published Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Rock star's life imagined

"Stone Arabia" by Dana Spiotta. Scribner. 256 pages. $24.

By Adera Causey

Recently, we have witnessed an abundance of '70s and '80s rocker reunion tours providing a retro mood. This has captured not only the music industry but also the book industry as evidenced by veritable love letters to vintage rock found in standout novels such as "A Visit from the Goon Squad," "Ten Thousand Saints" and "Juliet Naked." Now we welcome another soulful entry to this remix with Dana Spiotta's "Stone Arabia."

Perhaps the most personal of the recent batch of rock dramas, Spiotta's story feels more like an intimate dive bar show of a nearly forgotten rocker than a sold-out stadium extravaganza. For this is the story of just one never-known rocker, Nik Worth, whose fame may be more imagined than real but whose versatility and skill eclipses many of those who are household names.

Denise Kranis, Nik's adoring kid sister, narrates the tale, or rather co-narrates it with Nik's fabricated narrative. Ultimately, this is not just Denise's actual recollection facing off with Nik's embellished one but rather harmony of the two that throws truth into question.

Nik's life reads like that of many other would-be garage band front men. He has the musician father who instilled a love of guitar in the young man just before abandoning the family, the hard-working mother of the late-shift drudge set who leaves her children to essentially raise themselves and the tagalong sister Denise who will follow her beloved brother to the verge of teen rebellion.

And, of course there is the music, always the music. Music, however, seems to arrive with drama as business is at odds with the purity of sound, something Nik discovers amid the fallout of slimy music executive deals compounded by fickle radio audience tastes.

His prime missed before it had a chance to begin, Nik plunges into depressive solitude where he finds company in a world of musical stardom uncomplicated by real world pressure. In his makeshift basement studio he creates song after song and with each a body of chronicles that reflect the mind of a mad genius.

To the rest of the world he is an alcoholic bartender on disability. But to Nik and his family of fans, he is the ultimate rock star. For Nik's story has been meticulously recorded in The Chronicles, comprised of multiple volumes of scrapbooks filled with fictitious fanzines, release notes and critical reviews -- some that praise and others that call out deficiencies in his sound. These records exist only in Nik's scrapbooks for each has been written by Nik for Nik alone, the purity of music preserved in the mind of the only one who truly understands it.

But the albums are real and plentiful. From limited-edition records with meticulously designed covers to bootleg cuts with scribbled cases, each song tells a story, showcasing an artist's diversity and skill in skipping genres moods and sounds.

Denise as co-narrator obsesses over defining the truth while also admiring her brother's gift for creating his own narrative so much that she calls into question her own rendition of Nik's life. Her daughter Ada, a lesser character who is the least fleshed out of the story, offers no greater reliability as a young indy filmmaker attempting to create her first great work of art in a rockumentary about the uncle she idolizes too much to truly represent.

Denise's narrative is further undermined by her own demons -- a scarred veteran of L.A. hardship, a string of failed or semi-realized romances, a barely sufficient passionless job and the pure emotional exhaustion in the dual dependencies of the insolvent Nik and her mother whose dementia is robbing the matriarch of any sense of story or memory.

Frustrated by her own failings, Denise loses herself in the dizzying mass of CNN sound bites, fixating on tabloid scandals and haunted by glamour photos the murdered wife of a one time teen heartthrob, by the perpetually scrolling snapshots of the soldiers accused of torturing Guantanomo prisoners and the awkward stuttered interviews given by an Amish woman whose daughter recently was abducted. Denise escapes behind stories that offer her a place to hide her anxieties.

The grand finale here is fittingly never located under the kleig light but in the dim reality of personal memory. And it is here that the musical and literary talents are destined to remain, a private stage offered up by a "Stone Arabia."

Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

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