Will Boast’s debut story collection, Power Ballads, is tied together by a compelling and evolving drummer named Tim, who will stay with you long after you finish the book.
There’s an appealing chilliness to Power Ballads, Will Boast’s fine and nuanced collection of short stories about music and musicians (and a winner of a recent Iowa Short Fiction Award). The majority of these stories are marked by the presence of drummer Tim. “Discipline, detachment, calm–these are the things a true musician requires,” he says in “Sitting In” the first story of the book. That Tim already feels this way as a twelve-year-old tuba player says as much about him as anything else does. This chilliness rises to distressing heights when, in “Dead Weight”, he dislodges the drummer at the behest of the management company that signed them and tours with VD3, a band featuring identical twin brothers, hearthrobs in their early twenties from Kansas. The brothers are loyal to their girlfriends and this leads to Tim encountering a phenomena he has little experience with: groupies. But this is Tim so he describes the experience by noting, “…we moved the conversation to my hotel room, both of us making clear we regarded the whole thing from the proper ironic distance.” Even when describing sex with a beautiful starlet he describes the encounter as “one glacier colliding with another glacier.” This has something to do with the pills he (and she as well) are under the influence of but far from everything do with it.
If this trait was all or most of what there was to Tim we wouldn’t want to follow him across the body of the book, but that is certainly not the case. Tim can be generous, not only to other musicians but especially to them. It would be easy enough to scorn and mock the members of Soldier, the middle-age musicians making a comeback in the title story. After all, Tim’s a trained jazz percussionist and Soldier makes the kind of music that gets cranked in parking lots before NFL games. In addition, they wear military uniforms while performing. But when Kate, Tim’s love interest who appears in many of the stories, suggests they’re something of a joke Tim disagrees, commenting on just how serious the guys in Soldier are, and how their music and costumes are intrinsically part of what makes them a certain kind of great. Likewise, the genetically perfect, deeply unthreatening twins from Kansas in “Dead Weight” are not overly mocked, although the cast-off drummer and bass player receive the lion’s share of his sympathy.
Not everything in this collection works as well as it might. The interactions between Sue, a forty-ish woman with the corporate job and largely absent rock star husband, and her teenage daughter in “Sidemen”, one of the non-Tim stories, never feel entirely authentic. Nor does the character of the young DJ who sets his sights on Sue. But, like a diver attempting something difficult and then hitting the water with a mild splash rather than an inspiring ripple you take into account what is being attempted in respect to what is actually achieved and admire the overall result.
“Lost Coast” is probably the best individual story in the collection. There’s no Tim, although the two main characters are from his small, Wisconsin town and the crucial event from the past invoked here is also mentioned in “Sitting In.” The tone, darker and hazier than the rest of the book, serves it well. Like in ”Sidemen” there’s a daunting degree of difficulty to the set-up, but here the results are even more gratifying.
Fine details about Tim and his life accrue throughout the book, his relationship with his sentimental, unsuccessful father is particularly good. The father is much more than a contrast to Tim or a partial explanation for his Tim’s work, life, and personality. Although he serves that purpose, Tim’s father emerges as a complex character on his own, someone you root for even as you suspect disappointment in doing so.
“Coda”, the final story in the collection, is curious. Tim and Luke, a musician very different from Tim, neither as talented nor as disciplined, break into Kate’s apartment. They both have been engaged to her, first Tim and then Luke, and she has returned neither of their rings, although it has been established in a previous story that Tim urged her not to. Tim’s disgusted by the idea of her and Luke, that Luke was the last person she was with. Tim’s final act in her apartment winds up leaving him “…frozen by the thrill of it” and makes you think, look what Tim has done, this isn’t like him at all. Or maybe it is. Maybe he’s evolving in a way that will be good or bad or indifferent. But there’s nothing bad or indifferent about the fact that Tim will be staying with you for long after you finish reading Power Ballads. That is very good, indeed.