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Imperfect Solo: A Dark Comedy of Random Misfortune

Imperfect Solo: A Dark Comedy of Random Misfortune

by Steven Boykey Sidley


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Available for Pre-Order. This item will be available on February 19, 2019

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510731806
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 02/19/2019
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Steven Boykey Sidley is an award-winning and multi-shortlisted novelist. He was once a software engineer and can often be seen playing saxophone in bands around town. An American citizen, he lived most of his adult life in the Hollywood depicted in this book. His first novel, Entanglement, won the UJ Debut Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and MNet Literary Award in South Africa. His second novel, Stepping Out was shortlisted for the UJ Main Fiction Award. Imperfect Solo is his third novel. So far it has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa and selected for Le Grand Livre du Mois, France's most prestigious national literary book club. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife, Kate, and their two children.

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I AM FILLED with dread.

This realization has come to me slowly, because dread creeps — it does not announce. Different than fear, which is sharp and pointed, and generally shrieks a lot. Dread is dull and gray and cold and nebulous. It's not depression either. I am a smiley sort, given to exuberance and inappropriate optimism. Which, surprisingly, coexists quite nicely with dread. A sort of a Yin-Yang balance, or something.

Van, who has been filled with dread since he was born about 40 years ago, is unimpressed.

"Fuck your dread, you newbie. Don't come crawling to me — you who have demeaned and insulted me all these years. I own all the dread in the world. You are stealing from me. There is not enough space for both of us."

Bit harsh, I thought. He's my best friend, after all. Male friendships are entirely about insult and one-upmanship, as long as there is unstinting loyalty somewhere in there. But really, that was an overreaction. Morose shit.

He's right, though; an attitude of blackness and despair cloaks him constantly, and has carried him quite nicely through life. Particularly in those days when we sought nothing more than uncomplicated sex with some accommodating lass. My approach would be pure charm, deep intellect, humor, virtuoso displays of arcane knowledge, generosity, politeness, interest. My success rate was, well, best described as piddling. Van simply sat silently and looked gloomy as he got progressively drunker. Then he went home with the girl.

Of course, we are all grown up now. Sort of.

Los Angeles is a good place to feel dread. It is not a dreadful place at all — that is a non-sequitur — it is simply a place where dread can exist without being harassed. It is warm in LA, there is a seaside, it can be pretty if you know where to look, there is a fantastic tiny Mexican restaurant in the run-down part of Hollywood owned by a grumpy Chinese couple who can speak neither English nor Spanish. After the burritos and refried beans, they bring those little white Chinese rabbit sweets with the check. I once tried to engage the owner in conversation, asking how a Chinese man got to own a Mexican restaurant. He looked at me as though I was loco. The food is stupidly inexpensive. There are only five tables, which rock alarmingly on unbalanced legs.

I am terrified the place will shut down. It increases my dread load. Along with the certainty that my house will burn down during one of those periodic brushfires in Beachwood Canyon. Where I was stupid enough to buy a house when real estate was a steal. So that I could stare at the Hollywood sign and have deep thoughts about the transient nature of celebrity and combustible wood-framed construction materials.

Krystal, my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, says I swear too much. Although that is not the reason I expect her to be an ex-girlfriend. She is leaving me because she considers me insufficiently ambitious. Which is a fucking lie. The problem is that my ambitions and hers have nothing in common. For instance, I have an ambition to play better saxophone. I play reasonably good saxophone. Some people think I play great sax. Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker and David Sanborn would beg to differ. What I would like is for Michael Brecker to come into the bar and listen to a solo of mine, and walk up to the stage during the break and say — damn, that was pretty. Michael Brecker died a few years ago. So he is not coming in. Neither is Sanborn, although he is very much alive and plays in a totally different genre than Brecker. It's just a matter of the odds. I am a great student of the odds. I was a math major at college. The whole damn universe serves the odds. From quantum mechanics and the chances that some little particle is here or there, or moving this fast or that fast, all the way up to the chances of us getting whumped by a meteor, to the chances that Sanborn will come to the restaurant one sunny Saturday, and say — damn, that was pretty, to the chances the Krystal will stay. Which are apparently zero. She is right, though. I swear too much.

Krystal is confused about the sax thing. She thinks I want to become a star. Which I don't. At least not any more. Any musician who is over forty and still wants to become a star is touched. A sad victim of not understanding the odds. I don't want to become a star. I simply want to play a sax solo well enough that the guys who are never going to come and hear would be moved to come up and say — damn, that was pretty.

Besides, I am not even a proper musician. I play at a bar on weekends. That's as far as this is ever going to go, after some promising moments in front of stadium crowds some decades ago. My real job is as a computer programmer. Software developer, if you will. I work at a big company that makes stuff. I write code that helps them make and market and sell and ship and track the stuff they make. I am a great software developer. Write code in my sleep. Symphonies of computer-linguistic elegance. Here is where Krystal and I clash again.

"If you're so good, why don't you write an iPhone app or something? We could be rich."

