The sound of redemption

THE PERFECT SOUND: A Memoir in Stereo

By Garrett Hongo (New York: Pantheon Books, 2022, 544 pp., $30, hard cover)

The poet, Garrett Hongo, recounts his life in “The Perfect Sound,” a lengthy, detailed and beautifully written tome that follows his journey as a barefoot boy born in Hawai‘i, to his tenured faculty position at the University of Oregon and to his newfound life as an audiophile. The subheadline for this remembrance is “A Memoir in Stereo” and like modern stereo recording technique, Hongo taps into multiple channels to tell this story of redemption.

There are two loose narratives in this book. One is his journey as a self-described cultural waif, born in Hawai‘i. At age 6, his family moves to the mainland and he recounts the meaningful music and milieu he encounters in Los Angeles. He is an aspiring poet, and there are tales of romantic encounters, an increasingly bohemian lifestyle and frustrations in seeking his voice as a young Asian male poet. He narrates friendships with mentors who help him navigate his cultural backdrop and mentors who aid his development as a poet. Throughout this narrative, we read fond snippets of his father, whose long avocation was to optimize a home built stereo system to listen to Hawaiian music.

A second narrative begins at midlife, after Hongo becomes a distinguished, tenured professor. Attending a performance at La Scala, he becomes an opera aficionado. To achieve undistorted renditions of opera and other musical recordings, he begins to acquire and shape an optimal audio system. We read about sound amplification, the history of sound reproduction, the physics of sound and even the morphology of cicadas and how they produce their unique song. During this period he becomes a regular contributor to published reviews of audio equipment. Passages of these reviews are included in the book. These are a challenging technical read and it’s really the purview of the hardcore audiophile. More approachable in this second narrative are audio enthusiasts whose exuberance, indulgence and overall joie de vivre become mentors of their own sort and are lovingly rendered in Hongo’s prose.

Hongo’s mix of memories, music factoids and technical writing are not arranged chronologically. The two narratives are sometimes distinct and sometimes blended together. I occasionally felt bewildered or lost, especially within the context of some of the technical segments. In the end, some of the writing is inconsequential. In the end, the two narratives converge on a path paved by his father. In the end, it’s a memoir culminating in redemption. As Hongo connects his father’s speaker into his audio system and cues the remembered music his father played, he recounts the impoverished legacy of three generations of harsh plantation life, creating a stoic family culture unable to celebrate joy. Exuberance and joy were taboo. He likens his father’s pursuit of music and audio to a wave, “a wave enfolding its barrier reef, barreling softly in classy curls, foam, and folds of lace.” He concludes with this final, following sentence, “It overcame what was taboo.”

Following a path similar to his father, one can infer that Garrett Hongo has sought and found his own redemption.

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