Friday, May 4, 2012

A Piano in the Pyrenees

A Piano in the Pyrenees
By Tony Hawks

Feeling a little low today. I don't much get affected by celebrity death but the recent passing of Levon Helm and, then, Adam Yauch today. Feel like a sizable portion of my childhood and adulthood have been robbed of me.

Anyway, this blog isn't about music. It's about books, so I'll man up and get on with it.

I like everything about Tony Hawks. Call him a literary guilty pleasure (if such a thing exists). I like his brand of dry British wit. I like the fact that I could probably sit next to him at a pub, have a beer with him and feel like I've known him my entire life. I like the fact that he saves, and often replies to, emails sent to him by mistake by people who think he is skateboarding icon, Tony Hawk, singular. And I especially like his books. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but I love his sort of manly (but not quite juvenile) humor.

I first discovered Hawks via a friend, whose non-book blog can be found here. I was drawn by the way in which he find adventure from the most mundane of places: the local pub. For those not in the know, Tony Hawks is an interesting guy. From what I'm lead to understand, Hawks, like so many British men, spends a lot of time in the pub with his buddies. He's not an alcoholic, but he seems to like his ale. And his buddies. After a few pints, things tend to get competitive with his buddies and outlandish bets are made. But unlike your standard, run-of-the-mill "I bet you won't go hit on that chick at the bar" sort of stuff, Hawks and his pals take it a bit farther and Hawks has forged a career as a niche travel writer as a result.

The first of these bets was a bizarre dare that escalated into something sublime. Hawks's bet that he could hitchhike around the island of Ireland with a fairly large fridge in tow. The subsequent book that followed the completion of the adventure was aptly titled: Around Ireland With a Fridge. His second book, One Hit Wonderland, follows Hawks as he attempts to produce a number one hit somewhere (anywhere) in the world. Hilarity also ensues. My favorite Hawks book is Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, an absurd adventure that find Hawks trying to track down and beat each member of the Moldovan national soccer team in a game of tennis. As you can see, Tony Hawks is indeed an interesting guy.

What each of these books had going for them was an interesting central premise. A gimmick of sorts that provides structure and form around Hawks's cheeky wit. The gimmick is strong enough to pull the reader in and Hawks's humor and style is strong enough to carry the gimmick when it gets stale. It is a wonderful symbiotic writing style and the cornerstone to Tony Hawks's success as a writer (as far as I was concerned, that is). With all due respect to evolution as a writer, why mess with success, right?

Well he went ahead and did just that.

And that's what troubled me so much about A Piano in the Pyrenees (not his latest, mind you, but the latest of his that I have read). It has loads of charm and humor of the Tony Hawks variety and i still enjoyed his humility and self-deprecation in dealing with living in a foreign country (something I can identify with) and struggling with a language barrier (ditto). But  the fundamental problem is that A Piano in the Pyrenees lacks the gimmick that made his previous books so irresistible. I know a lot of people liked this book, and I really wanted to as well. But I didn't. I went into this book expecting what I have come to expect from Tony Hawks, so perhaps it's my fault. Perhaps I have not allowed Hawks to mature and evolve as a travel writer, but I just couldn't get on board with this one.

As far as I can tell, the book is about buying a house in the French Pyrenees on impulse (the first and one one he sees), deciding to move his piano there so that he can finally master it, his adventures in moving from London to France, getting talked into buying and self-installing a swimming pool and his culturally hilarious antics in trying to ingratiate himself with the locals. He also complains a lot about being single in his early 40s. That's it. No bet, no gimmick, no slightly juvenile behavior. It all seemed so mature and grown up. I felt lost with Tony sans gimmick. What are doing here together, Tony? Are we going to get up to no good or are we just going to sit in your living room staring out at the mountains while we discuss the hilarious differences between the French and the English? Cause if there's no fun gimmick, do you mind if I just head off to bed? Maybe we can get up to no good tomorrow.

