by Paul Quarrington
This week’s book is a piece of classic Canadian literature: Whale Music by Paul Quarrington. Quarrington died recently—in January 2010. He was one of Canada’s brightest lights in the creative scene. He wasn’t just a writer, if there’s such a thing as being just a writer, he was also, a filmmaker, educator, and musician. But it was his writing for which he was best known and while I’ve read—and enjoyed—several of his books, there is one that stands out among the rest as being a piece of amazing captivating music literature. That book is Whale Music.
My first encounter with the book actually had nothing do with the book. It was through an album inspired by the book. Whale Music by that quirky but quintessentially Canadian band, the Rheostatics, is an oddball album. I think something about the Rheos stuck with me because I can actually remember the moment itself when I first laid my hands on the album. My guitar teacher at the time was helping me work through what I listened to, gently introducing bands and albums to me. When he handed me a cassette recording of Whale Music he held onto it for a second and said, “Listen to it twice. You might not like it the first time.” So I did. And I didn’t. The first time, I remember being puzzled and a bit turned off. A sort of “Seriously, what the hell is this?” moment. But I listened to it a second time ‘cause I respected my teacher’s taste in music and something happened, something changed. I really have no idea what that was, but the second time around, I liked it. By the fourth, I freakin’ loved that album.
Naturally, the next step (as an excitable and impressionable youth) was to track down every single thing the Rheostatics ever recorded. What I didn’t do, despite having a love for literature, was track down the book. I saw the movie next. Whale Music—screenplay composed by Paul Quarrington and scored by the Rheostatics—is a great cult classic kind of film. Weird, Canadian, fun. When I eventually finally found myself with a copy of the book, you’d think all these other interpretations would have skewed my reading. After all, most times when you see a movie version of a good book, you can’t quite get into it—it’s not as good. Whale Music the book was even better than I could have imagined.
Quarrington’s book inspired music and a movie—and won the Governor General’s award—for good reason. It’s a great book.
The novel dives into the strange world of Des Howell, a semi-retired and pretty deranged rock star, living in a secluded mansion full of things—including an epic studio full of synthesizers and instruments. He’s a bit bonkers, lives on drugs and booze and jelly doughnuts, but he’s likeable all the same. And you’re never in doubt of his musical genius. He’s working on his masterpiece—Whale Music—a symphonic interpretation of the majestic creatures’ songs. Enter Claire, a young girl who shows up in Des’ world and changes everything.
There’s no easy way to describe the book. It is its own genre. It’s musical, lyrical, symphonic with words. It’s extremely enjoyable to read. Another Canadian must-read for music lovers and book lovers alike.