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White Tears

White Tears

by Hari Kunzru

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White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music and Delta Mississippi Blues.

"An incisive meditation on race, privilege and music. Spanning decades, this novel brings alive the history of old-time blues and America’s racial


White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music and Delta Mississippi Blues.

"An incisive meditation on race, privilege and music. Spanning decades, this novel brings alive the history of old-time blues and America’s racial conscience."—Rabeea Saleem, Chicago Review of Books 

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America's great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it's a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter's troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation's darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

In his fifth novel, Hari Kunzru confronts America's racially stained history through an ingenious premise: the eerie appearance of a 1920s blues song in contemporary New York, where two young white men obsessed with black music persuade themselves that they've made the record.

It's a sly setup for a book that takes on the controversial topic of cultural appropriation, whereby the ethnic majority adopts or even attempts to co-opt the cultural elements of an ethnic minority. The meaning of the term referenced in the title, "white tears," is elastic, but in essence it describes the propensity of some white people (even, and perhaps especially, those who regard themselves as enlightened) to focus on their own feelings and responses in issues involving race, instead of acknowledging their privileged position.

In the case of the two twentysomething Brooklyn hipsters in Kunzru's novel, connoisseurship of the blues is a ticket to a kind of personal cachet that neither feels in possession of on his own. Seth, socially awkward and still recovering from a vaguely described nervous breakdown after the death of his mother, worries that he's a parasitic presence in the life of his buddy Carter, heir to a fortune his family has built on their private prisons and security business.

Carter himself is uncomfortable with the privilege that his wealth conveys. He doesn't like to discuss money at all, though he's happy to use it to finance his and Seth's budding music business and to pursue a passion for collecting old blues records. "He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if 'white people' were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn't belong."

Seth, a devoted audiophile, takes long walks through the city, during which he makes surreptitious recordings. One day, Seth records a man in a park singing a haunting blues song, and Carter urges him to create a "recording," with crackles and hisses to make it sound old. Carter posts the resulting file online as a period recording by a singer whom he dubs Charlie Shaw, and collectors clamor to buy it. One in particular, with the handle JumpJim, insists that the man and the record really existed.

Carter celebrates this bizarre development as the ultimate imprimatur of authenticity: "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!" Carter hopes to parlay the interest in the fake Charlie Shaw record into the purchase of other rare records from the mysterious JumpJim. Unfortunately, a disaster soon sidelines Carter — by far the more interesting of the duo. Seth and Carter's sister, a troubled artist on whom Seth has a hopeless crush, are thrown together as they attempt to solve the ghostly historical mystery surrounding the record and how it may be entwined with Carter's fate.

As he's done in some of his other novels, notably his rightly acclaimed Gods Without Men, Kunzru begins hopscotching through time and geography. He takes his characters and his readers on not one but two road trips through the American South and leaves his narrator, Seth, for firsthand accounts of JumpJim and, finally, the half-figmentary Charlie Shaw himself.

The trouble is that our primary guide through the kudzu of history that White Tears creates is Seth, a young man afflicted with self-loathing and social anxiety, the kind of storyteller who has to resort to college-essay tactics to tackle a big subject:

When did I lose touch with the future? I remember how imminent it used to feel, how exciting . . . Now I would say the future is behind me. It is, in any case, out of my reach. It would be easy to put the blame on Carter, on his melancholy attachment to the crackle and hiss, but I bear my share of responsibility. I let myself fall. Nostalgia: from the Greek "nostos" — homecoming — and "algos" pain or ache: the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again. Now I am nostalgic for the future, which was my native land.
Seth is so listless that he excites only a cerebral pity. He remains a cipher, dispossessed from the business he and Carter built by Carter's parents and older brother, and barely tolerated by Carter's sister. After a cameo by his father, his own family doesn't figure at all in the story. Seth says early on that he "made a run for it, away from human history and its dark places," and he's as good as his word. He has no context and spends a lot of the book adrift, seemingly so he can be a fly on the wall for Kunzru's project. Eventually, this function is literalized: He's simply a tool.

The character of Charlie Shaw isn't fully embodied either, though for different reasons. His short, shattered life seems like a carapace in which to fit the reflexive lock-him-up racism of a local policeman, the rages of a prison chain gang overseer, and the casual appropriation by record companies whose representatives traveled the South panning for musical gold but leaving the musicians themselves behind.

