Review: Lonesome Lies Before Us

As if he couldn't get enough of the fictional Pacific Coast Rosarita Bay, that "wonderfully sad, forlorn, gone-to-seed town with gone-to-seed inhabitants" where Don Lee set his Kaufman Prize-winning story collection Yellow and Thurber Prize-nominee novel Wrack and Ruin, he mines this rich motherlode again in Lonesome Lies Before Us. In a melancholy, middle-aged love story, Yadin Park is a 46-year-old worn-out former alt-country singer-songwriter suffering hearing loss and working as a carpet installer to claw his way out of bankruptcy, while dating his boss's daughter, Jeanette Matsuda. At 39 and on the housekeeping staff at the swanky Centurion resort, Jeanette has pretty much accepted "that her destiny was to be dowdy," and Yadin is as good as she is going to get. They sing together in the choir of the local Unitarian Church, stock up at Costco after Sunday services and spend two nights a week together with occasional sex. As Yadin reflects, "They didn't share many interests or hobbies. They didn't discuss politics, or books, or art, or sports, or music.... They didn't talk about anything, really, other than the quotidian.... It wasn't perfect, but what relationship was?"

Like a good country song, however, both Yadin and Jeanette have disheartening romantic pasts that left them in this sorry state of malaise. Yadin wrote the songs for his almost successful band Whisper Creek and had a yearlong drug- and alcohol-fueled affair with its lead singer, Mallory Wick. Painfully shy on stage, he let her take the publicity and raves for his music. When she made it in Nashville and left him, he gave up the music scene, the wild life, the dreams, and gravitated to Rosarita Bay. Jeanette was an 18-year-old wannabe West Coast activist and aspiring news photographer who fell for a charismatic law student organizer before he dumped her when she got pregnant. She reluctantly had an abortion and settled in her small Rosarita house, resigned to take care of her widowed father and to clean hotel rooms. These reluctant, cautious lovers don't want to be burned again. When Mallory shows up at the Centurion incognito for a few days of golf, however, Jeanette and Yadin's fragile attempt at "something approaching normalcy, belonging to someone and some place, having a life that was no longer provisional" comes undone.

Lonesome Lies Before Us may sound like a hokey country weeper, but Lee is a master of the everyday. He cuts as close to the bone as possible without leaving a puddle of maudlin blood on the floor. Jeanette's first housekeeping job at the sleazy Holiday Breeze motel involves sheets "stained with bong water, burned with holes, littered with cigarette butts and roach ends." He also notes Yadin's worship of the heartbreaking songs of Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons, quoting the former's pronouncement that "There's only two kinds of music: the blues and zippity-doo-dah." This is a love story with all the regrets and slender hopes one inevitably carries into old age. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Like a sad, shuffling country song, Don Lee's novel tells of the awkward relationship of a middle-aged former singer-songwriter and a resort housekeeper--both with hobbling pasts.

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