The Song Is You

January 01, 1970

(Random House)




Julian Donahue, separated from his wife and mourning the
death of his toddler son, is toying with the idea of growing up. He’s stopped
screwing the models he shoots for shampoo and floor-cleaner commercials, begun
properly grieving the death of his Korean War-veteran father and come to the
realization that, at the dawn of his 40s, his life is more than likely half
over. No less significantly, he also no longer bothers to keep up with popular
music. His iPod is filled with more than 8,000 songs, but the titles are old,
familiar and occasionally obscure, stretching from mid-’90s alt-rock all the
way back to late Billie Holiday. Music hasn’t lost its power for Julian, but
that power has now been dulled by coarse nostalgia and a sadness he has fooled
himself into believing he can control.


In addition to being a late-coming-of-age story (which is
not to be confused with a midlife-crisis story, which this book isn’t), The Song Is You, the fourth novel by the
New York-based Arthur Phillips, is also a love story. Early in this engaging,
lyrical work, Julian, caught outside in a hard snow, steps into a neighborhood
dive, a “hole in the night” called the Rat, in search of a bathroom. Retreating
to the bar for a drink and curious to find out if the striking, redheaded woman
leading a band on-stage has talent to match her looks, Julian fights back the
mild shame that he is not only the oldest person in the bar by at least a
generation, but also that he doesn’t “know any bands anymore.” He watches the group’s performance, buys a demo CD and heads
back into the night.


At work a few weeks later, his iPod plugged into his
studio’s sound system, Julian is taken by a song he doesn’t recognize – a
female voice singing, ” ‘I’d sooner die,’ she said, she said, and she almost
believed it, her little drama.” The singer, of course, is the woman he saw in
the bar, a 22-year-old rising star named Cait O’Dwyer, a charismatic Irishwoman
whose CD Julian had forgotten he’d even uploaded to the iPod. And with that,
Julian is reminded that music can do more than simply jog unpleasant memories
from the not-so-deep recesses of his mind and deposit him in dark places he’d
just as soon not visit.


His appreciation of Cait’s music becomes an “infection,” and
Phillips describes this transformation with the accuracy of someone who on more
than one occasion has been stung in the heart by a fresh and exciting song:
“And after that first shock of love comes trepidation. A younger Julian would
have reset the needle, rewound the tape, replayed the track again and again,
sucked the song down to its marrow until it held nothing but thick nostalgia,
accessible only years later. But, older now, aware of how rare this experience
was, he rationed ‘Coward, Coward.’ If it showed any signs of weakening, of
becoming merely catchy, he skipped it, set his iPod back to shuffle and hoped
the song would recharge, surprise him. And the singer did.”


What music fan hasn’t felt that same rush, that sense of
discovery you both want to share with everyone you know and keep to yourself as
if it were a blush-inducing secret? If Phillips is an exceptional novelist and
storyteller – and he certainly is both – he is also a first-rate music writer.
Better still, he’s the opposite of a music snob: an unapologetic fan and
relentless champion of songs famous and unknown. He understands that few things
can move a person – for good or for bad – quite like music, and The Song Is You  is as much about Julian’s burgeoning and
reanimating feelings for Cait as it is about music’s ineluctable ability to
make you feel part of something great, whether it’s a Billie Holiday concert
recorded before you were born or a poorly produced demo purchased for a few
bucks in a sticky bar in which paint peels from the walls in wide, toxic


Without explicitly doing so, Phillips’ book suggests that
even a work such as “Thunder Road”
can sometimes strike the listener as being just a song, a simple gathering of notes and chords tossed into the air like
confetti. But at the right moment, “Thunder
Road” — or “I Cover the Waterfront” or “Space
Oddity” – can be something else entirely. As Julian comes to relearn this, he
begins a 21st-century romance with Cait: He leaves her encouraging, anonymous
messages on her Web site, flirts with her when she takes his call during a
charity telethon and even leaves her professional advice on coasters at the
Rat. Much of the book’s suspense derives from the question of when, if ever,
Julian and Cait will meet in person, and Phillips presents one missed
opportunity and coincidence too many. (A subplot involving Cait’s jealous
guitar player’s hiring his cartoon-cop cousin to stake out Julian challenges
the reader’s credulity.) And even though the resolution of Julian and Cait’s
tentative courting becomes obvious by the novel’s midpoint, following these two
seeking, intelligent adults to that place never feels like an intrusion or a


Throughout The Song Is
, Phillips’ writing is filled with grace notes and crescendos, solo
voices and multipart harmonies, brilliant guitar solos and full-on jam
sessions. But it’s never messy and only rarely does it fall out of key. You
don’t read this book so much as sing along with it. 




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