"Firstly, I don't want to write an iPhone app — the odds of a winner are terrible. Secondly, I would get rich, not you. Thirdly, I earn an excellent salary; don't need to get rich. Fourthly, why do you want me to get rich?"

And, in addition to the whole ambition mismatch, I also tend to piss her off. For instance, she thinks I am too argumentative. She doesn't understand the difference between argument and reasoned debate. Even when it is carried out in a loud voice. Some years ago, I accused Isobel, my precocious daughter who was eleven at the time, of being argumentative.

"I am not argumentative. I am right."

I know what she means. Isobel is now fourteen. She spends every second weekend at my house. She likes Krystal. They gang up on me. Go shopping. Talk about young boy TV stars whose names I barely know. Take opposing positions against anything I say. Laugh at jokes I haven't heard, or don't understand. Female bonding. They probably have their periods in sync. Although Isobel thinks I play great sax. Krystal, on the other hand, is tone deaf.

"How can you like that song?" I shriek at Krystal as she turns up the radio in the car. "The singer is off key, and the song has only two chords. It is a fucking blasphemy. You can't be serious."

"It speaks to me," she answers. "In a way that you don't understand. And you swear too much."

Maybe she should move out. I cannot live with a tone-deaf person. I could live with a fire-breathing Republican, an idiot brain-dead liberal, even an anti-Semite — and I am Jewish — if her anti-Semitism was just occasional. And benign. And good-natured. But I can't live with a tone-deaf person. This, for me, is a capital crime.

Krystal is going to move out. I am never going to play sax like Coltrane. My other ambitions are out of reach, not even visible really. Isobel is going to grow up and go out with boys and try drugs and start having sex and drive drunk. My second ex-wife, Bunny, wants to get remarried. I didn't include the cash payments from our gigs in my tax returns. I think I left the stove on. The front left tire on my car is bald.

I am filled with dread.


THIS IS A reasonably new phenomenon, this dread. Like most men at the tail end of their prime, I am occasionally beset by regrets and psychic discomforts, and even sharp but vaguely articulated fears, buried, I assume, in the same metaphysical slime that has always attracted the attention of thinkers more able than I.

This dazzling city by the sea in which I have plied my various trades is terra flora for narcissistic wonderings. They are, indeed, the stucco of life here, under which stories and plots are developed. They reach their acme on the billboards of Sunset Boulevard, where the great questions of life are reduced to clever taglines in giant typefaces, towering over citizens stuck in endless traffic jams, a blunt metaphor for their lives.

None of this is new. Though this dread thing, damn, this is a whole new ballgame. My psychologist friend Farzad has a patient with agoraphobia, which, amongst other things, sometimes renders the sufferer unable to leave home, so overwhelming is the fear of being trapped in strange territory without means of escape. I don't suffer from that, but I empathize. It has become common cause for me to duck and cover, as the sky falls. It wouldn't help to simply stay home, because apprehension awaits there too. It is ubiquitous, like ether.

Take, for example, the twisted complexities of multiple wives, multiple children, maddeningly closely missed musical aspirations, and a suspicion that bad things are seeking me out.

Van, again, is unimpressed.

"You're a self-obsessed whore. A slave of solipsism. You would embarrass even Narcissus."

That sort of ends the conversation with Van, not because it didn't open a slew of conversational possibilities potentially leading to epiphanies and palliatives, but because he has smoked the joint so hard he burned his lip.

"Ow. Shit."

He is only partially right. Los Angeles certainly breeds this sort of introspection. Peruse your local bookstore and you'll see that the shelves are pregnant with advice for the lost and self-absorbed. In any neighborhood there will a mushroom-like infestation of yoga studios, replete with sanctimonious undercurrents of spiritual peace. A trip to Whole Foods, a corporate behemoth mutant born of a tiny well-intentioned Texas store in 1980, will convince the uninitiated of the danger of an unexamined diet, and raises food shopping to the plateau of survival therapy.

However, I am no more than everyman, and I defend myself from Van's accusation of exaggerated conceits. It's just that it has become self-evident to me that doom waits around every corner, patiently picking at his toenails, which, in my imagining, are long and filthy.

We are sitting in my modest wood-frame stilt house in the Hollywood Hills, the "D" of the Hollywood sign looming in the window. Visitors find it glamorous. For me it now stands for Dread, Death, Doom, Destruction, Desperation, Disorder, Dire, Disaster, Disease, Dreck. The sign used to read "Hollywoodland" in the 1920s. It was a real-estate gimmick to attract house buyers, leading to the great irony that this hillside icon of global entertainment was born of crass commercial hucksterism, now a self-fulfilled prophecy.

It is dusk and Van is visiting because he wants to smoke a joint, a pleasure in which I now rarely indulge, given that its effect on me has morphed from all-purpose funhouse to soporific, which I take to be a function of ageing. Van's girlfriend disapproves, believing it to be his way of escaping the mandates and sacrifices of a relationship, so he occasionally skulks up to my house like a teenager to feed his guilty pleasure.

