This Is How It Really Sounds: A Novel

This Is How It Really Sounds: A Novel

by Stuart Archer Cohen


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“A smart, wide-ranging novel . . . a timely and provocative story about money, cultural power, and identity in the digital age.” —Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers

In the lurid nightclubs of modern Shanghai, infamous expat financier Peter Harrington is suddenly confronted by his past. Investors he has ruined, looming federal investigations, and a remote but alluring woman all converge on one hallucinatory night that ends in the labyrinth of an ancient Chinese garden. On the other side of the ocean, chasing the last vapors and diminishing sexual returns of fame in Los Angeles, faded rock star Pete Harrington is bankrupt. With no band, no hits, and no money, he finds a last flash of brilliance that sets him on an absurd and epic quest for revenge. And in a small town in Alaska, legendary extreme skier Harry Harrington lives far from the fame that had courted him—but still yearns for one more dangerous run on a remote, unconquered slope.

Stuart Archer Cohen's This Is How It Really Sounds explores the seductive power of the Other Life—the life you once lived or still dream of living—and what happens when you finally grasp it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250081650
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

STUART ARCHER COHEN lives in Juneau, Alaska with his wife and two children. Two of his novels, Invisible World and 17 Stone Angels, have been translated into ten languages; a third, The Army of the Republic, has been optioned for film by Oliver Stone. Cohen has traveled extensively, and owns an international textile company called Invisible World, which trades wool, silk, alpaca and cashmere from China and South America.

Read an Excerpt

This is How it Really Sounds

By Stuart Archer Cohen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Stuart Archer Cohen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4997-6


Harry Goes to Hollywood

In those days Harry didn't recognize that the price of admission to the life he wanted was surrendering his tickets to all the other lives he might have had.

He was, according to the few measures that existed at that time, the greatest extreme skier in the world. His first year on the circuit he won at Crested Butte and then won at Kirkwood with a separated shoulder. He took the King of the Hill prize in Valdez, Alaska, then went to Verbier for the European championship and beat the locals on their home mountain in a competition where one skier was paralyzed and another was killed. He was nineteen years old.

It was a sport that had no rules and no set course. A few dozen skiers climbed to the top of a steep mountain and hurled themselves down one at a time by whatever route they chose. They popped back flips off cliffs and made desperate cuts to avoid boulders. They raced along beside hissing avalanches. The judges scored them on their grace and creativity. For six years he won every single one of the tiny competitions in Europe and North America that defined the sport, not simply ranking highest, but awing the young men who competed against him, leaving them in despair that they would ever be that fluid, that brave, that beautiful.

He'd met Mitch skiing up at Tahoe. Mitch was a few years older and was obviously an outsider. He drove a two-seat Jaguar XKE with a tiny ski rack, wore a white puffy with a fox-fur ruff. He made music videos in Los Angeles. Some of the inner circle of ski bums joked behind his back about his brand-new, top-of-the-line gear, but Mitch loved to ski, and he could more or less keep up on the lines without cliffs in them. That made it possible for him to see up-close what Harry did, and it astounded him. At the end of the day, when they sat down for beers, he took Harry aside and said quietly, "Do you have representation?"

Harry looked at the smooth face, which even with its skier's stubble and matted hair still seemed astute and worldly in a way his other friends' didn't. "What do you mean?"

"An agent. Do you have an agent? Because I think you've got something that very few people have."

By then, Harry was twenty-five and a legend among the few thousand people in the world who knew what extreme skiing was. The prize money in competitions where people were frequently hurt and sometimes killed might be several hundred dollars and some free helicopter time. The best skiers had sponsors that kept them in gear and paid for their stays in cheap motels, but even the top dogs had to work in the summer, and he spent the warmer months working construction with his dad and fishing out of Bristol Bay.

Harry smiled slowly. The idea of an agent had never occurred to him. "What would I do with an agent?"

"You'd just be you. Your agent will do the rest." Now Mitch leaned in to him. "Don't get me wrong: I'm not an agent. This isn't about me. I don't want to sound weird, but what I saw today blew my mind. I make music videos, and I can say that what you do: it's music. You deserve to be rewarded. I mean, what do you make from skiing in a year, winning every competition: a few thousand dollars? A couple of new pairs of skis? Basketball stars get millions in endorsements, and what they do doesn't have one-hundredth of the risk and spectacle of what you do."

