Beautiful Music By Michael Zadoorian, 335 pgs.

To write about music is not necessarily a brave choice. You tend to love music so much you can’t help it. Hopefully, you’re not an insincere writer, picking subject matter with a guaranteed audience. I devoured Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity—its non-stop musical referencing made for an easy, fun novel, but in the end it left me with a weird sense of shame at being so easily manipulated by pop culture references I related to. I feared the same would happen when I picked up Beautiful Music. I felt compelled to read it, but my dignity couldn’t bear another pandering rock novel catering to my rock obsessions.

Beautiful Music was far from such trivialities, transcending all that trendy mixtape-in-the-title horseshit. Michael Zadoorian is able to do this, partly, because of his deft characterization of Danny, an awkward, chubby teenager. He’s bullied in high school and has few friends. What he does have is rock’n’roll, but not right away; his voice is one of naivety and he’s able to tell you what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know much about music, but he knows when his dad listens to the “Beautiful Music” station that plays elevator music versions of pop songs, he’d rather hear the original. When the bad boy at school fools the teacher into playing MC5’s “Kick out the Jams,” he’s drawn to it, but he’s not sure why. Something about it haunts him.

Danny is a late bloomer. He’d rather build model cars than learn to drive one. His father understands this and makes Danny take driving lessons. Danny enjoys them. His relationship with his father is warm. However, with his death, Danny’s forced to face what his father had largely taken the brunt of in his mother’s mental illness and alcoholism. Danny deals with these hardships by losing himself in rock riffs of The Stooges, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper. You’re right there with him when he learns the power of rock. Zadoorian is able use this to expertly set Danny in his time and place—Detroit in the early seventies—in a believable way. It was a time when Detroit had moved through a rich musical era of Motown, rock, and funk, but it was far from over and just beginning for Danny. It was also a tumultuous time in Michigan. The book, set not long after the Detroit Rebellion—the riot of ’67 when black people fought police oppression in the streets—is simmering and tense.

I read Beautiful Music compulsively until its end, captivated by the sympathetic character of Danny. I was left with the satisfying, “Wait a minute, this wasn’t really about music at all” feeling that I demand of music writing. But then I had to admit that it really was about rock, its power to heal and transcend. Zadoorian had an easy book to write. His refusal to write it the easy way makes all the difference. –Craven Rock (Soft Skull Press,