REVIEW: Black Dust by Lynn Charles

Black Dust by Lynn Charles (April 7, 2016); 312 pages. Available from Interlude Pres here.

Black Dust by Lynn Charles tells the story of Emmett and Toby, who were high school sweethearts until a car crash left Emmet permanently disabled, their friend Scotty dead, and Toby wracked with guilt (he was driving, and made it out physically pretty ok).  Now, so many years later, Toby and Emmett have gone their separate ways and have made very separate lives, one in Ohio, one in New York. The story begins when they find each other again, and must heal their relationship (there’s still so much love there) and find a way to mourn their friend Scotty’s death.  To do that, they must confront their own culpability in his death, and in the death of their relationship—all of this comes to a head when Toby visits Emmett in Ohio, and must revisit the most painful territory of his entire life.

It’s a novel about chickens coming home to roost.  If I say “literally,” perhaps that isn’t correct—there are no broody barn birds here, even if a lot of the story happens in Ohio.  But Toby’s spent his life terrified to face Emmett (who, with his cane and his limp, is a constant reminder of the crash), the scene of the crash, and all the places Scotty’s ghost still haunts. Toby’s chicken to do so; he chickens out in earlier attempts—perhaps it’s correct to say this is a story about metaphorical chickens literally going home to roost.

But this is also a story of creation, and the labors that takes, the pain and the joy involved in making something.  Toby and Emmett are both musicians, and Toby has been hiding from the composition he began to write for Emmett. In pressing on to finish, to find the ways to determine the direction of the piece and resolve it, Toby’s finding a way to tell the emotional story of his love, the subsequent crash, of everything he lost.  It’s as beautiful a metaphor for healing as I’ve ever seen: healing oneself as a form of creation, as a creative act. I think that’s right.

Here, right here, is why I love this metaphor. Emmett and Toby have just begun to reacquaint and rekindle their once-love, and Toby has just let Emmett hear his still-in-scraps attempts at musically confronting their past.  Emmett says, “You have an outstanding love letter, Toby. The harmonies are rich, the rhythmic patterns you have going on—with just the piano—are amazing. But if you want to tell a love story, you have to include all of it.” What Toby needs to find, Emmett suggests, is the dissonance that will make this piece (and this story) complete, allow it to make sense. By avoiding the discomfort of dissonance, Toby is actually not allowing the piece to find resolution.

It strikes me as very right. What I love about the discomfort of, say, Stravinsky (a favorite composer of mine) is, yes, the boldness of bringing on discomfort, but also the relief of having that discomfort resolved, of this returning to “rightness.” That feeling would never happen without the discomfort first. This novel grabs that small truth and amplifies it, lets it run wild, lets it really be. What results is gut-wrenching discomfort and the relief and rightness of resolution, a beautiful story, and—at least on this reader’s part—quite a few tears and deep-heaved breaths of relief.





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