Harry wasn't sure what to say. "Well, a lot of people play basketball."

"It doesn't matter. You're the best in the world at a high-end sport. You shouldn't be sharing a room at a Super 8 Motel. You could be endorsing liquor, or luxury items like Swiss watches or cologne. It's just wrong that you do something so amazing and no one knows about it."

Harry hadn't thought about it much. All the skiers knew that the big names in the Olympics and the World Cup tour were making real money, but nobody had shown much interest in extreme skiers or even made specialized big-mountain skis that they could promote. Mitch went on, "Why don't you come down to L.A. with me this week and I'll introduce you to some people. You can stay at my house. Have you ever been to L.A.?"

He had already finished up a photo spread for Ski magazine and happened to have a few days before shooting a part in a low-budget ski movie. He asked Guy about it and his old friend liked the idea. "It's good," he said. "You'll bring honor to the hometown." So he left his skis and winter gear with Guy and tucked himself into Mitch's tiny Jaguar. By the time they'd made the long drive down out of the mountains, he'd stripped off his fleece to end up in a T-shirt in the spring heat of Los Angeles.

Mitch lived in Hollywood, which Harry hadn't realized was an actual physical place with houses and palm trees. He was used to mountain towns, with their inclined streets and scruffy inhabitants. This place was flat in every way a place could be flat. That was the weird thing about L.A.: on its surface it was the most nondescript set of strip malls and parking lots he'd ever seen, but, even so, you were always on the lookout for some kind of glamour, some movie star that was just out of reach.

Mitch started calling around that very night, and Harry listened in, intrigued by his new role as a commodity. He's the best extreme skier in the world. In the world! He's a legend. Yeah. I've seen him: he's amazing. And he's from Alaska! He wrestles grizzly bears, man. Silence. Yeah, yeah, he's a good-looking guy. You could shine him up a little bit, but I don't know that you'd want to. By the next morning, Mitch had set up appointments with two management companies, and soon had a roster of lunches, meetings, and cocktails that stretched over the next three days. The Ski piece hadn't hit the newsstands yet, but Harry had a prerelease copy with its glorious cover shot of him sailing into space. Mitch showed it at every meeting.

The people he was introduced to were friendly and relaxed, like it was just a social visit. They asked him about his sport, and they tried to compare him to downhill skiers whose names they'd seen, like Jean-Claude Killy or Billy Kidd. He ticked off the competitions he'd won, making sure to add the words "World" and "North American" and "European" to each of the titles, as Mitch had instructed him. He had a hard time explaining to them that these weren't races exactly, that he just went down mountains.

Mitch took over for him. "Four words," he said. "Incredibly beautiful. Extremely dangerous."

"Have you ever come close to dying?" one agent asked him.

He thought about it. "How close is close?"

"Close, like, you thought, 'I may not make it this time.'"

The time he'd been swept over a cliff band by his own slough. The time the slope had given way on his left, then he'd cut right and that whole piece had dissolved beneath his feet, and somehow he'd managed to dig his skis into the bed and watched a couple megatons of snow go roaring to the bottom below him. "No. I never think that. If you spend much time wondering if you're going to make it, you're probably not going to make it."

Mitch intervened. "Just describe some of the hairier situations you've been in."

"Oh." He mentioned a couple of things that had happened, telling them in a detail that would start to feel a little stale by the time he left Los Angeles. "But ... I wasn't, you know, afraid. I was concentrating."

Mitch finished for him. "He races avalanches and he goes off fifty-foot cliffs and he makes it look beautiful. It's like ballet at seventy miles an hour. If you can capture that, you're going to have a best-of-class talent that blows people away. It's a hell of a lot more interesting than watching a guy go around a track in a Formula One car."

They watched the VHS tape that Mitch had put together from a couple of movies he'd been in. There were some runs from Chamonix, and a clip from Alaska where he'd dropped five thousand vertical feet in a minute and a half. He looked good in that one, disappearing into a cloud of his own slough and then reemerging just when it seemed like he was gone forever.

"Holy shit," the agent said. "You were inside an avalanche! What's that like?"

Harry felt like saying it wasn't a full-on avalanche, just some slough, but that would take too much explaining. "It's all white. You're pretty much blind, so you just go by feel and try to straight-line out of it."

