Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank; Gringos

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier
Thad Carhart (2001, Random House)

Charles Portis (copyright 1991, published 2000, The Overlook Press)

In The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Thad Carhart takes us inside a culture where all business arises out of relationships. The eponymous shop is so discreet that the owner doesn't even admit to having pianos for sale, though his younger assistant lets on that if one had the proper references, things might be different. And behold, when Carhart says the magic word and wins admission to the back room, it's a sky-lit space a good deal larger than the shop out front, with forty or fifty pianos, of many makes, models, and vintages, in various states of completeness and repair. Of course. But one must have an introduction.
And so on through choosing and buying a piano to take home, having it delivered and tuned, and finding a teacher. Carhart has memories of teachers he loved, and of his recital nightmares from another teacher's studio, and he takes us to some rather magnificent master classes. Likewise, he introduces us to the basic steel, wood, and strings that pianos have in common; and we get to see individual instruments disassembled, put back together, and played, in all their unique glory. Carhart's curiosity, love of music, and brilliantly clear descriptions make this a rare and delightful book.

Thad Carhart is leading an enviably carefree life in a foreign country; the fictional narrator of Gringos, by Charles Portis, has to hustle a little more. Jimmy Burns puts together a living hauling things to people, and helping lost people get found; he's trying to stay out of the illegal antiquities trade, though opportunities for backsliding abound. We meet him on Christmas day, waking up at home in the Yucatan. "Once again there had been no scramble among the hostesses of Merida to see who could get me for Christmas dinner." But Burns is a man of resource, if not wealth; no sooner does he climb in his truck, then a friend flags him down and invites him for a feed, and he's off--running errands, doing favors, hanging out in bars, keeping up a running commentary on the characters around him. They are some characters, too--all kinds of reasons for coming to Mexico, all kinds of ways of staying there, and they all know each other's business, even if what they know isn't true.

These are the two most interesting books I've read this month, but at first they seemed so different that I wasn't sure it made sense to review them together. Most obviously, Carhart's book is non-fiction, of a particularly contemplative and personal sort; the Portis novel is boisterous and wide-ranging, and its narrator needs his friends to help him see himself. The common theme, in the end, has to do with the American narrators accommodating to the business and social mores of a foreign culture--especially as these turn out to be inseparable. They give us a lens by which to see community as the very business of life.

Email post, January 2006

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