JumpJim is the most fully realized of Kunzru's narrators, though he gets a fraction of the airtime Seth does. The sections in which JumpJim describes his youthful road trip through the South in the 1950s with a veteran record collector and heroin addict named Chester Bly are among the book's most engaging. In one memorable scene, a patrolman in a small southern town stops the car in which they are traveling as they seek out rare records. Wary that they may be civil rights agitators, the trooper makes a veiled threat. Chester responds that he's a "proud American. I stand with the white man, one hundred percent."

Afterward, JumpJim reflects on the exchange: "I don't think Chester meant a word of it. No one could have loved that music so much and harbored a speck of racial prejudice. All the same I felt ashamed. It seemed wrong to have said what he said. For a moment I wished I really had driven along those bumpy roads to register people to vote, to tell them they ought to be free." This conflict is the dark heart of the book, but it seldom emerges with clarity in Seth's meandering narration.

Cultural appropriation is a natural subject for Kunzru, who's displayed an intense curiosity about an astonishingly diverse cast of characters, from the half-Indian, half-English protagonist of his debut novel, The Impressionist, to the lonely Indian computer coder in Silicon Valley in Transmission, to the middle- aged onetime English radical in My Revolutions, to the chorus of characters — nineteenth-century silver miners and ethnographers of native Americans, 1970s UFO cult members, Iraqi emigrants, a disconsolate British rock star, the parents of an autistic boy who goes missing in the desert — whose narratives together form his kaleidoscopic Gods Without Men.

Unfortunately, the characters in White Tears are missing the blood and heart that would bring this important story to life. There's a painstaking quality to the novel that's reminiscent of Carter and Seth's studious reproduction of that old record. An agenda of condemnation appears to have overtaken the curiosity that has allowed Kunzru to imaginatively inhabit so many different people. In arraying himself against his book's appropriators, racists, wealthy elites, and corporate opportunists, he has transmuted his considerable literary gifts into a weapon that seeks out its targets, again and again.

Sarah L. Courteau is an essayist and critic who has written for The New York Times, The Wilson Quarterly, and The Oxford American, among other publications. She is at work on a novel about a murder committed by four brothers in the rural Ozarks.

Reviewer: Sarah L. Courteau

The New York Times Book Review - Steve Erickson
White Tears is distinguished by a knowledge of blues at its deepest, a gift for observation at its most penetrating and stretches of plain old marvelous writing, some swallowing up the pages around them the way a single song—"A Change Is Gonna Come," say, or "A Day in the Life"—swallows up the side of an album. Kunzru is particularly eloquent and evocative when it comes to music's mysteries, the way music reverses time's flow…In the final quarter the story…gathers force, offering its strongest passages and revealing, in this Book of Secrets, the biggest secret of all, and one that often only a stranger's perspective recognizes: the sense of possibility that was not only a young black bluesman's in an unforgiving South but the Republic's, the sense of possibility that hovers in every song heard just out of earshot, just beyond that edge of perception that the author has defined.
Publishers Weekly
★ 12/05/2016
The excellent new novel from Kunzru (Gods Without Men) opens as a coming-of-age yarn and ends as a ghost story, but its real subject is a vital piece of American history: the persistence of cultural appropriation in popular music. Twenty-something white roommates Carter and Seth are audiophiles, record collectors, and budding producers living in New York. They’re obsessed with black music, whether it’s reggae, jazz, funk, or hip-hop. When Seth records an old chess player in the park, Carter remixes it into a counterfeit blues song and markets the record as the work of an obscure black singer named Charlie Shaw. Almost immediately, they are approached by a mysterious collector who insists that Shaw is real—and after Carter is savagely beaten and left in a coma, Seth begins to discover just how real. With Carter’s sister, Leonie, for whom Seth nurses an unrequited crush, Seth undertakes a perilous journey from New York to Mississippi to unravel a mystery that weaves together the blues, obsessive collectors, and the American South. What he finds is murder and the unquiet ghost of Shaw. White Tears is a fast-paced, hallucinatory book written in extraordinary prose, but it’s also perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South. In his most accessible book to date, Kunzru takes on the vinyl-digging gentrification culture with a historical conscience. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Resounding praise for Hari Kunzru and White Tears