The man seemed to have suddenly figured out where it all fit. "You know, I've got a client who's working on the screenplay of the next Bond movie. A sequence like that would be a great opening." He looked at Harry. "Think you could be James Bond's stunt double?"

Harry was too surprised to answer at first. "Not a problem." He grinned. "Do I get the girl?"

Mitch went over the products they could promote with his skiing, and how well the sport lent itself to television commercials, and the agent added a few ideas of his own, and then they left with a handshake and a smile. Like all the meetings, it always felt exciting and positive to Harry. It was only afterward that Mitch would comment on how it had really gone, that such and such person hadn't really been interested, but that another had implied that there was a chance for synergy with his other clients. "What he said about James Bond was good," Mitch strategized afterward. "His brother-in-law works for the producers that do the Bond movies, so he's not just blowing smoke." Harry didn't understand any of it, but he sensed that he was on the verge of breaking through to something big and unexpected, like when the wind shifts and a massive new mountain appears out of the clouds.

They went out to dinner every night. Mitch took him to one restaurant that was particularly hot. "Last week Mick Jagger came in with Jerry Hall and sat right over there." He had to take that on faith: he hadn't seen a star since he'd arrived in Hollywood, though he kept expecting to. Mitch picked up the tab, as he did at the bar they went to afterward, where they drank cocktails Harry had never heard of before. Mitch had a lot of friends there, and he always introduced Harry as "the best extreme skier in the world," and then he'd add: "In the world! He's from Alaska!" People were impressed, though none of them knew what extreme skiing was. They kept asking him if he'd won a medal in the Olympics. He'd gotten tired of explaining what he did, because his descriptions had started to sound shallow and phony. How do you explain about rock and snow and air and speed and having serious pain, or death, right at your elbow, and you don't even know exactly why you do it? He could talk about snow with another skier for hours: corn snow, blower pow, crust, graupel, mashed potatoes, boilerplate, surface hoar, wind pack, sastrugi—a patchwork of constantly changing surfaces all over the mountain, and every change affecting your speed, your ability to turn away from a cliff edge. The vocabulary of terrain was equally wide: there were roll-overs and wind lips, bowls and chutes, cliff bands, pillows, spines, gullies, kickers, rollers. Even avalanches were specific: slab avalanches and powder avalanches, sloughs and glide cracks, crowns and beds, ski cuts, run-outs, and terrain traps. But there wasn't much to say to these people, all smooth, sophisticated people with good haircuts and jobs in the industry that enabled them to have long, intense discussions about points and back-end deals and syndication—stuff he didn't understand but that he figured was their version of talking about snow.

Mitch created the tiny bubble of Harry's glory in Los Angeles. He treated him like you'd treat the world's best at something, and years later, he still appreciated it. On the last night, when Harry joked he hadn't gotten to meet anyone famous, Mitch thought about it for a minute. "Okay." He made a call and they climbed back into his Jaguar. He wouldn't say where they were going, except that they were visiting a friend.

"Is this someone I've heard of?" Harry asked.

"Most definitely."

"Man or woman?"

"You'll see."

"But I'll recognize them."

"Oh, you'll recognize them. No question about it."

"Come on! I don't want to end up standing there with my mouth hanging open."

Mitch just smiled. "C'mon, man. You're the greatest extreme skier on the planet. What do you have to be shy about?" He pulled out a joint from under the dashboard and they smoked it as they rode down Sunset Boulevard, which was as L.A. as you could get, in Harry's mind. It was his last night there and a couple of the agents had already called back. The James Bond guy had asked for a bio and a copy of his video footage, which Mitch said was a very good thing. They passed several bars with people milling around under the brightly lit awnings of Whisky a Go Go and The Roxy.

"This is the Sunset Strip," Mitch said. "Heard of that?"

Harry thought, I'm riding past the Sunset Strip, and his own life was suddenly completely marvelous to him. They turned left and began squirming up a canyon, and in the harsh pink lights above the road Harry could see the dry, sparse landscape interrupted by the irrigated gardens of the houses. As they climbed, the road got twistier and the houses got farther apart, their long brick or iron fences clawing down over the steep terrain.

They reached the top of the canyon and Mitch pulled up to a metal gate and leaned out to an intercom next to his window. A woman's voice came out. It was a drunk-without-any-clothes-on voice. "Hey, there!"

"It's Mitch. Pete told me to come by."

