Sunday, September 4, 2011

Millenium approaches, then unravells (Books - The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott)

Henry Cage puts forward the picture of an upstanding man - well-spoken, well paid, well taken care of by his housekeeper. He runs the company he founded, he lives in the perfect London House, when his wife fools around on him he cleanly divorces her. He knows where he will eat his breakfast each day.
Most afternoons, Henry was content to stay at home. Over the years, in addition to his photographs, he had built up a collection of twentieth-century British art, without ever owning a single first-rate painting. He had bought the works of Meninsky, Shephard and the like - artists with talent, but no great originality; painters who had needed to teach to pay the rent.

Henry was moved by their work. He admired their tenacity and was comfortable with their status. He viewed his walls with constant pleasure. He often said that he was surrounded by paintings that looked like the work of gifted relatives. He would have been uneasy living the art that was too obviously expensive. A Lucian Freud of Francis Bacon would have been impossible - like hanging your bank balance on the wall. In the same way, he could drive a Mercedes, but not a Bentley - live in Chelsea, but not Belgravia.
Henry complies with what is expected of him, he makes sensible choices because he does not want to stand out. Then, around the turn of the millenium,Cage's departure from his company is orchestrated and thus begins the dissolution of his well-ordered world. David Abbott's The Upright Piano Player chronicles his losses. Loss of loved ones, of dignity, of his illusions, and of his sense of control. Abbott makes the choice to open the book with the most devastating of these losses which, on the one hand, lets us know what the book is all about and, on the other, means he never again lives up to the graphic, gut-wrenching scene that starts the book. We then return to 1999 and the progress of the book reveals how Henry Cage got to where we eventually see him.

The book had one quality that irked me. Occasionally the writer veered off course from Henry's story, certain instead that we needed three paragraphs of insight about the design of a coffee shop. No doubt, having worked most of his life in advertising, Abbott's insights into the subject are expert, but they were beside the point as concerned Henry's story. There were a few others moments that partook of the same advisory tone regarding the most pictaresque road in England or the size of a doctor's bill. With some of them, Abbott makes an attempt to integrate them with Henry's character but unsuccessfully; they startle and distract, derailing me from Henry's narrative. It's a pity no editor had the sense to advise against them. Aside from those moments, the prose, like the man, is dignified, measured, the story memorable, and the results touching.

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