Book Review : Rites and Passages Up and Down the Keyboard of Life


The Soloist by Nicholas Christopher (Viking: $17.95)

Max Randall, we are told, is in trouble. After a four-year hiatus from the concert stage, he’s about to make a comeback, and the stakes are high. He’s one of the pianistic giants--on a par with Gyorgy Cziffra and Anton Rubinstein--and the news of his impending return has the critics gleefully sharpening their tools.

He’s not ready. His playing is “flat.” His respite has done little to diminish his feelings of artistic inadequacy, and in his own dreamy way, he is scared out of his wits.

Max loves women as much as the muse, and it’s through his rather complicated relationships with a string of ex-wives and lovers that we come to know not only his character but the perils of his profession.

Retreat to Burma

There’s Orana, a Polynesian beauty and former music critic who, on the heels of a second and equally disastrous marriage, retreats to the wilds of Burma and contracts a complex blood disorder no one can diagnose.

There’s Greta, a Danish fashion model-turned-jewelry designer who has waltzed back into Max’s life, a come-hither look in her eyes. And Ellen, the disowned daughter of an Arizona jet-engine tycoon and mother of Max’s only child, 8-year-old Daphne, who, spending an unexpected summer with Dad, finds herself accepted at Juilliard as a violinist and weathering Max’s maniacal practice schedule like a pro.

There are men in Max’s life, too, although fewer in number and more fleetingly drawn.

There’s Willy, Max’s German-born longtime agent who, despite Philistine tendencies, has a heartfelt reverence for music that keeps Max anchored through many storms.

There’s Amos Demeter, Max’s closest friend and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who, after treatments from the enigmatic Dr. Winter, whose state-of-the-art hypnosis program (“Neurovisual Harmonic Phenomena”) encourages his telepathic abilities, takes off on a mysterious sojourn, reappearing near the novel’s close with a gift that will change the course of Max’s life.

If all this sounds a bit melodramatic, it is--but in a rather commonplace way, as if extremes on all sides are part and parcel of the blue-chip player’s life.

‘Knee-Jerk Rhapsodist’

The action is slow, but not detrimentally so, and the suspense is simple and well-paced: Will Max succeed in his quest for interpretive mastery, and, if so, what will it all mean?

By novel’s end we don’t have all the answers. But we’ve learned a bit about the inner workings of a self-admitted “knee-jerk rhapsodist,” whose frequently ill-timed reflections on the philosophical musings of Byron, Henri Bergson, Pindar and Soren Kierkegaard run through his life like the well-developed subject of a fugue.

If Nicholas Christopher’s first novel can be faulted, it is for perpetuating the notion that the Romantic hero needs to be obsessed, for while so much of Max is believable--from acupuncture treatments for overzealous preparation to pre-performance vomiting as an antidote for nerves--much is not, and especially his unrelenting preoccupation with the rites and passages of adult life.

So tireless a quest for self-actualization may be heroic, but one can’t help wondering whether artists, at least some of the time, don’t just want to have fun.