White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Several of my co-workers at the bookstore read and loved this book, so when the newly released paperback was chosen for our book club, I knew I had to read it. I didn't quite have the same reaction to it as they did, though I still think it's an important book with an important message.

Our narrator is Seth, a quiet, insignificant young man who's love of and skill with audio technology has landed him the role of best friend of Carter, who's blessed with incredible family wealth but does his best to pretend that isn't the case. Carter is obsessed with music, particularly very old blues records, and becomes a collector. The two start a studio and soon make a name for themselves replicating that old fashioned style and sound. On one of Seth's peregrinations around New York City, his mic picks up a haunting blues melody that Carter quickly becomes enthralled by. The wheels of this dark tale really start spinning when Carter demands Seth turn this melody into a track that sounds like a long-lost blues record and releases it on the internet. Shit immediately starts to hit the fan.

Carter is soon the victim of seemingly random violence and Seth, the nobody friend, is locked out of their apartment and music studio and left to fend for himself on the streets. Things do not go well for him. He loses track of time, as does our narrative, and about halfway through the book we start to jump back and forth between his story - as he drags Carter's beloved sister down to Mississippi to search for the singer he recorded in NYC - and that of a man we know as JumpJim. Their stories are parallel, and revolve around this unknown blues singer, Charlie Shaw. Ultimately this is a story about race, and the violence done to black men even as white Americans co-opt their music and culture, collecting it like museum pieces to be gawked at rather than respecting these men and their culture. Seth is a carrier, nothing more, and here's where I found the difficulty.

I have always had a really hard time reading about terrible things happening to people who don't deserve it. I don't really feel bad for Carter, or for his sister, because they're shitty people when you get down to it; at least Carter certainly is. But Seth is just a lost boy, with few convictions, and doesn't deserve the violence inflicted upon him as...atonement? revenge?...of someone else's misdeed. Or maybe that's the point, that Seth is dealing with the same kind of random, undeserved violence that black men (and women) have dealt with for hundreds of years. Or is that reading too much into it?

This is a perfect book club book, as there's so much to unpack and each reader probably comes away from it with something different. Even the simple act of writing this review has made me pick up on certain aspects I missed while reading it. There's no question Kunzru is a highly skilled writer with something very important to say. White Tears is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature about race in America, and though I had trouble with the violence it portrays, that violence is true to America's wretched history of race relations.

Buy it here!


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