This Is How It Really Sounds
By Stuart Archer Cohen; St. Martin's Press; 2015; 368 pages; $25.99 and e-book
In this wide-ranging, beautifully written novel by Juneau's Stuart Archer Cohen, three men share the name Peter Harrington. We first meet "Harry" Harrington, an extreme skier from Alaska. Pete Harrington, meanwhile, lives the life of a washed-up rock musician in Los Angeles. And Peter Harrington, a "bankster" who essentially stole hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, has fled to Shanghai.
The story takes us to a variety of exotic locations in almost-but-not-quite disorienting leaps through time, space, and points of view. In middle life, the three men with the same name all face their obsessions for fortune, fame and adrenaline highs. The big, shared question is the age-old one about how to live a meaningful life. Not that there's anything dull about these three; each is fascinatingly troubled in his own way.
Take Harry, for example. In the first pages we learn: "In those days Harry didn't recognize that the price of admission to the life he wanted was surrendering his tickets to all the other lives he might have had.... How do you explain about rock and snow and air and speed and having serious pain, or death, right at your elbow, and you don't even know exactly why you do it? He could talk about snow with another skier for hours: corn snow, blower pow, crust, graupel, mashed potatoes, boilerplate, surface hoar, wind pack, sastrugi — a patchwork of constantly changing surfaces all over the mountain, and every change affecting your speed, your ability to turn away from a cliff edge."
The lives of the three intersect, but not — except in one epic, central-to-the-drama encounter — in ways you might expect.
Be prepared for a wild ride, with many diversions and side-stories. While "This Is How It Really Sounds" might at first glance seem to fall into a manly thriller or adventure genre, there's nothing predictable here. For readers with a little patience, Cohen delivers a smart, highly original story, with an ending that will surprise and puzzle in the best of ways.
At its heart, this is a character-driven novel that takes readers deep into the lives of the three main and several secondary characters. It's a tribute to the author's skills that while none of the Harringtons are particularly likeable — the corrupt, unrepentant Peter is especially repugnant — all are so complex and interesting that before long readers will be thoroughly, empathetically entwined.
And when the storyline leaves these three behind to follow minor characters for dozens of pages at a time, a reader who might normally lose patience with such digressions instead falls into those other lives, even — or especially — when wondering how it all fits together.
Because it does fit together. If this novel takes us on a great circling through time and space, it's true to life itself. In life, history reverberates, the world grows smaller, mysteries abound, and everything ultimately connects. While the particulars explored here — global commerce, financial swindling, pop culture, extreme sports — belong specifically to the 21st century, the questions being asked are as old and universal as Greek tragedies. What control do we have over our identities? What responsibilities do we have to ourselves and one another? Above all, what makes a meaningful life and how do we find it?
Plenty of 'noise'
Recurring themes and imagery surface again and again. Various characters repeatedly approach gardens and houses that seem to offer ideals of home and family. There's also that "how it really sounds." This includes a reference to piano music overheard long ago, and to the clattering and clinking in a restaurant where Peter the bankster is trying to understand something about alternative lives. There's also plenty of "noise," both the literal and metaphorical kind.
This is Cohen's fourth novel, following "Invisible World," "17 Stone Angels" and "The Army of the Republic," all of which draw upon his extensive travel experience. (He imports silks and wools from Asia and South America and owns a Juneau retail store named Invisible World Trading Company.) According to his promotional materials, he also has considerable experience with martial arts and snowboarding, both of which are featured in "This Is How It Really Sounds."
For 300 pages, Harry the skier is nearly missing from the novel he shares with the other two Harringtons. When we find him again, it's in passages Alaskans will surely love, in the mountains above Juneau. Here, too, we find some of Cohen's most luminous writing: "The snow was beautiful today. He could pick it up in his hand and blow on it, and it would scatter like sparks. Without effort, he was skiing it already, here among the dark trees, on a steep slope, floating downward through the endless white field below him, dreamlike and timeless."
And here again, in Juneau at the end, we find anew the themes of home and family, "the world deep." It gives away nothing to tell this, because nothing, by then, is what you might have anticipated.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."