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that tune clutches my heart

13 december 2008

Paul Headrick's new novel That Tune Clutches My Heart is published by Canada's Gaspereau Press, partly because its author lives in, and writes about, Vancouver, but partly too because only a Canadian publisher would have the good sense to take it on. That Tune is an adult novel about adolescence, in a tradition that recalls Henry James's Awkward Age, those years when a young person learns that her elders are still young people at their core. An American publisher would stamp such a novel "Young Adult" from the moment it came over the transom. One can see an American acquisitions editor wailing "there's no sexual abuse! no temperance-novel warnings against drugs! no fiery drunken car crashes! no vampires!" – and shipping the manuscript right back north of the border. Fortunately, there is at least one NAFTA nation where publishers value nuance. That Tune Clutches My Heart subtly conveys the texture of a 1940s girlhood. It performs a serious critique of the aesthetics of popular music, while it's at it.

Narrator May Sutherland has a huge high-school problem. It is 1948-49, and her Vancouver high school is torn apart by a factional dispute. Crosby or Sinatra? Ethereal crooner or earthy growler? May herself couldn't care less. She learns to dislike them both, and in the course of That Tune Clutches My Heart she develops a taste for Pablo Casals's rendition of the Bach cello suites.

For May, words get in the way. Her test case for the Crosby/Sinatra dispute is Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." She plays the rival singers' recordings of the tune over and over again on her parents' console. But she cannot get around the basic insincerity of a delivered lyric:

Neither singer believes in the lyrics, nor is trying to convince me, the listener, that he believes. Each sings "what moments divine, what rapture serene," but there isn't any rapture in the case at all. (28)

But there are all kinds of insincerity. Bing Crosby, observes May, "believes that the things he sings of do not actually exist" (35). He can almost be forgiven for not really feeling that that tune clutches his heart, because he believes hearts to be essentially unclutchable. By contrast, Sinatra is all about clutching, but he (or, at least, his performing persona) doesn't believe in the rapturous scenario at hand.

The words of the song suggest that the singer has one great love, which he can never get over. What the song as Frank Sinatra sings it says, however, is very different. I'm convinced he means that he can get over it. The whole point is that he can experience this "rapture" again and again. (49)

I'm inclined to blame it on Cole Porter. "Begin the Beguine" is an intriguing standard for Headrick's purposes here. Better known in instrumental versions than those by vocalists, "Beguine" has a lyric that goes meta right from the start. The words of the song tell of a love/hate relationship with a song that we never get to hear at first hand. The voice of the singer always seems to protest too much, insisting that he doesn't want to hear the song that he really, desperately, wants to hear – or perhaps wants to make us believe that he wants to hear, though affecting an indifference either calculated (Sinatra) or real (Crosby). One suspects a high-literary seductive lyric set-up, of a sort that has been practiced on listeners since the troubadors. No wonder young May distrusts these raptures serene.

May never really sorts out the Sinatra/Crosby dispute, but with it as backdrop, she watches the marriage of her academic parents reach a new level after some fits and starts. She learns (by copying the movies, as so many of us have) to start a love relationship. She loses friends to both sides of the pop-music debate, but finds new ones. She grows up, and her life is enriched by music without surrendering to the clichés of lyric. We should all have been so lucky.

Headrick, Paul. That Tune Clutches My Heart. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau, 2008.