Levin’s relatable debut is a heartfelt coming-of-age story that channels the passions of adolescence into musical revelations. High school English teacher Brian Smith, named after Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson and still an unapologetic “Beach Head,” has put his musical past as bassist and songwriter of his own punk band, Call Field, well behind him in the ‘00s. But when one of his students sees Call Field’s one-hit-wonder song “Incomplete” on YouTube, Smith is forced to confront his “rock and roll PTSD”: the painful memories of his departure from his band.
The story looks back to follow a young Smith as he struggles through his adolescence and early college years, honing his musical talent while dealing with insecurities and heartbreaks. Levin captures the mind of an adolescent boy with sensitivity, infusing awkward moments with gentle humor and the darker ones with empathy and compassion. Brian’s richly detailed inner life is the book’s primary focus, leaving its secondary characters less developed. Some readers will want to know more about the band’s other members or Serena, Brian’s unrequited love. However, Brian’s relationship with his father is dynamic, loving, and deeply musical.
The other key relationship, of course, is with music, and Levin’s book is a rock fan’s delight. Though the Beach Boys are the primary musical lens, references to and insights about other bands and songs abound. The invented Call Field material is convincing, as Brian shares both his song lyrics and the creative process he uses to write them. Levin himself also highlights his work’s construction, often directly addressing the reader, making heavy use of reflective foreshadowing, or acknowledging the limits of nostalgia. His work here is indeed “incomplete,” though, as the story only covers the beginning of Call Field’s rise to fame, leaving the rest of the story for a follow-up. By exploring music as a path toward personal growth, this sensitive, lyric novel offers a refreshing twist on the standard bildungsroman.
Takeaway: A Beach-Boy loving ex-punk rocker reflects on life, love, and music in this engaging novel of the rise of a band.
Great for fans of: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Rachel Cohn’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Production grades Cover: A Design and typography: A Illustrations: A Editing: B Marketing copy: A