Songs Only You Know: A Memoir: By Sean Madigan Hoen, 371 pgs. By Craven Rock

Songs Only You Know opens with a young man walking down the dark streets of his suburban neighborhood with a baseball bat. He takes a few wild swings, takes out a mailbox, and keeps moving. He doesn’t have a plan other than some vague hopes that his father will drive back and catch him in his headlights. The whole time songs play in his head, as yet, unwritten and unriffed. He’s eighteen and his father, once his hero, has fallen deep into crack addiction. He has also stolen his daughter’s car, disappearing for days. More than any young, nihilistic urge for release, he wants his father to see him—shirtless, maniacal, and on a rampage—to see his hurt, to express the anger at the pain his father’s habit has caused his family. His dad doesn’t return at all that night and his anger remains, deep and repressed.

The mark of a good writer or artist is what they can do with damage. How they reflect on it. How they calibrate the damage done to them by others, the damage they’ve done to others and the damage they’ve done to themselves. The subtle way they express how it lives in the body, remains in the back of the mind to be smoothed over with time or, perhaps, re-triggered. Many writers are unable to express this damage in a way that hits, in way that moves the reader. Their ego is too deeply entrenched. Chips remain on shoulders. Reparations are whined for and grudges kept. Sean rises above this when he tells his story.

At home, his family is disintegrating. His father’s crack habit leaves everything in ruin: his parent’s marriage, the family’s stability, his body and mind. His sister falls into a catatonic depression and tries to take her life, a secret Sean promises to keep. His release is playing in a band notorious in Detroit for trashing venues, cutting themselves with knives, and leaving in their wake a mess of blood, plaster, and broken glass. More importantly, it’s an unbound, raw, and cathartic expression of alienation and pain for Sean.

Offstage, he and his batshit crazy friends desperately seek oblivion through drugs, liquor, and violence. He’s shitty to women who love him, unavailable when his sister desperately needs him, and taxes his mother who’s suffered far more than enough. This is where his gift of nuance comes in. During the most intense scenes of bloody knuckles and drug binges, self-destruction, and crime, through walls of guitar feedback and amplified screaming, these passages become serene and almost quiet in the telling. In that moment, a scream into a mic, a hanging snip of dialogue, a movement of the body expresses perfectly the repression and the release, the fear and the aggression, the masculinity and vulnerability and the constant confusion of a desperate young man who’s been dealt a shitty hand. It doesn’t hit hard. It hits deep. –Craven Rock (Soho Press, Inc., 853 Broadway, NY, NY10003, sohopress.com)