WHITE TEARS is many things. It begins as the story of a partnership between two young men and ends as a tale of revenge and justice with supernatural elements. What occurs in between is a hallucinatory journey in which the past and present meet and commingle. The resulting work is puzzling in parts, haunting in others, and compulsively readable.
Seth, a somewhat impoverished student at a small liberal arts college in New York, is the narrator. He is a nebbish who is fascinated by recorded sound, which results in his practice of walking the streets of New York with an unobtrusive multidirectional recorder, capturing the audio of what is going on around him. These “found sounds,” as they are known in the recording industry, are often sampled, or incorporated, into musical compositions during the process of recording. Seth has instincts for what he wants to do, but has no focus, contacts or resources.
"WHITE TEARS is about much, much more than music and record collecting. It is a tale of vengeance, obsession, greed, and a long-delayed rough justice obtained from beyond and within the grave."
Those circumstances change for him as the result of a happenstance meeting that enables him to hitch his audio wagon to the financial star of Carter Wallace, a mercurial trustafarian with access to what seems to be a wallet of endless wealth. Carter has an obsessive interest in sound and music as well, collecting records and recording equipment at whim. The pair quickly establishes themselves as music production royalty, known within the industry as reliable hitmakers, even as Carter becomes more and more obsessed with obscure recordings of the past.
Things come fatefully to a head when Seth happens to record a seemingly ad-libbed acapella blues song in a park and, later, a solo acoustic guitar performance elsewhere. Carter combines the two recordings, layers it with the requisite vinyl pops and hisses, and puts it out on the internet as an actual studio recording of a long-lost blues musician named Charlie Shaw. It is a pivotal moment in WHITE TEARS; Seth and Carter are soon contacted by an extremely eccentric character named JumpJim, who insists that the singer and the record are real.
This sets off an unforeseeable and dangerous chain reaction, complicated by Seth’s schoolboy crush on Leonie, Carter’s sister. Leonie is a troubled, difficult and enigmatic woman who seems to smoke cigarettes by the handful, and while aspiring to be an artist appears to primarily function as a punch for a friend of Cornelius, the oldest of the Wallace siblings and the heir apparent to the family’s multi-million-dollar business, which is slowly revealed over the course of the book. What occurs here, however, is overlaid by the added element of Seth’s unreliable narration. Seth is not unaware that his grip on his perceptions is not entirely solid.
The novel’s latter half becomes increasingly slippery, as Seth and Leonie in the present (or is it?) travel to Mississippi in search of Charlie Shaw, a journey that parallels a similar trip made decades before by JumpJim and a man named Chester Bly, who also was an obsessive collector of recorded music and was in search of the long-lost Charlie Shaw recording. Matters slowly build to a violent conclusion as Seth’s tenuous grip on reality is released entirely, and the reader learns of the ultimate fate of Shaw and his music.
WHITE TEARS is about much, much more than music and record collecting. It is a tale of vengeance, obsession, greed, and a long-delayed rough justice obtained from beyond and within the grave. Difficult in spots and jarring in others, this book might not be for everyone, but author Hari Kunzru’s unflinching prose makes it worth every reader’s time and effort.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 17, 2017
- Publication Date: March 14, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Knopf
- ISBN-10: 0451493699
- ISBN-13: 9780451493699