White Tears, by Hari Kunzru
At the heart of American music is the blues. And at the heart of the blues is an unspeakable cruelty. That’s what Hari Kunzru’s new novel reminds us. White Tears is the story of two white kids in love with a past that isn’t theirs. Carter is a trustafarian, complete with blonde dreads and an unfathomable source of dirty money, who takes the socially inept Seth under his wing. The two are united by a love of the blues. For Carter, this love is more of an obsession — he spends his life hunting out impossibly rare ‘78s, the cracklier the better. But when Seth records a panhandler singing under his breath, singing a song that Carter has never heard, this obsession turns into something far stranger, far darker, far more primal.
The pair of them record this song and “drown it in hiss,” make it sound like it’s been “sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years”. They invent a label for the record; invent a singer — Charlie Shaw. But Charlie Shaw is real, according to a record collector who refuses to believe Seth concocted ‘Graveyard Blues’ in a Brooklyn walk-up. The revelation sets Carter and Seth teetering, and it transforms White Tears.
What starts as a spirited skewering of a faintly unpleasant white dude-bro culture is pushed into the maw of a Hieronymous Bosch hellscape of twisted figures that flits back and forth between the Jim Crow-era Deep South, where a bluesman named Charlie Shaw is picked off the street on his way to a recording session by sadistic policemen, and a post-9/11 New York. As Seth picks his way south, through the history of the blues, of a tradition he cooks up in a studio, the lines between then and now dissolve, and the legacy of Charlie Shaw comes to haunt the present, in a kind of ghoulish racial revenge tragedy, caught between abuser and victim, past and present, black and white.
Perhaps a better way to read White Tears is as an allegory for power, instead of a story about music. For Kunzru, music is just another way of talking about power, about the struggle to express and repress, a struggle which is deeply implicated in any discussions of race. Charlie Shaw might have sung ‘Graveyard Blues’ in the Deep South, but up in New York half a century later, Carter can crow “These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” They own that shit, indeed. And look where it gets them.
Hamish Hamilton provided me with a review copy of White Tears.