"White Tears is distinguished by a knowledge of blues at its deepest, a gift for observation at its most penetrating and stretches of plain old marvelous writing, some swallowing up the pages around them the way a single song . . . swallows up the side of an album. . . . Kunzru brings a canny and original insight to his American subject. . . . [His] awareness and discernment have particular value in an America of the moment where nothing less than the country’s meaning is at stake.”—Steve Erickson, The New York Times Book Review
"White Tears is a book that everyone should be reading right now. . . . The reverberations of [this book] echo long after it's done. Part ghost story, part travelogue, White Tears is a drugged-out, spoiled-rotten treatise on race, class and poverty of the soul."—Claire Howorth, TIME
"[White Tears is] a novel that's as brave as it is brutal, and it lets nothing and nobody off the hook. . . . Stunning [and] audacious . . . an urgent novel that's as challenging as it is terrifying. . . . completely impossible to put down . . . [Kunzru’s] writing is propulsive, clear and bright, whether he's describing an old blues song or a shocking act of violence. . . . [White Tears] will shock you, horrify you, unsettle you, and that's exactly the point."—Michael Schaub, NPR
"[A] truly impressive novel. . . . White Tears is Kunzru’s best book yet."—Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe
"Captivating. . . . Kunzru’s graceful writing is exquisitely attuned to his material. . . . [White Tears is] neither a clever Time and Again story of time travel nor a tricky Westworld sort of past-present parallel. White Tears is a profoundly darker and more complex story of a haunting that elucidates the iniquitous history of white appropriation of black culture."—Katharine Weber, The Washington Post
"Simply extraordinary. . . . Kunzru is a master storyteller and this is both a thrillingly written ghost story and an exploration of race conflict in America which is surely one of the best books you will read this year. Don’t miss it."—Alice O’Keeffe, The Bookseller (Book of the Month pick)

Library Journal
At college, an alienated tech nerd named Seth discovers a mutual kinship with wealthy Carter Wallace over audio equipment, and afterward they start up a recording studio and become avid vinyl record collectors and blues fans. When Seth prowls the streets of New York City and records a black man singing a blues line, they piece together a full song recording, then put it out on the Internet as a rare find. From here, they both descend into to a surreal alternate universe, a grail search, and a mystery story, wherein Carter winds up permanently injured in a hospital and Seth and Carter's sister attempt to discover who did it. They travel to the Deep South and end up digging up secrets concerning the Wallace family wealth and the possible true story of the blues singer they thought they had invented. VERDICT From the author of Gods Without Men and My Revolutions comes something different and imaginative, occasionally gloomy and affected. A stirring story of audiophiles, rare recordings, slavery, and the dangers of uncovering the past. [See Prepub Alert, 9/26/16.]—James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-12-06
Record collecting turns dangerous in a smart, time-bending tale about cultural appropriation. Seth, who narrates most of Kunzru's fifth novel (Gods Without Men, 2012, etc.), is obsessed with sound, making field recordings of his travels around Manhattan. Carter, his old college buddy and scion of a wealthy family, is similarly obsessed with old blues 78s. Together, they're an up-and-coming production team that works with white rappers and rock bands looking to make their music sound antique and "authentic." They're so good at it that, as a prank, they take Seth's recording of a Washington Square denizen singing a mordant blues song, use modern tools to faux age it, attribute it to the made-up name Charlie Shaw, and upload it, whereupon online vintage-blues fans go bonkers. Kunzru signals early on that Seth and Carter are playing with fire, from Seth's hubristic suggestion that his blues knowledge is a passkey to blackness to Carter's exclusionary and officious family, which made its fortune in private prisons. But Kunzru attacks the racism the two represent indirectly and with some interesting rhetorical twists. Carter is mysteriously beaten into a coma in the Bronx, and once Seth begins an investigation with another collector and Carter's sister, the narrative begins to deliberately decouple from logic—suggesting, for instance, that a real Charlie Shaw recorded the fake song Seth and Carter created. This weirdness reads subtly at first—a record skipping a groove, a playback glitch—but in time commands the narrative, allowing Kunzru to set the deadly mistreatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South against the hipster presumptions of whites now. Kunzru has done his homework on racial history and white privilege, but the novel is also lifted on his sharp descriptions of music, which he makes so concrete and delectable you understand why his misguided, ill-fated heroes fall so hard for it. A well-turned and innovative tale that cannily connects old-time blues and modern-day minstrelsy.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.50(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


