Inside baseball alert! This is a review of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star (Queen’s Ferry Press) by Jim Booth. Jim is a blogger here at Scholars & Rogues, and I know and like him. And that puts me, and maybe you if you are a reader of high quality fiction, in slightly awkward positions, because his new book is superb. It would be much easier for us both if it sucked, because I could either take a pass on the review or make points with my soul by feeding it into the Otherwise blender. But I can’t, because it’s really, really good.
There is a Picasso painting titled “La Femme,” which portrays a nude woman from the back, four black paint strokes on a white canvas. It sounds simple, but the longer you stare it, the more you realize that you could never do that, never get those lines exactly right. When asked how he did it, Picasso said he’d painted a complete portrait of the nude and then painted over everything except the essentials. True or not (Picasso was a great artist, but an even greater marketer) that’s pretty much how minimalist authors work. They paint out everything but the brushstrokes that tell the story.
A friend who is an agent once asked a literary fiction client why he always sent him manuscripts that were 70 pages, too long to sell as a short story and too short to sell as a book. Books are priced by thickness, and as a rule, publishers are not that keen on thin books, however well written. “Why,” my friend pleaded, “don’t you just add in another 130 pages so I can sell it?” The author was quiet for a moment, and then said, “But Philip, it took me nine months to get those other pages out.”
Minimalism is the high wire act of writing. Get it right, like Richard Brautigan, and it’s magic. Get it wrong, and it comes across as stilted and incomplete. The truth is you can hide bad writing in 500 pages easier than you can in 200, and most minimalist authors (think Vonnegut) learn that trick before it’s all said and done.
I go into that because Jim Booth is a minimalist author, and his book, Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star is a minimalist book. It is thin and there’s a lot of white space—a real lot of white space since the structure of the book is of a assemblage of the thoughts of the main character, Jay Breeze, in the form of emails/letters to his lover, jotted down thoughts, song lyrics, newspaper articles, and the like—not quite a scrapbook, but a book of scraps. It is intended to have the look and feel of those books written by Bob Dylan, John Lennon and George Carlin and sold primarily to their fans.
The book is ostensibly a collection of work by and about Jay Breeze, a famous rock star of a strain that one rock reviewer calls “Southern-fried Beatles,” assembled by his lifelong friend Charlie Beagle. Breeze and Beagle started out on the same road in the same rock band. Breeze chose fortune and fame and Beagle chose obscurity and the genteel poverty of academia. Of course, inevitably we learn as much about Beagle as we do Breeze (and perhaps about Booth, since this book and his previous novels have more than a whiff of autobiography about them). The main story is Breeze’s loss of the love of his life, a woman he calls Angel in the book, and the gradual disintegration of the band and Breeze after her death in an auto accident. In a series of letters, he pours out his soul to her.
It’s a good story, engaging, well-told and at times heart-breaking. And the rock and roll setting (probably authentic since the author was himself a successful musician) is bound to resonate with any of us who grew up playing air guitar in front of our bedroom mirrors.
Like any great minimalist, Booth works every syllable for everything it’s worth. At one point he has a poignant conversation with a street vendor, but rather than give him a hundred dollar tip, he comes back to the hotel and sends his manager off with a thousand dollars to buy up everything the vendor has. It is a wonderful moment, and tells us more about Breeze’s inherent goodness and tact than most authors could manage in a thousand pages. Yes, Breeze could have just handed over the cash, but he chose to do it in a way that did not make the vendor feel like a beggar. Nice, nice stuff.
This book is full of wonderful little pieces like that, and together they pile up into a compelling and intriguing picture. Of course, inevitably, they tell a greater story as well and raise some thorny questions, in particular: Can anyone with any sense of dignity and class really handle fame? As Breeze notes, the fans think they love him but it’s really because they love the words he wrote. It’s about the “art, not the artist.” Many a celebrity does not appear to have picked up on the difference, or if they have, cheerfully chosen to ignore it. Breeze struggles with it, and it makes for compelling fiction that will stick with the reader long after the meal is done, much like oatmeal with brown sugar.
If there is a problem with the book, at least for me, it is structural. I would have preferred to have the lyrics interspersed throughout rather than clumped at the end. I found it anti-climatic, a bit like when rather than ending on a single note, a band ends a song with every instrument trailing off on its own. As a result, I found myself skimming the last dozen pages of the book. I think it might have had more impact if it had ended with cymbals. But that is picking at fluff.
In short, it’s a fine book, fine enough that I immediately went online and ordered his other two novels as soon as I finished this one. It’s minimalist, but only in word count, not in story or how it will affect you.