He picks up a guitar, a number of which are strewn around my house, testament to stoned and forgetful musicians who have passed through over the years. He starts noodling, ricocheting vaguely related chords off each other until he finds a sizzling 8-bar groove. It is a basic minor I IV II V pattern, but with each chord spiced with unusual altered notes.

"Cool." We still talk like this.

"Get your horn."

I go and grab my antique alto and slot in, pushing away cobwebs and distractions until I have sliced a simple but damning melody through the groove.

"Cool," he says.

"Very cool," I respond. This is all said without any hint of irony.

We continue in this way for a while until the moment fades. Which, I have discovered over many years as a nearly musician, it always does.

"We should make a CD," he says, rolling another.

"What era do you live in? No one listens to CDs anymore."

"Ah, right. We should post a video to YouTube."

"Uh huh. Looked in the mirror lately?"

"Ah, right. Aren't there any music sites that we can download stuff to?"

"We do covers, remember?"

"Ah, right."

He thinks for a minute.

"Why can't we download our covers?"

"I'm not sure anyone will listen to them. Besides, I'm sure we will have to pay someone for something. Isn't there a royalty issue?"

"Why don't we compose some stuff?"

"Because the passion has died."

"Ah, shit. Forget it."


Being a once-upon-a-time nearly successful musician over 40 has its simplicities.


MY FAVORITE FICTIONAL character, Catch-22's Yossarian, was filled with dread. The Germans wanted to kill him. That's why he didn't want to go on another bombing run. The fact that they wanted to kill everyone else was irrelevant. They still wanted to kill him. Fucking luxury, being able to define your dread with such precision. I should be so lucky.

Krystal, my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, has grown tired of my doom-laden prognostications. This is a great pity. She used to find me funny, smart, perceptive, unusual. But unusual slowly morphed to oh-please-get-a-life.

We are sitting in my living room. When I met Krystal, she swept me off my feet. Taller than me (a good thing, I thought — any girl untainted by my stature must be able to see into my soul, which I imagined to be far taller than I was). We were at a bar on Western. The Dresden Room. She was drunk. I was drunker. I was at the bar, alone, musing, a hopeful ruminant, waiting for a chance to unleash my charm. She sat down next to me. It was Monday, there were plenty of other seats. She looked amused. I tried my luck.

"You're smiling. Lend me your smile."

"Fuck you, you piece of shit, don't you dare hit on me just because I choose this seat. I like this seat. It has nothing to do with you."

But she was smiling.

And our little flirtation was a marvel of clever banter out of a 1930s movie — parry, thrust, imply, innuend, insinuate, euphemize. She made me feel smart. I made her feel smart.

"So why are you smiling?"

"Because my boyfriend just left me."

"And this is amusing?"

"You should have heard his exit speech."


"He said, "It's not you, it's me." He actually said that — with a straight face and an earnest little frown around his stupid hairy eyebrows."

"That's pretty funny."

"That's what I thought. Buy me a drink, before it stops being funny."

"First you have to comment on my eyebrows. Nobody else has ever done that."

"They look like question marks."

"Uh huh. What typeface?"

"Sans serif."

"French eyebrows?"

"No, honest eyebrows, without unnecessary flourish."

So it went.

And she came home with me and has not moved out since. It never did get any better than that night. Instead, slowly, it got worse, the initial sparkle shedding its light slowly, slowly, in drabs and stutters, like embers in a dying wind, until we were habit, and now we are bad habit.

But even habits have function. The sex is great, no matter that its frequency has diminished to a faint pulse, like a distant celestial body. She still looks good. She still talks smart. She remains tall and imposing. She just doesn't seem to like me much anymore, and I smart under the indignity of it.

Did I ever like her? Hard to tell. I enjoyed her company — she made me laugh, I suppose. Tickled the intellect. Made me work at sounding smart. Not the same thing as liking her. And light years from loving.

Who is she, I wonder. The girl who rode her height and confidence and eloquence to lonely triumph at high school, scaring the crap out of football players, whose easy access to local celebrity did not require challenge of the tongue.

So we sit in the living room, at noon on a Sunday, eating pasta and pesto and drinking shitty wine. We think of something to say, fail, so we stare out of the window, trying to ignore the "D."

"How is Innocent?" she asks, after the silence thunders.

Innocent is my son from my first marriage. He arrived unplanned when I was way too young. My then girlfriend, Grace, was a Zimbabwean who — like many of her white compatriots — had to flee her family's farm when Mugabe's henchmen went from merely menacing to beating her dog to death and cooking it. She ended up in LA.

Grace was also too young and she named him Innocent because it is apparently quite a popular name amongst Zimbabwe's rural people. This may be a good idea in the Zimbabwean hinterlands. Not such a good idea in LA, where he rebelled against his name, eschewing innocence in favor of everything but. Grace and I got married, but that lasted no more than a year. She was good with him, though. She did not rebel against her name. I should have tried harder with her. Ah well. We are all young and foolish for a time, some of us for longer than others.


Excerpted from "Imperfect Solo DRC"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Steven Boykey Sidley.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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