I am the type of person who has a soundtrack playing in his head for just about every occasion. I associate specific pieces of music with signature moments of my life. Schubert’s Du Bist Die Ruh was the song my wife and I chose for the interlude of our wedding ceremony. Bach’s English Suite No. 1 was spinning inside our cheap Sony CD player when our son was born. I remember our son at two or three, dancing in the living room as soon as he heard the high opening note of the bassoon from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the dissonant blast that opens his favorite of Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet. I wash dishes while humming Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax in Si Tu Vois Ma Mère or Art Blakey’s Moanin’ or Schumann’s heartbreaking Piano Quintet in E flat. And although my wife probably wishes I wouldn’t, or would do so less often, I’ve been known to launch into songs from Gilbert and Sullivan at the slightest provocation, such as an unsuspecting visitor’s innocent use of the word pirate.
A Good American, Alex George’s charming, sweet-natured US début novel, understands the power of music. In telling the saga of the Meisenheimer family, from Frederick and Jette’s immigration to Missouri in the early 1900s to their grandchildren’s travails in the present day, George often invokes music as a leitmotif to the proceedings, so often, in fact, that it becomes one of the novel’s central characters.
Many of the book’s more dramatic scenes incorporate music into the storyline. A household filled with song is silenced by the death of musical parents. A gifted singer is anguished by his inability to perform in public, or to serenade the woman he loves. The narrator and his brothers form a quartet when they are boys and continue singing together well into adulthood, for celebratory as well as solemn events. The restaurant the family runs is a home for jazz musicians in the part of the country that, along with New Orleans, would become synonymous with jazz.
The novel is a showcase not just for George’s obvious passion for music—in a lovely phrase, he refers to the blues as “the cracked holler of remorse”—but for his encyclopedic knowledge of it. Early in the narrative, we see Buddy Bolden wailing on his cornet. Later, a young Missouri pianist named Truman plays an aria from The Barber of Seville while stationed in Paris during World War One, thirty years before his ascension to the presidency. The book abounds with knowing references to jazz and opera. A Good American is as much a celebration of music, mostly American music, as it is a saga of a family.
Upon his arrival in the United States, the young Frederick Meisenheimer receives advice that becomes another of the novel’s leitmotifs: the one goal he should strive to achieve is to become the novel’s title. Through Meisenheimer’s story, George, a British lawyer now living in Missouri, reminds us that one of the proudest parts of America’s heritage in the 20th century is its music, the syncopations and polyrhythms—the swing—that are as much a part of the nation’s character as its industry and individualism. There have been many good Americans, but music, George suggests, is one of the best Americans of all.