Few fiction writers have written about music with the believability, the authenticity, and the heart Will Boast exhibits via the ten linked stories that comprise Power Ballads. Boast takes us from small town Wisconsin where an eager kid eventually trades his polka heroes for serious jazz, to a overly hip and over-priced recording studio in Northern California where a mediocre musician seeks that elusive take, to a Chicago apartment just before sunrise where two men have come to carry out a bizarre errand.
Boast captures perfectly the atmosphere of small town beer halls where immigrants of indeterminate origin gather (“Sitting In”), the life of a band widow who finds little romance in her condition (“Sidemen”), and the life of a band member who also finds little romance in his condition but still manages to accept the meager rewards (“Dead Weight”). Boast writes with uncommon humor, allowing us to laugh through the pain in stories such as “Heart of Hearts: Three and a Half Stars” and “Lost Coast” and to just, more or less, laugh in the titular story; he also perfectly captures heartbreak in “The Bridge” and “Beginners”.
The stories are made all the more believable because Boast never tries too hard to make his case; too often novels and short stories about artists are either painfully unbelievable because they cling to the truth so as to become cliché, or they ring false because they romanticize that which is painfully unromantic to many/most of its practitioners, the toil and dullness of seeking perfection and an uninterrupted connection with one’s muse. Boast finds a third stream in which we are all too aware of the plainness, the workmanlike conditions of the characters he creates and yet we still find ourselves anticipating the next moment of their lives right beside them.
The Irish-born and Wisconsin-raised writer moves through a variety of voices with remarkable ease and one never senses that he’s stretched himself beyond his capacity as a writer. Moreover, the collection is paced perfectly with the rising and falling action of a good novel, levity always arriving just in time to lift darker moods. He also marvelously joins the two via “Mr. Fern, Freestyle”, easily one of this collection’s standout stories. (“Sidemen” and “Coda” are two of the others.)
He’s also especially adept at writing in the language of music critics with a familiarity and humor that is, frankly, both touching and hilarious. This of course says nothing about his ability to create names bad enough for songs, bands, and albums that are painfully realistic in their awfulness.
Power Ballads received The Iowa Short Fiction award and with that Boast joins a long series of impressive writers including Robert Boswell, Barry Targan, and Susan M. Dodd. He writes with an ease and intelligence that recalls Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford. Like those writers, Wolff especially (the aforementioned “Coda” is Wolff-esque as well), Boast makes it difficult to find fault with his work. This collection is meticulously crafted, perfectly realized, and expressed in language that rivals music in its ability to convey emotion with purity and boundless imagination.