As serious booksellers, an amazing parade of books makes its way across our desks via advance galleys, media promotions, book reviews, and word of mouth. It's the most magical feeling to open the cover of a book thrust in our direction, and be compelled to continue reading by the fine writing and amazing story. It's also an eerie synchronicity of unlikely stories becoming traveling companions of the mind. Recently, I had I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like, by Todd Snider put in my direction. I had never heard of Todd, who is a singer/songwriter originally hailing from Portland. So it was with great interest I went online to see Todd sing 'Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues' before diving into this memoir. Todd is one of the most 'out there' performers and writers I have ever witnessed. It's easy to snicker at the outrageous smoking, drinking, and generally 'bad' behavior. But the level of honesty and courage it takes to write songs (and this book) and stay in the center of what is important in his life, is awesome and nothing funny at all.
Oddly enough, at the same time Orfeo, by Richard Powers, was put in my direction. It would be hard to find two more different authors and styles of writing. Orfeo is the story of an elder songwriter who tries to combine chemistry, music, and eternity together with rather disastrous results. It is obvious that Richard Powers loves music, and sees in it a kind of expression of the Divine. And his exploration of music theory and fads of the '60s and '70s was fascinating. I think about music in a whole new way.
So I had to ask myself why I was so upset with Peter Els, the main character in Orfeo yet at the same time rooting enthusiastically for Todd? They both chose an extremely difficult path to stay true to what they believed was their authentic self, and take the often wrenching (and financially poor) path of a creative career. Exposing your inner self makes a person as bold and paranoid as a raccoon raiding the garbage at night. There is a perfectly good explanation why so many musicians flame out.
In Lev Grossman's review of Orfeo in Time magazine, he expresses how disappointed he is that Peter Els doesn't seem a very realistic character, and that near the end of his life, Peter doesn't have a transcendently meaningful understanding of his path through life. I agree, in that I wanted Peter to feel that his life did hold meaning and his choices kept him on that path of authenticity. But I think maybe Lev missed the point--it's the trying that counts, not the success. Peter lost his passion for creating music and determination to keep composing. That is why we cheer on Todd, and feel wretchedly disappointed with Peter. Who knows when we reach success? The only thing we really know is if we have kept on the path we've appointed ourselves.
In Orfeo, Peter Els describes listening to a piece of music at the age of 12 that opens up for him the sound of infinity, and therefore something omnipresent. Later, he goes on to blog "Music is awareness flowing in through the ear. And nothing is more terrifying than being aware." Throughout Todd's memoir he recalls all his painful mistakes, childish behavior, and the lessons he took from them. Not only is he hilarious, but also insightful and honest. Todd's last sentence is "Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for the night. Set a man on fire, he'll be warm the rest of his life." I find both the fictional Peter and the real Todd admirable and inspiring--it is indeed hard to stay open, aware, and authentic. (Not to mention the cost of fire insurance.)