Musicians can be a handful. Even folk musicians. That’s not news—but it’s news you can use, courtesy of Belcher’s modest debut.
“What the hell happened to Eli Page?” You might as well have a T-shirt made with the question emblazoned on both sides, for Eli Page, the dark heart of the story, is a bibulous, cantankerous, but beguiling troubadour whose soap-operatic life includes spells of Dylan-esque disappearance and Morrison-ian mayhem. Enter “John Wyeth of nowhere special,” as Eli dubs the young man who stage-manages him through what could have been a disastrous performance. It’s not exactly My Favorite Year, but if you’ve seen that wonderful film in a double feature with Inside Llewyn Davis, you’ll have some idea of the setup. Belcher enriches what in turn could have been an overly broad yarn with a more specific narrowing of the stage as Jack moves to Eli’s small town to help him work through his archives and memory banks in a “ghostwriting gig,” with some mentoring in the fine art of how to be a folkie on the side. Jack’s no schmo, but he’s a little hapless, and as he lands square into Eli’s messes he makes some of his own; as Eli grumbles, midway through the book, “You move to town, live with me, and start up with [the town cop’s] fiancée. That’s three strikes.” One wishes Belcher had a slightly more seasoned view of small-town life of the sort that Richard Russo and the late Kent Haruf so ably drew from; there’s not much that sets his leafy town apart from any other. And while a musician as nice and even-keeled as, say, Donovan probably wouldn’t fuel a good old conflict-driven story, and there’s plenty of conflict here, Eli rather too neatly checks all the boxes of what a dissolute, world-weary musician—and is there any other kind?—is supposed to be like.
A little more variation from expectation would have been welcome. Still, a well-intended and welcome first effort.