An American Tune
By Barbara Shoup
Break Away Books, IU Press
An American Tune by Indiana author Barb Shoup is a work of art by a veteran author filled with linguistic ingenuity. The book spans five decades as the protagonist develops from a teenage girl, experiencing the visceral thrills of college life, into an anti-war radical hiding from authorities for an act of violence. Jane turns into Nora. An innocent transforms into a fugitive, a wife and a mother with a life known to no one, except the reader.
The title, An American Tune, recalls the Paul Simon classic from the album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. The novel resonates with musicality drifting through every chapter - a paean to a time and place recaptured in the poet's eye. The Sixties vivifies with quick, detailed strokes of artistry: "The batik throws on the couch, the psychedelic posters on the walls, the red silk scarves . . . draped over the cheap lampshades. The double bed behind the beaded curtain . . . the scent of marijuana lingering from the night before." Can you see it? smell it? do you remember . . . . This is a book marked for people who once were young.
The first part takes place in Bloomington, Ind. from 1965-1974 and is the more dynamic of the three sections. If you're familiar with the IU campus, you'll savor much of the setting. A scene from a bench in People's Park feels oh-so familiar: "Rowdy, full of themselves, they hopped and wheeled and backpedaled, ducking and reaching to bounce the little rainbow-colored bean bag off their tattooed ankles." Likewise, the environs of Bloomington spring to life in vivid detail: "beyond the outskirts . . . into the country, passing farmhouses with lights twinkling inside, a little roadside church, fields and copses, black ponds holding the morning moon." Exquisite.
For many readers the appeal of the novel will be the concept of the double life: romantic and enigmatic. Who hasn't fantasized about the mystique of being a fugitive on the run - of someone you aren't (and hopefully never will be). That is where the author takes us in the second segment of the book. Nora, nee Jane, is wife and mother living tranquilly in Northern Michigan when the past resurrects and brings the unresolved turmoil of the Sixties back to life.
The initial scene is placid: "The sun pouring in through the open kitchen window, catching the prisms dangling among the plants to cast rainbows on the wall. The white bowl of blueberries on the oak table, yellow butter on a blue and white dish. Waffles steaming, the smell of coffee." Can you taste it? Wisdom abounds: "'Be kind to your parents when they get weird. They can't help it"; as do sentiments shared by many of a certain age and standing: "You know . . . you've got to really fuck up big time to get as smart as I am now. So I hope you're listening."
As the main character's life, 30 years after the "incident," unfolds, the tension inherent in the book never quite comes to fruition - or at least not in the conventional way. For most of journey the reader wonders if the protagonist will be brought to justice and "outed" for her crime. What will be the consequence: Will she be prosecuted? Incarcerated? Turned into a national luminary? The comeuppance is unexpected as the tale transforms into a love story and a morality tale about the travails of being a parent.
Occasionally, An American Tune slips into melodrama and the dialogue thuds off the page like a red rubber ball. In the final analysis, however, it is the quality of the prosody that takes center stage and captures the eye. "Her bent arm resting in the open window to catch the breeze . . . The perfect curl of ice cream at the tip of those cones . . . and the pleasure of licking it off."