White Tears pays homage to the blues, the blues that grew out of pain and a mix of organic musical styles that was sung by down and out African American men and women in the 1800s and ultimately recorded by hundreds of performers on 78 records during the early 1900s–Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and others whose names are long lost to most current day audiences even though the influences of the blues run through the heart of American music itself. It has been said that Robert Johnson achieved success as a singer by following an old conjure procedure of selling his soul to a black rider at the crossroads. Whether you believe the legend or not, the music known as the blues carried the souls of its performers as they cried out the cruel injustices of their lives.
Hari Kunzru tells the story of two white students in their twenties who love the blues, though that love may be more of an affectation or an obsession than anything true. Carter is rich. Seth is poor. The music draws them together and they create a music studio dedicated to analog sound and music out of the past. Seth, who’s a bit of a geek without firm boundaries about who he really is, records sounds and music off the streets, and one day he captures the voice of a bluesman he never sees singing a song that will define the two young men’s lives. They run the words through their sophisticated equipment and end up with a recording that sounds like an old 78 record that might have been rescued or stolen from a southern barn or back porch. They put the recording on the Internet and announce that it’s real rather than mocked up. They name the singer Charlie Shaw.
The sound is a sensation. But then they hear from collectors and other aficionados that Charlie Shaw was a real person who really did record a song that began with the words “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own.” A collector says he heard it years ago. Another collector turns heaven and earth to find the original, and maybe he does. The boys are spooked, to say the least: how can their faked record of a modern-day street singer suddenly be a real song by a person whose name they made up? If Charlie Shaw is real, Carter and Seth have stolen his soul.
At this point, readers will have been experiencing an immersion in the blues, well told through Hunzru’s deep understanding of the music and his very well crafted prose. While the novel remains compelling, it becomes somewhat fractured after Carter is–for unknown reasons–beaten senseless in “the wrong part of town,” and as he evolves into a hospitalized man in a vegetative state, his rich family decides that Seth was just a follower who lived off Carter’s money and really didn’t contribute anything to their business partnership. Denied access to Carter and the studio, Seth drifts, begins to think maybe the past or the blues or the real Charlie Shaw is after him. The novel fractures from the atmospheric realism that was following a plot into some lengthy slice-of-life sequences in which past, present, future–and bluesy reality–meander aimlessly rather than directly serving to storyline.
Yet, new incidents occur (mostly bad and/or unfair to Seth), magical realism or real depending on the moods of the moment and the novel shifts into a thriller chasing down a ghost story. The protagonist for three quarters of the novel is primarily Seth. But Kunzru changes the point of view throughout the last several chapters in a chilling way. These chapters are powerfully written but, on balance, the strong ending of White Tears seems based more on shifting genres in mid stream and word-smithing trickery rather than the natural unfolding of a story. The message–white boys appropriating black music and making it their own–is a strong theme throughout the book. It’s not a bad theme. The story suffers, however, because of the author’s need to preach a cultural appropriation sermon rather than let his message speak for itself through the characters words and actions.
Nonetheless, it’s impossible to discount the power of the book, the author’s technical mastery of his language, or the journey through the blues. Yes, this book is the blues, and those who love the music will probably read the book from beginning to end, seeing its flaws as little more than the scratchy static on an old 78 record.