Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Will Boast poses his own challenge to Huxley’s dictum with “Power Ballads,” a very impressive series of short stories set in the personal and business world of music. The pieces here portray much that goes unexpressed, like one musician’s ambition pitted against another’s inadequacy; like a wife’s devotion to her touring musician husband even as she rebels against it; and like the unforgiving bitterness that drives a man to sabotage a onetime friend’s big recording break.
These balanced, reverberant stories play their supremely effective magic in our imaginations and hearts – that this set of short stories won the Iowa Short Fiction Award tells us once again, as though any doubt existed, that they have an unerring eye for sterling short fiction over there in Iowa City.
Several of the stories feature Tim, a drummer getting started and making his way. This character’s stories flow in chronological order, and we get an early picture of the ambitious musician as a child in the first story, “Sitting In.” Tim’s ambitions get the better of some of the adult musicians, and one shows his fear and inadequacy in a pointed but ineffective act of vandalism. Tim hooks up with a group of aging rockers, onetime true guitar heroes, in the title story, and here Boast captures beautifully the sad yearning for past glory. In the finest Tim-piece, called “Dead Weight,” Tim plays in the studio for an up-and-coming pop phenomenon. The record company has paid off the band’s original drummer, and sent him home to Kansas, and recruited Tim to tour with the group. At the inevitable home-town concert appearance, the old drummer shows up backstage, much to Tim’s discomfort. After perfunctory pleasantries, Tim plays the concert, which that night proceeds with extra energy. At a climactic moment, Tim waves to the original band member to come out from the wings and play. The young doofus just smiles back at him, rocking to the music. He was never going to get out in front of twenty thousand people. Other pieces dealing with our drummer show his surprise and – relief? – when his engagement falls apart. The manic revenge he and another loser musician play on the cipher-like girlfriend captures the sad wayward course things always go in these people’s lives, and the ambiguity they feel at even the smallest effort to fight back.
The finest piece in this excellent group is “Mr. Fern, Freestyle.” A onetime edgy R&B bandleader finds himself leading an inner-city choir as middle age creeps ever closer. A few of his singers are a problem – sometimes they disrupt rehearsal, but mostly they want to rap together. This very gratifying story contains Mr. Fern’s slow transformation from bête noire to mentor, a balanced treatment of gang behavior, and the main character’s fully-nuanced background and development. It’s exceedingly well done.
That description applies to this entire collection. The prose is sturdy and uninvasive, the characters quite real whether they’re pathetic, greedy, or just trying to hold things together. I appreciated the advance copy from the U. of Iowa, because it treated me to a terrific writer with a unique point of view. I’m antsy to see what’s next from Will Boast.