Book Review: Lay Down Your Weary Tune
by W. B. Belcher
Other Press, 2016
“Eli Page had been strumming his guitar for the public for decades,” we’re told by Jack Wyeth, the narrator of W. B. Belcher’s debut novel Lay Down Your Weary Tune. Jack is thinking back on the night when he was in college working as a stagehand and met the famously hard-working bluesman:
Everyone had heard his voice. Hell, half of the guitar-slung student population – myself included – covered his songs in Nell’s Beans or the Black Sheep. Yet none of that noise could match the electricity and excitement that overtook the crowd, the theater, the whole damn campus during that live show. There was a sense, no matter how ridiculous it may seem now, that I was watching the most important and remarkable ninety minutes of music there ever was or ever would be. “The Passion of Saint Eli” – that’s the title of the review I wrote for the Collegian.
Unfortunately, Jack then continues gassing on about the transcendent genius of Eli’s music. “He shed light on universal fears, anxieties,” he tells us. “He spoke about being alive in an insane world, and he gathered all the pieces of the human entanglement with God and country and failed relations and mixed them with lust and longing, a whole spectrum of shared experiences.” It’s still early pages in the novel, so we can chalk it down to youthful naivete. Maybe he wrote that malarky about “the human entanglement with God and country” for the Collegian too.
Jack is so inspired by Eli Page’s music that he decides to become a musician himself – unwisely, as his nonexistent subsequent career proves. Years later, when he’s offered a freelance job ghost-writing Page’s memoirs, he accepts the assignment, albeit with misgivings arising from the fact that Page stopped touring five years earlier and holed up in the bleak little down of Galesville, Maine (to distinguish it from the beautiful, wonderful little town of Galesville, Illinois).
Nevertheless, a job is a job, and besides, Jack is curious about what’s become of his former hero. And thanks to Belcher’s easygoing, straightforward narrative style, we readers are curious too. Jack travels to the back country and finds Page’s rundown house, finds Page himself looking decidedly seedy, and then the problems start. Mainly, Page starts – you guessed it – gassing on about his plight:
“I tried once to make a go of it,” he said when he caught me staring at him. “But I fucked it up. I made bad decisions. A lotta bad decisions.” He scratched his beard. “I wish I could go back and fix it all, but I can’t. There’s nothin’ I can do about it now except live with the consequences.”
“Everybody wants a piece,” he whines on, even though we don’t really want a piece anymore. “They watch me, they wait for me to crack, they run through the yard, they stand at the window. They all want a piece.”
Anyway … While he’s poking around in Galesville and collecting suspicious stares from the locals, he runs across that stock-in-trade of all fictional small towns, the pretty, plucky local artist girl-named-Jenny, who alerts Jack to the fact that the aforementioned suspicious locals are muttering that Eli Page himself might be responsible for a string of odd local happenings. (By statute, the locals of all small fictional towns must mutter; if they’re really upset, they’re then required to convene a town meeting at which a Shopkeeper With Something To Hide will get up and say, “I just don’t trust this outsider. What do we really know about him anyhow?”) Jack is further intrigued despite himself, both by Page’s possible involvement and by the alluringly standoffish Jenny:
“I’m not gonna get involved,” she said, turning away.
“Okay, I get it,” I said. “But the truth is he isn’t always of a clear mind these days. Maybe you could help me fill the gaps.”
“Sorry. I wish I could help, but you’ve got the wrong person.”
Since no one in the history of the world has ever said “I”m not gonna get involved” without then getting involved, and since the only kind of person in the history of the world who ever says “you’ve got the wrong person” is the exact right person, readers don’t have to guess how things are going to play out.
In other words, Lay Down Your Weary Tune reads very much like a first novel. Belcher has done some research into the blues, and he’s got obvious skills at both dialogue and pace, but he never trusts his audience enough not to spell things out for them, and he never trusts his own skills enough to let them earn the spotlight. If Jack Wyeth had learned exactly those skills from Eli Page back in college, his musical career might have turned out very different. Luckily for Belcher, the show goes on.