Mitch Albom’s latest work of fiction explores fate and music in an experimental form
Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal November 2016 issue
By Natalie Jacobs
Music is cocky, prideful and intuitive. It’s there when you’re born, floating around for you to pull out of the air in handfuls; and music is there when you die, waiting to collect the talent that you’re leaving behind. At least that’s how Mitch Albom sees it. In his new novel, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” music is the omniscient narrator and he’s a fickle character with a very distinct voice.
When he set out to write the book, Albom labored on music’s tone.
“I thought that was very important to establish early on,” he told me over the phone one afternoon as he was driving to a speaking engagement at a university on the east coast, “that the story is going to be told not by a person, not by an invisible narrator that everything is he and he and she and she. I wanted people to know that music was a character in the book itself, so I worked on that until I could get the feel of how music would sound if music could speak.”
It took a couple years to complete the book which starts at Frankie Presto’s funeral. Music is there to collect his talent, but so are many other famous, real-life musicians attending this fictional character’s surprise funeral in Spain. Once the ending is vaguely established – the reader knows that Frankie Presto, a prolific guitar player, is dead but it’s unclear how he died or why the reader should care just yet – Albom employs music to tell the story of Frankie Presto’s life from the beginning.
“When I came to telling Frankie’s story, I said well, it’s going to be such a compelling story and so big and so epic that I better just begin at the beginning. Because you’ll never be able to follow it if you don’t start with where he’s born,” Albom says.
The book carries on like that, flashing between past and present until, in the very last pages, Frankie’s full story is finally told.
Mitch Albom himself is a musician but unlike his character Frankie Presto, Albom’s instrument is piano. He dedicates the book to his Uncle Mike.
“I think everybody in music has somebody who first comes along who they hear and they say I want to sound like that and for me that was my uncle.”
Knowing that Albom is a musician adds a personal layer to the tale he’s crafted. It’s an exploration of what creativity means to the individuals who embrace it.
During our interview, Albom points to a specific line in the book where music says “all sad roads lead back to me for musicians. Whenever a musician is upset or is alone, or lonely, they’ll always come back to me because I won’t desert them.”
“A lot of that,” Albom explains, “comes from my own experiences and relationship with music.”
Frankie Presto leads a magical life but part of the magic of Albom’s novel is that it blends reality with fiction rather seamlessly. At the funeral, in the book’s present tense, music encounters all of these people, real people, from Frankie’s fictional past. And in the re-telling of Frankie’s life, Albom again shares stories of Frankie’s encounters with familiar musicians. People like Tony Bennett, country wildman Hank Williams, Django Reinhardt, Winston Marsalis (a French jazzman), and crooner Lyle Lovett all make appearances at various times in the book.
“I deliberately asked those people if they would let me write of them,” Albom says. The living ones anyway.
“I created all of their stories, obviously,” he continues. “But I know how Tony Bennett speaks because he’s a friend of mine. I know how [pop singer] Darlene Love speaks. … I know how Roger McGuinn [of The Byrds] speaks. These are all people who are in my life in some way … so I asked them if they would let me create these stories. Then I sent [the sections] to them and they read them and they all just loved it. They really liked being fictionalized. Apparently that’s something like a roller coaster, everybody seems to enjoy it. They all made little suggestions like ‘well, I would have done this,’ or ‘I could have been here,’ so if you were to check the book factually, you would find that almost all of it is dead-on accurate from the years to the months to even some of the stuff that doesn’t have to be.”
With this infusion of other people’s actual voices, the book presents a wonderful array of characters, each so distinct in their tones and interactions with Frankie Presto, who himself never really says much. In that sense, the book reads like a documentary with flashbacks and talking heads. But the novel form allows for a much more robust and colorful retelling of a lifetime than you get with say, the Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain films that are out now.
“There’s a point where Roger McGuinn introduced Frankie to The Beatles,” Albom says, speaking of a party scene that appears late in the novel. “Well it was a real party and [Roger McGuinn] was really there and everybody he mentions was really there. I just inserted Frankie into that story. Otherwise, everything else is true. That was fun because I used my reporter’s instinct and training to interview these guys and get a lot of details about them, and then fictionalize them.”
Albom started out in writing as a sports journalist. He may be best known for his nonfiction work “Tuesdays with Morrie,” published in 1997, but he says he enjoys fiction more than nonfiction.
“It’s more creatively satisfying and less rigid. But the part of me that was raised in journalism always is attracted to a true story. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that. There’s something about a true story that makes you shake your head and go I can’t believe that that’s true.
“But to sustain that over a whole book is tough,” he continues. “That’s probably why of the, I don’t know how many books I’ve written since ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’ there’s been six or seven, but only two of them were nonfiction, the rest were novels. It’s more fun to play in the sandbox of creativity.”
It is obvious that Albom had fun writing “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” It is impossible not to like Frankie, a character to whom life sort of just happens. The book takes liberties with mystical elements that, if you think about them too hard, will seem cheesy. And it relies heavily on foreshadowing that will leave readers with a slight feeling of having been duped by the end of the epic. But taken as a whole, the novel is an emotional ride that manages to successfully oscillate between heartwarming and heartwrenching. “Frankie Presto” offers interesting interpretations of creativity, where it comes from and how to live a life in its honor.
Like “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” we’ve begun our coverage of this year’s San Diego Jewish Book Fair at the end – Mitch Albom is the closing act on Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. He will speak about “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. Cost of admission includes a copy of the book.
Now that we’ve established the ending, continue on for a sampling of more books on offer throughout this year’s 21st Annual Book Fair. Times, locations and costs vary by event.
Find all those details at sdcjc.org/sdjbf/.