees breathing in the frozen air. Think about snow, uncaring snow, snow falling soundlessly across a great distance, the blindness of snow, snow unseen, the softness of snow, snow at peace, the coldness of snow, snow muffling the motion of trees, snow as static, cutting out the sound of a radio. Let the falling of snow cover everything. Let the songs go out of your heart, let it go.
A Joycean aria of bold proportions, let’s hope Allingham stays in Artie Shaw’s head and nurtures this spectacular seed into a full-blooming novel.
Musical, intelligent, vulnerable, funny, and tender, Sam Allingham’s The Great American Songbook is an entertaining meditative medley on contemporary East Coast America.