We can never fully understand the hold some people have on us — the way some figures loom large in memory and some take on a certain magnetism in the present. Dylan Hicks’ debut novel, Boarded Windows, is a tango of sorts, both intellectual and emotional, between a nameless narrator and his shadowy father-figure: a musician and self-proclaimed aesthete, Wade Salem. Wade’s hold on the narrator is unrelenting, and is much a symptom of the past as the present.
Boarded Windows‘ narrator is an orphan. The story he tells is a kind of detective story of his own past — his provenance — of which Wade Salem holds a clue. He tells his story from the present, with a certain cool remove and almost oppressive fixation on detail (a form-follows-function move on Hicks’ part that echoes Lydia Davis’ The End of the Story), but the narrative flits back-and-forth between 1970s North Dakota and the Minneapolis of the ’90s.
The narrator of Boarded Windows never knew his biological father or, we come to learn, his mother. He was raised by a bohemian adoptive mother in the fictitious town of Enswell, North Dakota (modeled on Minot). When the narrator is a child, his mother takes up with the handsome, charismatic Wade Salem. He becomes a step-dad of sorts to the narrator, but only for show. Nonetheless, it’s the closest thing he’s had to a father, and Wade — a drug dealer, musician, and con-man — leaves a deep impression on the young boy. But Wade’s is imprint on the narrator is intensified by his sudden and swift departure.
When a fading outlaw country singer, Bowling Greene, plays an arena show in Enswell, Wade boards his tour bus and heads into the sunset. Packaged with the book is a free download of Dylan Hicks’ new album, Sings Bowling Green. It’s a meta-fictive move in which Hicks covers, and takes liberties with, Greene’s greatest hits — some of which are referenced in the book — much to the chagrin of Greene’s widow. It’s a fun companion to the book, but that’s all. Though it creates the interesting problem of Hicks-as-character in his own fabricated universe, it doesn’t add anything to the book beyond an additional sensory layer. I suspect Hicks did it more for fun than for any sort of post-modern exercise, and that’s fine — when the writer/musician has fun, the reader/listener often does, too.
Fast forward to the 1990s: the narrator is a manager at a fading chain record store in Minneapolis when Wade comes to visit on his way out of the country. It’s 1991, the year of the great Halloween blizzard, and Wade’s visit sparks not only tender (in both respects of the word) feelings for the narrator, but a game of aesthetic and intellectual one-upmanship that’s as fun to read as it is dizzying. (Hicks mixes references to made-up artists, bands, records, and places in with real ones so adeptly, you’ll feel hilariously inadequate.) It’s a game that doesn’t end well — our narrator is left with knowledge he could have done without, and relationships irreparably changed.
Evident in Hicks’ writing is a sense of inevitability that would’ve garnered a thumbs-up from Flannery O’Connor. The sirens of unavoidable heartbreak sound throughout this book, not quite drowned out by all the music and erudite chatter, and you can’t help but want to stick around to watch the storm roll in.
— Jacquie Fuller, Host
Dylan Hicks will also be featured on this week’s episode of The Current Presents, another installment of “Words and Music” with host Jacquie Fuller.