By Carolyn Kellogg
September 27, 2009
Riverhead: 406 pp., $25.95
Tucker Crowe, the reclusive singer-songwriter of "Juliet, Naked," inspires a cadre of obsessive fans who parse his every lyric and musical move. He's like Bob Dylan, but not as genius, nor as prolific -- he dropped out of music decades ago, after a devastatingly brilliant heartbreak album. Which would make him more like Richard Thompson. Or maybe . . . .
This is just the kind of music trivia discussion you might expect in a Nick Hornby novel. But while there was a kind of giddy heroism to it in "High Fidelity," it now comes across as a slightly pathetic preoccupation.
That's because here it's seen through the eyes of Annie, thirtysomething and living in Gooleness, an uncool town on the north English coast. Duncan, her longtime partner and a college professor, is a Tucker Crowe fanatic, the leader of an international message board dedicated to the musician. That's just one of the things that's beginning to grate on Annie, who's starting to grow restless inside the safe choices she's made.
"We're here for such a short amount of time," Annie thinks while working at her job at a local museum. ". . . She would waste the next two hours, because she had to, and then she would never waste another second of however much time she had left to her. Unless somehow she ended up . . . doing this job for the rest of her working life, or watching 'EastEnders' on a wet Sunday, or reading anything that wasn't 'King Lear,' or painting her toenails, or taking more than a minute to choose something from a restaurant menu, or . . . . It was hopeless, life, really. It was set up all wrong."
Annie's midlife crisis runs parallel to Tucker Crowe's later one. Despite being notoriously reclusive, he's living relatively openly in small-town Pennsylvania. Tucker, like Annie, worries about lost time -- lost, in his case, to the wilds of bad behavior and its aftermath of self-pity. But he's been clean and together long enough to be a good father to the charming 6-year-old Jackson. If he's only an adequate husband to his youngish wife, he's doing better than his previous marital attempts -- there were many, often with children, rarely ending well.
Tucker has no interest in getting back in the spotlight, but he tends to go with the flow. When a buddy suggests releasing the acoustic demo tapes for his iconic album "Juliet" as "Juliet, Naked" he figures it can't hurt, and it might contribute a few bucks to the household.
An advance copy makes its way to Duncan, who should be among the first to hear the CD. Instead, Annie opens the package and, in what may be her first act of betrayal, listens to it before Duncan gets a chance.
Annie is not a Tucker Crowe obsessive, but she's become a demi-expert by affiliation. She's heard all the theories, listened to all Tucker's music, even taken an American pilgrimage that included a particularly significant Minneapolis rock club bathroom.
She is as surprised as anyone, then, at how much she cares about the new record. Not that she likes it -- she doesn't. But she's so annoyed by Duncan's rave review that, for the first time, she goes onto the message board to post a rebuttal.
And then she gets an e-mail from the silent-for-22-years Tucker Crowe.
Tucker and Annie's lives are destined to intertwine like the iPod headset on the book's cover, but not exactly as you'd expect. Having a few tangles makes the book interesting, but it's not propelled so much by plot as by character.
Annie's quick wit and changing hopes make her just as compelling as the rock star, whose kind, somewhat self-absorbed perspective seems eminently real. Duncan, who comprises the third narrative thread, is equally believable but less appealing; it's hard to like an obsessive geek whose girlfriend is losing patience.
It's easy to imagine all of them on screen; Hornby's novels often become movies. But the book reminds us that it's a book, first: It turns on an e-mail correspondence and concerns itself with how what we create can be read (and over-read), all in Hornby's swift, shiny, funny writing style.
And you might say that Tucker Crowe resembles a literary rock star -- Bucky Wunderlick, from Don DeLillo's "Great Jones Street," a few decades down the line -- that is, if you obsess about those kinds of things.
Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times' book blog.
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