Mitch Albom was a musician before he was a writer. When his dreams of rock’n’roll stardom seemed destined to not come true, he switched to journalism. Even as he found success with “Tuesdays with Morrie” and a series of well-received novels, he continued to seek musical outlets by becoming a member of Rock Bottom Remainders (a part-time rock band of authors including Dave Barry, Stephen King and Amy Tan) and by writing “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”.
The narrator of “Strings” is Music. If this idea sounds a little weighty, it’s because it is. Albom, however, manages to make Music an engaging storyteller. Also helping is that Music paces its story well by allowing other characters – some real (Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Stanley) and others fictitious but based on archetypes (female Brill Building songwriter; pop music historian; Jewish manager) to share reminiscences of Frankie Presto, a virtuoso guitarist and singer whose death and memorial service frame the novel. Thus, while Music provides the ongoing thread of the story, the reader is given different perspectives about Presto by those who knew him at different stages of his life: drifting teenager, rising idol, fading star, disillusioned journeyman, reclusive but legendary teacher.
At first glance, “Strings” follows the familiar story line of the young, hungry artist who is lured by fame and fortune and loses their way. At one point, Music says, “I have been on earth since mankind’s inception and have produced sounds…that involve awakening, love, pain and the four seasons. But in my countless creations, there has never been a sound for ‘career.’ Why do you let it affect me so?” Despite this, Albom doesn’t necessarily want us to hate the music business and what it did to Frankie Presto. He understands that people lose their way and have to find themselves: Frankie makes mistakes and unlike some, he is fortunate enough to live to learn from them. A broad brush interpretation of “Strings” might conclude that with music, as with anything, one must take the bad (the business side) with the good (the art).
Indeed, taking the bad with the good sums up the reader’s experience with “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” Despite a few hard-to-believe plot twists that don’t add much to the story, an excess of one-sentence paragraphs and some forced music-related similes (is it really necessary for smoke from a gun to take “the shape of a music rest?” or to refer to Frankie Presto’s lifetime love affair with the free-spirited British girl Aurora as a “symphony”?) Albom’s obvious love of music of all genres keeps the pages turning. He pays tribute to classical guitarists Francisco Tarrega and Andres Segovia to Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Elvis, Lyle Lovett, Ingrid Michaelson and almost everyone in between.
A common critique of this book is that one has to be a musician to enjoy it. To that, all I can say is that the book was given to me by a non-musician friend and came highly recommended. If you have no interest in music, this book is not for you, but even those who have never plodded through hours of scales and arpeggios or broken down a P.A. system in a dive bar at two in the morning will be able to enjoy and relate to much of the story.