Danny Yzemski lives in fear. He’s a nerdy freshman, a magnet for bullies and tormentors at his Detroit high school, and by his own estimation he’s not athletic, popular, or cool; never once has he smoked weed or ditched a class. When classmates call him a narc, he doesn’t understand what they mean. His mom and dad live in fear, too — of a changing Detroit, of their neighborhood becoming less white. The riots of 1967 are behind them, but the memory is still fresh, a scar that will not fade. Racial tension and animosity pervade the air. Danny’s mother drinks and obsesses over the evening news; his father keeps the household together, tinkers in the basement, and takes his son out for an evening drive in a Pontiac Bonneville.
This is the backdrop for Beautiful Music, the elegiac fourth novel from Michael Zadoorian, who won critical acclaim for The Leisure Seeker. Zadoorian captures the inner and outer life of Danny Yzemski with perfect pitch. The novel unfolds in the year after Danny’s dad dies of a heart attack and his mother descends into an alcoholic fog. What saves Danny is music, the FM sounds coming from his radio late at night, Iggy Pop and Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd, the voices of Detroit deejays who play what they want to play. Rock and roll becomes Danny’s sanctuary from everything buffeting his young life, and he studies the genre the way an archeologist studies an ancient gravesite; knowledge of music gives him purpose and confidence, language, and the first stirrings of attitude. When Danny unwraps a new album, the reader experiences the feel and look of it, the smell of the liner, hears the hiss and pop when the needle first makes contact with vinyl.
I catch myself thinking about Danny. Beautiful Music is a novel that lingers.