That summer I would ride my bike over the bridge, lock it up in front of one of the bars on Orchard Street and drift through the city on foot, recording. People and places. Sidewalk smokers, lover’s quarrels, drug deals. I wanted to store the world and play it back just as I’d found it, without change or addition. I collected audio of thunderstorms, music coming out of cars, the subway trains rumbling underfoot; it was all reality, a quality I had lately begun to crave, as if I were deficient in some necessary vitamin or mineral. I had a binaural setup, two little mics in my ears that looked like headphones, a portable recorder clipped to my belt under my shirt. It was discreet. No one ever noticed. I could roam where I liked and then ride home and listen back through Carter’s thousand-­dollar headphones at the studio. There were always phenomena I hadn’t registered, pockets of sound I’d moved through without knowing.

Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice traveling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-­ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.

I heard Charlie Shaw on one of those recording walks. It was evening. I don’t remember why I’d gone out. Perhaps I couldn’t sleep—­that happened. Perhaps I just needed to be outside or spend some time on my own. I often felt claustrophobic after long sessions; we could spend twelve hours in the studio without coming up for air. It was hot, the stifling New York heat that empties the city on July and August weekends. My shirt was clinging to my back. Passers-­by were sheened in sweat, everyone desperate for the weather to break. I was recording by the chess tables in Washington Square. A guy called PJ, evidently the home favorite, was playing another man whose name I didn’t catch. They’d drawn a little crowd. There was money on the table. A bottle was being passed around.

PJ was one of the hustlers who sit at those tables day in day out, playing all-­comers for ten bucks a time. He was a flabby white man in his fifties or sixties with thick glasses and several plastic bags of nameless crap stashed under the bench. The other player was skinny and black, hard to say how old because his face was hidden under a baseball cap. He wore a clean white undershirt and baggy blue jeans. His bare arms were painfully thin, like two twists of fuse wire. This man was taking his time over his moves, enough for some of the onlookers to be muttering and telling him to make up his mind. He ignored them. Unlike PJ, who was chatting to his buddies, he kept his head down and seemed absorbed in the game. He was a good player and soon he forced PJ to give up a knight, then his queen. There goes my rent money, said PJ to anyone who’d listen. He was stuck on the phrase, repeating it until it became a tic. Each bad move: there goes my rent money, there it goes. Something about the stranger was making the spectators nervous too. He would reach over the table, settle his long fingers on a piece, move it, then suddenly bring his palm slapping down on the clock. Each time he did it, an audible flinch traveled through the crowd. Coughing, keys fondled in pockets. He was killing PJ, showing no mercy. They didn’t like it.

Mate in two, said the thin man, almost under his breath. Around the board, people fell silent. PJ nodded glumly and knocked down his king with a forefinger. Shoot, he said, now what am I going to do? As his friends gathered around to commiserate, the stranger counted his winnings, a wad of small bills. I was already turning away when I heard him sing. It was a blues, just a line. Believe I buy a graveyard of my own, he sang. Then he repeated it.

Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own

On the audio, I can hear the change in the position of my head, the mics over each ear picking up a slightly different range as I swing round to listen. I don’t know how to explain what happens next. My memory is clear. There was a skater, a girl. You can hear the rumble of a deck, but it’s in the background. I distinctly remember turning to watch her. I saw long black hair, tattooed sleeves, a nice ass in cutoffs, weaving between dog walkers. How would I know that if I hadn’t turned? But the audio shows I didn’t. The singer remains in the same spot. I remember that when I turned back, the game had broken up. It felt strange. It had only taken a few seconds for the girl to pass, but already the players and spectators were gone, the tables completely deserted. At the time, I didn’t think too much about it. I was hungry, so I walked over to Sixth Avenue to get a slice.

We were on the verge of being famous. Bands wanted the sound we could make. We were booked months into the future and I, for one, could not have been more surprised. One day I woke up and there I was, twenty-five years old, in New York City, and cool. I’d never been cool before, not at high school, not at the liberal arts college upstate where Carter and I met. He was cool. Blond dreadlocks, intricate tattoos, a trust fund he didn’t hesitate to use to further the cause of maximum good times. He had the best collection of vinyl records, the best drugs. He’d traveled, and not just to high-tone places with his parents. He’d hiked in Nepal, driven a bus along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia looking for surf. I was a suburban kid, out of my depth even on our little campus in the middle of nowhere, with its toytown Main Street, its atmosphere of sheltered rehearsal for the real world.

