A time or two over the years, I’ve had the idle thought: What if, after Whiskeytown disbanded and its members went their separate ways, Caitlin Cary rather than Ryan Adams had been the one to hit it big? How might Ryan’s life have turned out then?
While it doesn’t offer a hundred-percent accurate analog for either person, something like that alternative reality is the backdrop to Don Lee’s very fine new novel, “Lonesome Lies Before Us,” which is as tragicomic and shatteringly sad as, well, a Ryan Adams song. The main character in “Lonesome Lies Before Us” is Yadin Park, an alternative-country singer/songwriter modeled roughly on the real-life musicians Damien Jurado and Richard Buckner. But like Ryan, Yadin suffers from Miniere’s Disease — only Yadin’s case is severe enough to have forced his retirement as a professional musician.
Having retreated from the spotlight, Yadin lives a quiet life in small-town California. The story opens with him drifting into middle age while working as a carpet installer, and trying to keep from going numb in a loveless relationship of convenience with his boss’s daughter. Lee’s portrait seems pretty much exactly how things might have gone for Ryan if music hadn’t worked out as a career.
From afar, Yadin follows the career of his long-ago bandmate and girlfriend Mallory Wicks. Caitlin was never Ryan’s girlfriend, but she and Mallory are both fiddlers who learned the instrument by the Suzuki method. And in this book, Mallory is the one who went on to a high-profile and glamorous career involving stage, screen and radio hits. In the grips of a crisis of spiritual faith, and with his hearing beginning to fade as his life threatens to fall apart, Yadin suddenly finds himself writing songs again for the first time in years.
So he resolves to make one last album to put out into the world before disappearing from the scene for good (which he has to keep secret from his disapproving boss and girlfriend). That’s when Mallory unexpectedly reappears, in a reckoning that forces both of them to contemplate their individual and shared histories as well as motivations about music, art and life. It’s a fine read and a tale well-told, with a conclusion as tragic as it is inevitable.
I was honored to discover that “Losering” played a small role in “Lonesome Lies Before Us.” After hearing that author Don Lee had acknowledged my book in his “Author’s Note” (which is below), I got in touch to ask him about some of the background. Here is what he had to say:
I first got the idea for the novel when I read that Ryan Adams had contracted Ménière’s disease and was afraid he’d have to quit music. That really intrigued me, so I embarked on this story about an indie singer-songwriter losing his hearing to Ménière’s, who wants to self-release one last album. But the model for Yadin was more Richard Buckner and Damien Jurado, homely guys who don’t have much stage presence.
The model for the Yadin-Mallory duo was more Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Mandolin Orange and HoneyHoney (all with female fiddle players). Also I thought a lot about the Civil Wars, and Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, and of course Gram and Emmylou. That film about Gram, “Fallen Angel,” was a big source of inspiration.
“Losering” was instrumental as a source. A chapter toward the end is a flashback to when the characters had been alt-country musicians in Raleigh, and I cribbed much of the local flavor from your book. I wouldn’t have been able to write that chapter without “Losering,” which really is terrific. I loved it.