"Hold on. Pete?"

There was a silence, then the gate swung open. Harry felt a very pleasant sense of expectancy: he was in L.A., it was night, he'd had a couple of beers, he was about to meet someone famous. Everything was lined up perfectly, as if he'd dropped into a hidden line of untouched powder, and all he had to do was lean in and enjoy it.

The door was opened by a girl with long dark-brown hair wearing cutoff blue jeans and no shirt. It was as if her nipples were staring at him, and he had to force himself to look up at her eyes. Much later, when he barely remembered her face, he'd still have a clear image of her pear-shaped breasts and how they'd hung. Her skin was moist and glistening and gave off a sense of sex as a very common, easy event. "I'm Holly!" she announced, and she gave his hand a comically exaggerated shake. He couldn't think of anything to say. Of course she was Holly: this was Holly-wood, a place named after a woman who came to the door dripping and half-naked. He wished all of a sudden that he and Mitch hadn't smoked so much weed a few minutes ago. "Everybody's in the hot tub."

They followed her through the living room, in which all sorts of musical instruments were scattered among a couple of big, overstuffed couches and a coffee table covered with abandoned beer bottles. An electric guitar leaned against the wall, and huge black stereo speakers sat in the corners, putting out a steady empty hiss. The place smelled like stale bong water and cigarette smoke. Shirts and pants were laid over the backs of chairs or in piles on the floor. A sliding glass door on the far side of the room was open. He squared up his shoulders as she led them through it. People considered him the best extreme skier in the world; that had to count for something.

The porch was lit with several hanging lamps, and off to the side, where it was darker, a cluster of people were sitting in a cedar hot tub. When he got closer a voice came from the group, an easygoing, uncaring voice. "Mitch, my man!"

Mitch leaned over the tub to shake hands, and Harry couldn't believe it was him at first: the long spirals of white-blond hair, the handsome, square jaw. He'd seen the face on posters and album covers and magazine stands. He'd seen him in music videos dancing across the stage or propped against his guitarist as they leaned into a harmony. It was Pete Harrington.

Everything felt instantly unreal, and he watched in amazement as the rock star and Mitch exchanged words that suddenly seemed hyper-real.

"Pete! How goes it? I saw the new video!"

"What'd you think?"

"That's it, man. It's Pete Harrington! Nothing else need be said!"

Harry knew, like everyone, that Pete Harrington had just come out with a solo album after leaving the DreamKrushers, and he'd heard the lead song all winter long on the radio in Denver, Salt Lake, Taos, and even Chamonix. "Wreckage." He couldn't believe Pete Harrington was sitting six feet away from him without any clothes on. Naked girls were sitting on either side of him, and though the bubbly water made it hard to tell, it seemed like one of the girls was reaching between the singer's legs. He stretched his hand toward Harry. "I'm Pete."

The others in the tub were all watching them, except for a couple that was making out. Harry touched the wet wrinkled fingers. He thought of telling him his whole name, but it would sound stupid. "I'm Harry," he said.

"Pete, this man is the best extreme skier in the world! He's from Alaska!"

"Cool," Harrington said. "What's an extreme skier?"


Excerpted from This is How it Really Sounds by Stuart Archer Cohen. Copyright © 2015 Stuart Archer Cohen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
I. Harry Goes to Hollywood,
II. Fugitive in Shanghai,
1. Fugitive in Shanghai,
2. The Afterlives,
III. Kickin' It with The Man,
1. The House at Wilksbury,
2. Thanks for Your Support,
3. Tiger Claws a Tree, A Precious Duck Flaps Its Wings,
4. Wreckage,
5. The House in Columbus,
6. Kickin' It,
IV. Cathay Hotel,
1. The Buried City,
2. Green-Screen Universe,
V. Return of the Noise,
1. The House near Monthey,
2. Return of the Noise,
3. Red Dragon,
4. Market Forces,
5. The Dream of the Red Chamber,
6. The Elephant Hunt,
7. Jersey Girl,
8. Blue Winter Light,
9. Zombie Apocalypse,
10. Super-Hot Mystery Babe,
11. Alaska Coastal Airlines,
VI. The Unnamed Line in the Distant North,
About the Author,
Also by Stuart Archer Cohen,

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This Is How It Really Sounds 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read it nonstop.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put it down but the ending was a bit anticlimatic