Kern tells the story of country music through the eyes of an unlikely producer in this debut novel.
In 1927, 15-year-old Mickey Derow is just looking for an escape when he jumps into an idling Cadillac in New York City. He’s just stolen a salesman’s case of ribbons and is running from the cops, but the men in the Cadillac mistake him for a young recording expert they’re expecting and take him along on their journey to Tennessee. As Mickey puts it, “What I’d got involved in, turned out, was a hunt for singing hillbillies.” In Bristol, Tennessee, the hapless Mickey helps (and hinders) his new employers’ efforts to record amateur musicians for the Victor record company. The talent includes future luminaries like Jimmie Rodgers and Maybelle Carter. The singer who really steals Mickey’s heart, however, is 12-year-old Ida Valentine, whose song isn’t even good enough to get preserved in wax. When the Victor men go back to New York, Mickey volunteers to stay behind and help discover new talent for the emerging record industry—and, of course, find Ida. What follows is a Candide-esque adventure through eight decades of country music as Mickey rises to become a producer of note, pining all the while for love of sweet Ida Valentine. Kern is a writer of enormous talents: in Mickey Derow, she’s created an all-American protagonist in the tradition of Studs Lonigan, Billy Bathgate, and Forrest Gump. His voice is an infectious blend of pluck and naiveté, grit and vulnerability. Through his use of language he seeks to beat the world (and himself) into submission: “I’d seen the waves punching and clawing and climbing over each other, just to be the first to smash their brains out on the sand; and then sliding away beat but never defeated, coming right back for another try….They reminded me of me.” While Mickey’s story is littered with many of the unlikely coincidences that propel this brand of winking historical fiction, Kern imbues the peculiarities of country music with a verve that will make even nonfans appreciate the culture as they read.
A funny, endearing tale anchored by an impeccably drawn narrator.