The Last Songbird
by Daniel Weizmann
Melville House Publishing, 336 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
One can almost imagine how much fun Daniel Weizmann must have had working on his debut novel, The Last Songbird. From the very first page, it’s clear that this is a book written by a man in love; in love with music, in love with the image of the down and out detective unable to get his life together, let alone solve a case, in love with the city of LA. in all its alienation and grit and failed dreams. It’s clear because every sentence of the book is crafted, creating its own singular poetry, but never losing sight of the genre it belongs to.
And the genre it belongs to is Noir, as in “characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.” Traditionally, Noir takes these weighty notions and stylizes them, molding the squalor and despair into something philosophically dark but aesthetically appealing. Likewise, its scarred, flawed anti-heroes are typically tough guys— world-weary, unsentimental, and cynical— but also, ultimately admirable. Weizmann has taken this trope, subverted it, updated it, and created Adam Zantz, a 37-year-old Lyft (i.e Uber) driver who once had a stint as a private investigator, and is also, importantly, a failed musician. Here’s Adam describing himself:
I wasn’t sure what a Lyft driver was supposed to look like. Me, I was a five-foot-eight skinny Jew with a big schnoz and eyes that telegraphed every damn thing I was feeling…
Unlike Noir’s traditional crabby tough guys, Zantz’s strength isn’t in a macho persona, but rather in his likeableness. Something in his unthreatening, easy-going manner makes people trust him and inspire them to expose their secrets and vulnerabilities. It’s this quality that endears him to Annie Linden, an aging singer-songwriter with superstar status back in the day, (think Carol King or Joni Mitchell,) so that the two quickly go “off app” with Annie using Zantz as her personal driver who’s never a more that phone call away.
Their relationship is rooted in Zantz fanboy admiration of her, her penchant for strays, and the passion they share for music. When Zantz player her an old demo of his music, that shared passion opens possibilities he has only ever dreamt about:
Weeks before, on the clock, I had played her the first three tracks of my demo, watched her listen in the rearview. Her expression was maddeningly internal, concentrated, chin pointed forty-five degrees north and eyes elsewhere, intermittently closed. The first song was a strummy ukulele thing, almost a fake Music Hall number. Then a calypso with a fat reggae bassline, more upbeat. And then the slambang dance tune with all the bells and whistles, samples, scratches, backup vocals, the works. While she listened I tried to interject an apology—for the low sound quality, the poor musicianship, the general suckiness—but she raised a pointing finger to her lips and shushed. When the music stopped, she looked across the open car to the rearview, drew my eyes to hers.
Then she burst into a cackle.
“Jesus!” she said.
“What about him?”
“My Lyft driver is a real songwriter.”
“No nothing. A real fucking songwriter—did you . . .? Is that why you asked to drive me or—?”
“No—no. Honest, I had no idea you’d be my—”
“Whatever. Those are incredible tunes, real songs.”
“It’s just a demo.”
“It’s just a little bag of diamonds in the rough is what it
is. The last one is hooky as hell.” She started humming the chorus. “I could sing the hell out of that one.”
When the story opens, Annie has disappeared, her security guard is found murdered, and Zantz, who has issues with meaningful women in his life, including, primarily, his own mother, feels compelled to figure out what happened, and why. The plot unfolds with all the requisite twists and turns which, along the way, say a lot about planet LA, with descriptions of both setting and character whose marvelously crafted paragraphs tell even as they show. For example:
I followed them into the smallest apartment I’d ever seen— a perfect box of a room with one dirty window looking out over the Playboy Liquor parking lot. In twenty years of driving by, I had never noticed that the Y in the neon sign was a martini. The too-skinny girlfriend dropped cross-legged to a sheetless mattress and eyeballed me with a mix of trepidation and curiosity. The guy closed the door soft but it creaked loud.
They had scotch-taped a torn-out magazine picture of Justin Bieber or some other pop kiddo on the back of the door, the sole aesthetic choice in the room. I couldn’t tell if it was irony or idol worship.
The result of this juxtaposition of the gritty and the poetic, the jaded and the lyrical, is a reading experience that rises far above the requirements of the genre. And no review would be complete without a mention of Zantz’s friend and confidant, a freelance photographer and religious jew called Ephraim Freiberger, AKA Fry, who lives on a boat bearing the name The Shechinah. Fry helps Zantz to keep his vision clear in a world of sham and persona, employing Jewish precepts as a moral guide:
“Someday you’ll explain to me how all this works—being a religious nut and a stoned-out paparazzi.”
“It’s simple. I don’t shoot on Shabbat or holidays. I don’t photograph nudity. And I don’t sell any pictures that could potentially embarrass anyone.”
“Which rules out, like, ninety-eight percent of the work.”
“So be it.” “And embarrassing someone is strictly forbidden?” “By the Torah, it’s like murder.” Observant Fry knew his rules and laws.
Can Noir have a happy ending? By definition, not really. The crime may be solved, and justice may be served, but it’s still the same crappy world. Which is maybe why the inherent pessimism of Noir can also seem uncomfortably close to reality. It tells hard and ugly truths, but in the hands of an artist, even hard and ugly truths can feel beautiful and somehow satisfying:
People who fantasize about living on the beach—this was what they never figured. After a while, the ocean view, the salt air, even the thunderous ocean song disappears, and you are left with yourself, your place in the scheme of things. All that you reach for and all you can’t hold runs up before you like the tide and reaches for you. It takes a very strong soul to keep from getting swept away.