Monday, April 11, 2011

broken heads in Belltown

How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets
- Garth Stein

I would not have stumbled upon this book, had it not been for the titles you offered when I was looking for some new fiction to read. Although none of your suggestions were available at my local library, this novel by the author suggested by Kelly the Fireman captured my attention for a couple of reasons - it takes place primarily in Seattle and the main character is a musician.

I really enjoy books that take place in cities that are familiar to me. They transport me with names and places that I know and heighten the enjoyment I derive from the story. I would have enjoyed this book had it been set elsewhere, but not quite as much.

Evan, a highly gifted guitarist and former member of a one-hit wonder band, has epilepsy and he has a lot of difficulty dealing with that. The fact that his infliction resulted from a head injury which should never have happened has coloured his relationship with his uptight family throughout most of his life and has made him wary of others and guarded of what he considers to be his dirty little secret. And then he discovers, at the funeral of a former girlfriend, that he has a fourteen year old son.

How Evan Broke His Head grapples with questions of memory and truth. As Evan tries to deal with his new reality as the father of Dean, he is forced to re-examine his own history and his own interpretation of the truth of the incidents that shaped his life.

We never truly get to know Evan. Despite his position as central character and despite his internal struggles for truth and understanding, as well as his conflicts with the people in his life, he remains shrouded in secrecy. Evan is easily the most complex character in the novel; most of the other characters are slightly cliched. Evan's father is a controlling physician, his mother is a doctor's wife who refuses to acknowledge conflict, his brother is an over-achiever, his band mates all display some form of rock n roll stereotype.

Evan's new-found son, Dean, is rather more multi-dimensional, with the fluctuations between scared child and rebellious asshole that you do often see in a teenage boy, especially one who just lost his mother and whose whole world has changed in an instant.

Unfortunately there is no justification for the depiction of Evan's new girlfriend, Mica. She's not just a talented recording engineer, she's the very best in the business, a legend. She's also gorgeous, kind-hearted, wise, multi-lingual, a fantastic cook, attentive lover, and spouts deep insights. She knows exactly why Dean begins to rebel against Evan and why Evan reacts the way he does. And not only does she explain it all to Evan, but she understands and feel sympathy for him when he reacts badly to the information she is giving him and kicks her out. Yeah.

Despite my issues with Mica's believability, I really did enjoy this book. It was enormously readable, moved at a good pace, told a compelling story, and really did raise some complex and almost certainly unanswerable questions about what we remember and why. That said, a few of the conversations did ring falsely with me. Certainly nobody actually talks that way in real life, and these exchanges felt forced, a convenient way for the author to explore certain theses. One conversation in particular, near the end of How Evan Broke His Head, felt as though Stein was trying to wrap up the novel quickly, and therefore felt to me like lazy writing.

Despite my quibbles, I did enjoy How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets and would recommend it as an enjoyable read, especially if you happen to like Seattle.


Allison said...

So funny, I was just writing about band names (something that could easily be applied to book titles) and clicked over here to read this title - which is fabulous! I'll have to check this one out.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It was an enjoyable novel, Al, despite some issues with character depth. For a book with a fine title, though, the band with which Evan played was called something quite unimaginative - The Last.