I almost passed on the book review. The movie trailers were uninspiring. Some story about a middle-aged, down-and-out, overweight, alcoholic country singer — good God, it sounded like a country song. And yet…And, yet, I forgot charming. Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake had me hooked from the beginning. “He is trying to shake a dream. At a rest stop in New Mexico he dreamed he crouched before a low stone wall. Behind him was a man with a gun. On either side was one of his ex-wives…He can still feel the pressure on the tendons in the backs of his legs.” Ok, I felt sorry for this poor SOB standing in some bowling alley parking lot with his beat up van, and besides, it’s hard not to like someone who dreams.
Crazy Heart is written with such smooth assurance that it is difficult to believe that this was a debut novel for Thomas Cobb. The smoothness is that of whiskey, a mellow voice and a late night, not that of silk or flowing water. Cobb’s prose, while eloquent, carries the edges, underlying roughness, and deep reality of its country roots.
The reader may never have met a country singer, never even listened to a country song, but he knows Bad Blake. We all know Bad Blake. Cobb has drawn his protagonist with such a fine hand that it seems impossible not to have met him somewhere. Isn’t he that guy who hangs out at the bar on the corner, or maybe he’s the one in the post-office, the one with the good stories?
Alcoholic near-derelict he may be, but Bad plucks the heartstrings. You shouldn’t root for him; this guy is pathetic: used to be a famous country singer, now he plays dive bars and bowling alleys; married four times; knows that alcohol has cost him his relationship with his son, but he won’t quit, won’t even consider quitting; borderline racist; swears like a, well, like a down-and-out country singer. The list is damning, but beneath his faults, Bad Blake has charm and heart.
The heart may be jagged, cracked, and yes, crazy, but its beat is undeniable. “Bad’s heart lurches as though it is coming loose from its moorings. He blinks and groans. Despite the air conditioning, he is still covered with sweat. The hair on his chest and belly, sweated flat, radiates like a thousand needles from his heart.” Bad’s heart is also that of a fifty-six year old alcoholic; its syncopated rhythm produces a background percussion throughout the book. Like Bad himself, his heart may be dysfunctional, but it persists.
When Bad meets Jean Craddock, a single mother aspiring to be a journalist, a light appears, a hope that the singer will pull his act together, lose the bottle, lose the smokes, even lose the weight. This is, however, a country western song, not a pop hit. Love and reality are deeper, rougher, and more complicated than we want them to be. Like country music itself, Crazy Heart is escapist only in that the troubles are happening to someone else.
“You know, I don’t know much about books and stuff. I know movies, mostly. But books and movies, they make live glamorous, you know? Lives come out better, or bigger, than they are. But in books they write about special kinds of people. Country music is about people who aren’t real special, who are never going to be. They grow up, work, get married, slip around, and they die. And the music is the glamour of that kind of life. Maybe slipping around on your wife or husband ain’t the best thing in the world, but for a lot of folks, it’s what they got. And the music, it helps.”
The music shimmers throughout Crazy Heart. Cobb does not pepper his prose with lyrics, yet one feels the melody, can hear the guitar twang. Until Bad falls for Jean and her son, the music is all that he has left, all that he has failed to betray. “Son, I have played sick, hurt, drunk, married, divorced, on the run, and run to the ground. Bad Blake has never pulled a no-show in his whole goddamned life.” Yet, until he meets Jean, the music flirts with betraying Bad. A noted songwriter, he has hit a dry patch with his lyrics. “‘You know I don’t have new material,’ he says. ‘Hell, I’m not new material.’” As the book progresses, the impression begins to form that Bad is not so much out of material as he is afraid to look at the part of himself that generates the music.
After becoming involved with Jean, Bad begins to buy toys for her young son, to sacrifice his pride in order to take larger gigs as a “sideman,” to write music, and even to look into AA. Will his life turn around? Maybe, but remember, this is country, not rock-and-roll. Crazy Heart is a bus tour through the dive bars, diners, seedy motels, and music-filled places of the human soul.