Aside from the lack of gimmick, this book failed to grab me for a couple of other reasons. First, what I enjoyed about his previous books was that Hawks attempts to win the sorts of bets we might make (but really, actually don't make) with your friends. There was a blue-class hilarity manifest in the narrative that spoke to everyman. I could hitchhike around Ireland with a fridge if I wanted. Sure, it would require a plane ticket to Dublin, but not much else and I'd have a ball doing it. And if I don't I can fantasize about what sorts of nonsense I'd get up to if I did. His adventures always dwelt in the realm of possibility for everyone. Not so with A Piano in the Pyrenees.

While I don't want to speak for everyman, I can't imagine many of Hawks's usual readers are in a position to simply buy a house in the French Pyrenees on impulse, never mind a swimming pool and all those flights back and forth to London. It's sort of like Pink Floyd expecting their fans to understand their struggles with fame and fortune on their 1979 album The Wall. Sure, the album is decent enough but it always seems to reek of self-indulgence and naval-gazing. It's difficult to empathize with Hawks's trials and tribulations when the costs mount into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

Which leads me to the second reason I didn't wholly fall in love with this book. It seemed to lack a conclusion. The swimming pool never does get finished, he never really gets around to practicing the piano and his quest for love is never resolved. Now, I know that this is non-fiction and you can't force your life to wrap itself up into neat little conclusions, but these narratives looked to be well on their way to some sort of resolution when the book abruptly ends.

This book seems to have been hastily written. It is an uneven, ramshackle piece of work that meanders in all sorts of directions (again, without a gimmick Hawks is a boat lost in the night). I'm not Tony Hawks's economic advisor and I don't pretend to have any insight into his personal finances nor am I trying to point a shameful finger (we all gonna do what we all gonna do) but I got the distinct impression that this book was rushed along for financial reasons.

Swimming pools don't build themselves, you know.

Shout Out

I'm always quick to check out what Jonathan is reading over at I Read A Book Once. I dig the fact that his goal is to get blurbed on the back of someone's book and he might just like zombies as much as me. That's reason enough!


Anonymous said...

Hitch hiking with a fridge? God!!! I so need to check out this guy. Thanks from letting me know.... :-)

bookspersonally said...

Great review - he's new to me & sounds like a whole lot of fun (pubs! ale! fridges! Ireland!), perhaps though staying w/ his earlier books.

Lisa said...

True enough, life doesn't always wrap itself up in neat packages. But if you're going to write about a part of your life, usually there is at least a conclusion to the stories you choose to share.

Losing Levon Helm was such a lose to music. Did you happen to catch the story on CBS Sunday Mornings (I think that was where I saw it) about Helm's barn in NY that had become kind of a shrine for music fans to travel to because of the great talent that came there to play with him?

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

You're not just whistling dixie--it's been a rough couple of days for music. It's understandable to be bummed for a while. As for the Hawks book, I'm sorry that didn't work out so well. But hey, on the plus side, you taught us all about a great author, so it wasn't all for naught.

And thank you so much for the shoutout! You're the best. And everything you said about me, ditto right back at you. I'm always eager to see your next review, and you always read some interesting stuff.

Question for you though. I saw you mention before that you were running out of reading material. Have you thought about getting ebooks through Netgalley? They're only in ebook format, and the kindle formatting is often hosed up, but they're readable and they're free in exchange for a review (which you'll do anyway). And if you're really hard up, I could send you some ebooks that I got for free. Not review copies, mind you (can't share those), but they could prove useful to you. Let me know.

Ryan said...

Alone: Yes check him out. He's great!

Bookspersonally: I recommend starting with Around Ireland With a Fridge.

Lisa: I think you are talking about his Midnight Rambles series and a precursor to the House Concert phenomenon (something I support and host, often). Losing Levon was a read wound to music.

Jonathan: I'll check out Netgalley. That might be a cool way to get new books. I might, someday hold you to your offer of sending stuff but at the moment I kinda like the lack of books. It forces me to get inventive and pushes me to read books I wouldn't necessarily read. But if things get desperate (as they did last year when I was forced to read a string of predictable YA fiction) I will call in the red alert. Cheers!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Yes, and there are always the classics that await, happily copyright-free and downloadable from any computer!

Ryan said...

That is absolutely true, Deb. I should take advantage of that more often.

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