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July 4, 2010

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Wide web of history

FROM "The Thorn Birds" to "Brideshead Revisited" to "White Teeth," the multigenerational family tale can almost always be described in certain ways: it will be long, it will take place over several decades or centuries, its narrative will be tethered to the history of a particular place.

But while we may think we know what such a story looks and sounds like, Jane Mendelsohn uses her third novel, "American Music," to quietly redefine the genre. Although the novel takes place over several generations and more than 80 years of American history (and nearly 400 years of world history), it's less than 250 pages long.

This breadth is achieved through a series of haunting impressions that trace the story of a family, the history of 20th-century America and the evolution of American music.

The premise is that the past sits in our own bodies, buried beneath our muscles and bones. The framing narrative introduces us to Honor, a 21-year-old massage therapist who has been hired to treat Milo, a taciturn Iraq war veteran with both a spinal cord injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is 2005, and Milo is a patient at the oldest veterans' hospital in New York, an institution with a tragic history.

Wherever Honor touches Milo - shoulder, palm, neck - a story is released. The first begins in 1936 in New York, where Joe, a saxophone player, is disembarking at the harbor after playing a gig on a cruise ship. He is met at the dock by his wife, a practical and devoted young woman named Pearl, and her flamboyant cousin Vivian. Pearl has had a number of miscarriages and the couple's inability to have a child will threaten their marriage.

Honor visits Milo weekly, and the more invested in "her soldier" she becomes, the more characters and stories emerge and re-emerge. One, set in 1969, hovers around Iris, mysteriously obsessed with an older female photographer and married to a doctor who has been dismissed from the Army. Another concerns a teenager named Anna, who, in the 1980s, when "telephones were heavy and stayed at home," gives birth to a baby girl whom she insists on keeping, despite her parents' wish that she give the child up for adoption.

Another story, about Parvin, a young concubine, takes us back to Turkey in 1623. Forced into the sultan's harem, Parvin appears strangely detached from the other characters. But when she is rescued by an adoring alchemist, the relationship becomes clear: her section of the narrative introduces a story about the art of making cymbals, whose percussive rhythms informed quintessential American swing sounds.

Astutely, Mendelsohn connects the cymbal to her American characters when Joe attends Count Basie's New York debut at the Roseland Ballroom: "The sound of cymbals reminds him that it is impossible to keep time."

Eventually, Basie will change the course of each of the American characters' lives. When Joe dances with his wife's cousin at Roseland there's a wildness to the prose, reminiscent of James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," that contrasts sharply with the calm, spare writing in the rest of the novel. After the show, Vivian complains, "I didn't think that the band was all that great." But Basie himself "will remember this night not as a fiasco of missed opportunity ... but as one of the highlights of what will become an illustrious, a shimmering career."

Loyal hands

That's just one of the messages of Mendelsohn's novel: Over time, the past turns mythical. And so these lives, coaxed forth from Milo's body by Honor's strong, loyal hands, are tethered to mythical moments in American history: the Depression and the Vietnam War; the set of a Cecil B. DeMille movie; the Christmas Eve that Count Basie played Roseland. These moments are linked in surprising - and sometimes not so surprising - ways.

The story is a puzzle whose missing pieces the reader needs to fill, flipping back and forth to ensure that information is correct, confirming that, yes, that phrase (and many others) appeared like code in the opening pages. There is ample reward. The pivotal scene that knits everyone's lives together is exacting, moving, devastating.

"American Music" is a story told in often dazzling images. "The sky lit up," Mendelsohn writes of a fireworks display, "and the world appeared to be taking a picture of itself."

Eventually Milo's silence ends, and we learn how his own story of tragedy is entwined with his physical self. But why do these stories emerge from Milo? How does this soldier's wrecked body come to express a history it can't escape? These are some of the questions posed by this wise, sad novel.


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