In The Sterns Are Listening, the debut novel by poet Jonathan Wells, the plot advances along two paths that, like all parallel tracks, appear to converge. In the real world, this is a mere trick of perspective; in fiction, such convergence can provide structural coherence.
Although the principal protagonist is Benjamin Stern, who “had sat on the world’s sidelines, collecting his meager share of the building’s rental income” in the Manhattan apartment building developed by his grandfather, it is his very successful younger brother Spence, the owner of the Belphonics chain of profitable hearing aid retailers, who provides this point of convergence.
On one track, we find the Sterns, a Jewish family in which Benjamin’s wife, Dita (real name Delores), has decided to become Italian, sprinkling her vocabulary with Italian expressions and renaming Mark, her son, Giorgio. After years of not speaking with Benjamin, Spence has contacted him with a job offer. Spence has had an idea: many elderly Baby Boomers ruined their hearing in their youth by exposure to loud music and could be convinced through clever marketing to consider hearing aids an homage to their reckless youthful lifestyle rather than an embarrassment. The task, apparently compiling statistics into a brief for the Belphonics board, is vague, but Benjamin ultimately accepts.
Spence stands on the other track as well. Giorgio, now an adult, makes a surprise appearance at the Sterns’ apartment door. His years of violent anger-management episodes in his youth resulted in his parents sending him off (in what appeared to teenaged Giorgio to be a middle-of-the-night kidnapping while his parents stood silently by) for a multi-year stint first in a wilderness survival camp and then in what used to be called reform school. But Giorgio returns still angry; he announces that when he was 10, Uncle Spence had fondled him, and Giorgio has continued to keep his anger about this memory alive.
Thus, we find Spence at the vertex of both narrative lines.
The Sterns Are Listening evidences the pitfalls of many debut novels in terms of jarring, unnecessary descriptions (at one point, the author describes Mick Jagger, during a Rolling Stones concert, as “the singer, a thin man”) and of more extensive descriptive writing that is often extraneous, bogging down the plot cadence. A few deft brushstrokes of description can often suffice for the reader to envision the scene fully.
In addition, certain important plot points seem odd; when Giorgio attempts to escape the survival camp he makes only one phone call back to civilization. That call is to his nemesis, Spence, of all people.
Similarly, upon Giorgio’s return, he decides to go with his uncle to a Stones concert at which, during their performance of “Sympathy for the Devil”, Giorgio attempts to obtain his uncle’s long-awaited confession by strangling Spence in an extended, excruciating headlock. This is followed by a climactic scene at the launch party for the Baby Boomer line of hearing aids, during which, for the same purpose, Benjamin physically brawls at length with Spence on the floor of the men’s room.
However, in serious and well-crafted chapters, we experience what life was like for Giorgio in the wilderness, his lengthy test of survival without shelter in the rugged mountains. Giorgio pairs with Lainey, a girl who is having difficulty performing the survival tasks. Their relationship deepens and culminates with Lainey attempting an intimate encounter, ending abruptly with Giorgio rebuffing her as memories surface of what he recalls Spence doing to him as a child. When Lainey is found unconscious a few days later and is taken out of the deep woods for medical care, Giorgio is left in painful misery over the uncertainty of her fate.
Importantly, Wells presents other plot elements involving acute uncertainty. It is unclear to Benjamin what the mercurial Spence, in what looks like a familial power-play, is going to require of him in the Belphonics project. More significantly, Benjamin, upon hearing Giorgio’s account of what Spence did to him decades earlier, is burdened by the intense uncertainty as to what, if anything, happened between his son and his brother.
The gravamen of this tale lies in the question of how to live with deep uncertainty. While in the wilderness, Hal, one of the survival camp counselors, provides Giorgio advice concerning Lainey based on multiple quotes from John Keats. “I think it was in a letter [Keats] sent to his brother,” Hal tells him. “‘What if a man could exist in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching for fact and reason.’ Or something like that.”
Hal‘s ultimate point is that “we can dwell peacefully in doubt.”
Wells wrestles a multifaceted storyline into a coherent whole, which is no small task. Below the surface clutter of a frenetic plotline, he deftly deals with the ability to ‘dwell peacefully in doubt’ within the liminal space between knowing and not knowing. This substantial underlying vein within The Sterns Are Listening is where the novel’s virtue and its value lie.