My family didn’t call it by a medical name, but in my teens I had some kind of break or event. After my mom died, my dad and I discovered we had nothing to say to each other. He taught high school physics and was preoccupied with the problems of my kid brother, who was rebelling in a conventional cry-for-help way, smoking weed and shoplifting. It was easier for him not to notice that I was sliding too. So what if I didn’t want to talk to him? One less person taking up his time. I was allowed to get on with it, whatever it was. Losing my mind. For six months, I didn’t go to school, didn’t even go outside. I only left my room on late-night missions to kitchen and bathroom, scuttling back and forth like a cockroach.

At the time it suited me. Four walls. I used to lie on the carpet with my laptop and a keyboard and a battered old mic, making loops of my breathing, of the sound of the floorboards creaking as my dad and my brother walked around outside the door. I’d record these small noises and fool around with them—making phases, pitching them up and down. I was trying to hear something in particular, a phenomenon I was sure existed: a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds I could hear without trying. Sure enough, after months of obsessive listening, a sound did make its presence known, but it wasn’t the one I’d hoped for. No pure high Buddha tone, no aural white light. I began to hear the past, the ambience of the room as it had been ten years previously, then twenty years, then fifty. The footsteps in the hall didn’t belong to my dad or my brother. They belonged to someone else.

Getting back from that took me a while.

By the time I went to college I was no more than averagely introverted, but I was still a weird kid, no doubt. It took Carter Wallace to pull me out of my cockroach hole. Everyone wanted to be his friend and no one much wanted to be mine, which was why I was alone one day on the lawn in front of the band shell, holding a directional mic mounted in a homemade parabolic reflector, a configuration that was allowing me to listen, with impressive clarity, to conversations taking place all the way at the other end of the lawn by the library. I was eavesdropping on a picnic, a bunch of drama students updating each other on the gossip, shrieking with attention-seeking laughter every thirty to forty-five seconds, loud enough to cause clipping. Clearly what I was doing was objectively creepy. I didn’t much care. Fuck humanity, was my basic position at that point. The conversation was banal: my work your ex incredibly moving hooked up needs to check his privilege blah blah blah. For my purposes, the content was irrelevant. It was just a sound source, so I could test the equipment. It might as well have been birdsong. I was really happy that the reflector—which I’d made myself out of an old satellite dish—was working so well. I lowered the gain and the meter stopped peaking when the people laughed. Just then, I felt a touch on my shoulder and found Carter standing behind me with a stoned half-smile on his face.

I knew who he was, of course. Blond beard plaited into a sort of fashionable rope, no shirt and a tattoo of Mexican calaveras on his chest. I assumed, with a sinking feeling, that this hipster Jesus was something to do with the trendy crowd of picnickers and was about to kick my ass for spying on his girlfriend, something of that kind. Instead he asked me about the reflector and seemed to understand at least some of the technical language I used in my explanation. I found myself giving him the headphones so he could listen. He told me the reflector was “sick,” and though this was hardly an incisive remark, it made me feel as if I’d won an award. Then, to my frank astonishment, he suggested we go back to his dorm room and listen to music.

At that time I had strict rules about the kind of music I would listen to. I wanted to avoid slippage. Old songs made me feel nervous. Also old recordings. I wanted to be one hundred percent forwardfacing, moving into tomorrow at top speed. I’d grown up listening to a lot of seventies progressive rock, songs about space travel and chivalry with frequent changes of time-signature and bombastic effects. As a teenager it had seemed superior to me, evidence of my intelligence. I had begun to listen to sixties psych and garage, inching backwards through the years, but at a certain point, I’d decided there were certain echoes I couldn’t afford to hear, so I made a run for it, away from human history and its dark places, into techno, the aural city on the hill. Here was a shiny sound-world made of pure electronic tones, in which I could float free of all context, cocooned in the reassurance that yesterday was long gone, or perhaps never existed at all.

