Songs By Honeybird Presents The Soundtrack To A Breakup

Uncle Green Drummer Peter McDade Spins Another Compelling Tale

by Jason Warburg

petermcdade-songsbyhoneybird_400 We all live inside a frame of reference, a body of perceptions and beliefs about how the world works and what our place in it looks like. The moments when that frame is rocked, even splintered, are among the most important along our life’s path; how we react to them determines whether we will continue stubbornly being the person we are today, or adapt and grow.

By turns absorbing, insightful, lyrical and laugh-out-loud funny, Songs by Honeybird (Wampus, March 29) is a story that, like its author Peter McDade—son of the South, rock drummer, history professor—contains multitudes.

On the surface the narrative arc of McDade’s second novel might appear simple enough. Opening in the aftermath of a breakup between Georgia State PhD student Ben and undergrad Nina, the story traces their lives through the ensuing months as they sift through the emotional rubble and find their way forward in life again. Key moments from the relationship they’ve just ended are revealed in an intermittent series of flashbacks, with the focus squarely on what each is experiencing in the now (an approach that’s enhanced by McDade’s choice to render the main flow of the story in the present tense).

Within a couple of dozen pages, though, we learn the unusual trigger for the breakup: as they’re on the verge of moving in together, Nina impulsively reveals to Ben that her dog Sid talks to her. Out loud, in English, which Sid knows because, well, you see, he’s not just a talking dog, he’s a traveling soul who has been reincarnated so many times in so many different bodies that he’s lost track.

It’s a lot, right?

The beauty of McDade’s work here, though, is that within the confines of this story you quickly accept the reality of Sid. He is a remarkable creation, a presence both infinitely wise and blind to his own failings, and his dialogues with Nina—the only person he speaks to—offer bursts of penetrating and witty commentary (“Love is not what you say. Love is what you do”) while delivering a crash course in Buddhist philosophy (“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”), in between demands to be walked and crotchety complaints about the physical limitations of “this body.”

Fascinating as he is, though, Sid is a supporting character in a novel that is very much about the parallel journeys of Ben and Nina. Over the course of the story, told in chapters alternating between their points of view, we get to know both characters intimately. Nina is just enough younger than Ben that she’s still finding herself, figuring out her place in the world and what she really wants. Meanwhile Ben is just enough older to believe that he has somewhat of a handle on things, and be thoroughly wrong.

Beyond exploring the aftermath of their breakup, Songs by Honeybird also delves deeply into two distinct mysteries haunting its main characters. For Nina it’s the unanswered questions surrounding her father’s death in an auto accident when she was four. For Ben it’s the complex history of the obscure Southern Rock band—the titular Honeybird—about which he’s chosen to write his PhD dissertation.

While both mysteries intrigue, the latter offers especially rich soil for exploring both the dream and the reality of the so-called New South. Teenaged Harlan Honeybird, son of a white supremacist power-broker, starts a band in late 1960s Georgia with his younger sister Darleen and his best friend Nate—the Black grandson of his racist father’s hired help. The band achieves only modest success in its lifespan—which ends in a fire that kills two of the band’s three members—but becomes one of those posthumous semi-obscure legends that rock historians love to dig into.

Ben sees Honeybird as ahead-of-their-time trail blazers, a Southern band that’s fully integrated in both race and gender, and the songs they delivered in their brief career as prescient anthems for the New South still being born today. As his research progresses, though, revelation follows revelation until Ben finally understands that his own frame of reference has blinded him to the reality of the band. What he had idealized in his mind is in fact something very different, that confronts him with how much he still has to learn.

The thing about a story like this, which is so much about the loneliness of human existence, and so rich with unpretentious yet incisive philosophizing, and so witty in its skewering of all sorts of things that deserve skewering, is that as a reader you begin to crave a rewarding payoff. You want a moment at the end where all these threads and ideas and characters collide in a cacophony of, if not resolution, then at least celebration of what they have come to signify for the reader. As it became clear in the later going that McDade had every intention of delivering on this promise, I found myself grinning ear to ear. (“Yeah, dude. Do it. Go there. Yeah!”)

McDade’s story also deftly navigates family dynamics, notably with Nina’s prickly yet loving relationship with her mother and Ben’s simmering rivalry with his indie-musician brother Dan. The latter makes for some especially trenchant and amusing dialogue as McDade sets two elements of his real-life persona (scrapping indie musician and cerebral history professor) against one another, each showering the other with verbal spitwads.

As a writer of “musical fiction” (stories centered around and/or heavily infused with music), McDade has a distinct advantage: he lived the band life as drummer for Uncle Green, and remains active on the scene, with the result that Songs by Honeybird, like his previous novel The Weight of Sound, arrives complete with a soundtrack of original songs referenced in the book, with lyrics by McDade and music and performances by a supporting cast of friends. For a reader like me it’s heaven, a beautifully executed supplement that further enhances the story’s three-dimensionality and resonance.

Songs by Honeybird is ultimately a story about finding closure and enlightenment, a sort of primer on learning from one’s mistakes. It’s a story about illusions both external and internal, and what happens when we can or can’t overcome them and discover the truth they obscure. There is a distinct parallel between Sid’s consciousness of having been reincarnated many times and Nina and Ben’s journeys toward becoming more enlightened versions of themselves. For all his self-deceptions, Ben realizes early on that “…he needs to finish studying someone else’s past so he can get on with his own future.”

Songs by Honeybird is a captivating ride, rich with gentle but incisive wisdom and a sharply rendered cast of characters whose flawed humanity shimmers and shines. It earns the highest of compliments for a novel: finishing it left me feeling melancholy about being forced to depart the world McDade has created.

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