When I went to Carter’s room that afternoon, I hadn’t voluntarily listened to the sound of a guitar for three years, but I was so in awe of him that I broke my rules. We sat on his bed and he played me records. Vinyl records, old and expensive, lovingly dusted with an antistatic cloth and placed on a deck positioned on a paving slab to isolate it from vibration. His setup was impressive. All his decisions had been technically sound and the equipment was peerless. The turntable was connected to twin valve amplifiers, fifty years old or more, engineered to specifications that would be considered excessive today. They in turn were connected to a pair of British studio monitors that, he boasted, had once hung in the control room at Abbey Road. Until then I had held a low opinion of the audiophile fetish for analog equipment. I considered it sentimental. Carter completely changed my mind.
At first I was solely preoccupied with audio quality. I appreciated the range and dynamics of the reproduction, without paying much attention to Carter’s music taste. Gradually I noticed that everything he played was by black musicians. Many different styles, but always black music, most of it completely unfamiliar to me. I began to listen with increasing pleasure. Carter didn’t so much play me his record collection as narrate it. He began with Jamaican dub. From there, he introduced ska and soca, soul and RnB, seventies Afrobeat and eighties electro. He spun early hip hop and Free Jazz and countless regional flavors of Bass and Juke music. Chicago, London, Lagos, Miami. I had not known there was such music.

Over the next weeks and months, Carter taught me to worship— it’s not too strong a word—what he worshipped. He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if “white people” were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn’t belong. I paid no mind to his garbled explanation of the source of this black intensity. The sound was good, and I’d noticed something extraordinary that was occupying most of my attention. I was listening to songs that had been recorded twenty years before I was born, and they had no ill-effect on me. There was no backwards pull, no sensation of vertigo. I forgot what it was I’d been scared of. I let it all go. I could not remember the last time I had felt so happy and carefree.

In between marathon listening sessions, Carter initiated me into the campus party scene, which I’d previously found opaque and threatening. As a DJ, he had quasi-celebrity status, arriving in rooms through a thicket of daps and hugs and fist bumps. Soon I was helping him out, setting up, troubleshooting the sound system. I’d hang back behind the decks as he spun his vinyl-only set, watching girls making fuck-me eyes at him and their jealous boyfriends pretending they didn’t care. There was such a need to connect with him, to receive the blessing of his attention. None of the cool kids could work out why I was the one to carry the conquering hero’s record box. I was a loser, who dressed (as I was once told) like a “homeless computer scientist.” They didn’t understand Carter’s obsessive commitment to music. He didn’t really care about anything else. I understood that and they didn’t. That was why it was me and not them.
Carter rarely talked about his family. What I knew, I had to piece together from campus gossip and the internet. He had an older brother and sister and it was easy enough to search his dad, a big Republican donor who appeared in news photographs with senators and members of the Bush clan. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Wallace family company, a behemoth with tentacles in construction, logistics and energy, had expanded since 9/11, helping America prevail in the War on Terror. Toilet blocks in Afghanistan. Airstrips and PX’s. Known these days as the Wallace Magnolia Group, they supplied earthmoving equipment, built freeways, laid pipelines. Carter’s dead aunt’s name was on a new lecture theater, which, given his near-total lack of interest in academic work, may have been the price of his admission to our not-quite-Ivy school. Carter knew what the Occupy crowd said about him, the no-bloodfor-oil crowd. He told people he’d been disinherited, but that wasn’t strictly true.

Together we went on record-buying trips to Cleveland and Detroit. He had a 1967 Ford Galaxie, Candy Apple red, which handled like a boat and drew him into conversations with admiring gas station attendants and diner patrons. We drove that ridiculous car round a circuit of thrift stores and basement record dealers, looking for sixties soul on local labels like Fortune and Hot Wax, techno twelves on Metroplex and Transmat and every other style in between. We took chances on weird private press releases that usually turned out to be lounge singers cranking out Sinatra covers or school bands doing shaky versions of seventies bubblegum hits. We found gems (a cache of mint BYG/Actuel free jazz albums still in their shrink wrap, a blue copy of the UR “Z Record”) and dropped money on turkeys, bad records with one good track, rare records that turned out to have no good tracks at all.

Meet the Author

HARI KUNZRU is the author of four previous novels. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and his short stories and journalism have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New Yorker. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, The New York Public Library, and the American Academy in Berlin. He lives in Brooklyn.

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