Evan is a 31-year-old, one-hit-wonder, would-be rock star living in his grandfather’s shabby apartment in Seattle, playing in a mediocre band and working in a guitar store. He has no prospects, no girlfriend and no real life.
He also has a 14-year-old son he hasn’t seen since the day the boy was born.
But he’s about to meet Dean in Garth Stein’s new novel, “How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets.” Evan has learned his high school girlfriend, Tracy, has been killed in a car accident, and he heads to the funeral outside Walla Walla to meet his now-orphaned son.
It’s not a Hallmark moment.
Dean was raised by his mother with no whisper of a dad until Evan walks up and introduces himself. How can Evan answer Dean’s angry question: “Where have you been all my life?”
Part of the answer was that Evan didn’t know where Tracy and the baby were — her conservative family bundled them out of town right after the birth. Evan takes Dean back to Seattle and begins, day by day, to try to build a relationship. At the same time, he gets a chance at the musical big time and meets Mica, a no-nonsense woman who, for the first time, is making Evan disclose his secrets, including his epilepsy. Seizures — born from being hit by a car when he was 12 — herd Evan like a border collie. He has to be careful driving, watch what he eats and he’s pretty much written off being intimate:
So afraid to tell the people who matter. So afraid that someone will hate you for who you are. That’s why you don’t ever let anyone in. That’s why you pushed Tracy away. Blame your parents if you want. Go on. It takes the pressure off you. You’re still a liar. Dean and Mica: They don’t know. . . . You don’t tell anyone anything. . . . Shame on you.
Shame, guilt, anger and resentment are just some of the bits of Evan’s troubled past he has to confront. There is a lot to unearth, and Stein pulls out the truth a little at a time, giving the reader glimpses into Evan’s erratic memory and shadowed world. It’s a funny, bewitching, observant book about families, fathers and sons, and growing up, no matter how old you are.
Stein has written a previous novel, “Raven Stole the Moon,” and a play, “Brother Jones.” He directed the documentary film “When Your Head’s Not a Head, It’s a Nut” about his sister’s brain surgery for epilepsy, and co-produced “The Lunch Date,” an Academy Award-winning short film. He lives in Seattle with his wife and children and teaches writing to kids.
— Peggy McMullen
Stein (Raven Stole the Moon) builds an engrossing family drama around a Seattle rock musician. Evan’s the odd man out in the Wallace family: his dad’s a renowned heart surgeon, his mom’s the dutiful doctor’s wife and his brother’s a successful lawyer. His entire life, they’ve treated Evan like damaged goods, and in some ways he is. Hit by a car as a child, Evan now has frequent and sometimes severe epileptic seizures. And although he once had a top-10 hit, these days Evan gets by working as a guitar shop salesman. Stein ups the emotional ante of the Wallace world by dropping a 14-year-old son, Dean, in Evan’s lap when the boy’s mother, Evan’s high school flame, is killed in an auto accident. Long denied a chance to be involved in Dean’s raising, Evan is excited to be a dad, but it isn’t easy–there’s that exchange when Dean smacks Evan and Evan calls him a “rude little shit,” for example. It’s as if Stein has taken his hero, set a series of nasty psychological and medical roadblocks in his path, and then stepped back to see if Evan can find his way toward health and happiness. Following the emotionally stunted Evan along his arduous journey isn’t always a pleasant experience, but the path is littered with life lessons that Stein weaves into the narrative with honesty and compassion.
The Seattle Times
No stranger to epilepsy, Garth Stein, author of “How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets” (Soho, 368 pp., $25), directed a documentary on his sister’s epilepsy operation, titled “When Your Head’s Not a Head, It’s a Nut.” He also wrote “Raven Stole the Moon,” a thriller/mystery published in 1998. He grew up in the Seattle area and is currently a writing instructor for Powerful Schools in Seattle.
While Stein illuminates the world of epilepsy with deep humanity in this novel, its major theme is malerelationships within the family, especially between father and son.
In one particularly memorable passage, Evan’s journey into parenthood deepens when he discovers his son has a talent for street hockey. He attends a game and gets so heated up over a bad call he behaves with an “irrational defensiveness,” his first step into the realm of “real” parenthood.
Bonding through sports is a father-son tradition for Evan. His childhood back yard was full of balls and bats,bicycles, golf clubs–“tools” used by father and son for lack of intimacy. He of fers this explanation:
“Since the beginning of time, back in the caveman days, fathers didn’t chat with sons about poetry or music.They took their sons out to the savanna and stalked okapi. You don’t talk about sonnets on the savanna or the okapi will escape.”
But the story is not just about men. Mica, a sexy sound engineer of Asian and African descent, sparks Evan’s overmedicated libido–and career–back to life. Although bordering on being almost too perfect, an alter ego to Evan, she lasers through Evan’s false perceptions and sees the potential of his enormous guitar-playing talent.
It is music, after all, that helps Evan transcend his medical condition and gain clarity. He blows back audiences a foot with his prolific playing, able to remember everything he hears, an “Oxford English Dictionary of riffs in his head.”
The novel’s potentially dark key signature is brightened by Stein’s skillful handling of humor. For one, Evan’s demented but warm-hearted friend Lars is a stitch. The 6-foot-4 drummer waves frantically across a crowded room “as if a giant albino with a dent in his head is hard to pick out of a crowd.” A special treat to Seattle readers is the setting. From the music scene in Sodo to Dick’s Drive-In up on Capitol Hill, navigating the novel’s locale is like moving around in the comfort of your own living room.
Evan’s emotional journey–from a sanitized, solitary existence into bona-fide fatherhood–hits all the frets of a powerful story: sharp-witted dialogue, vivid characters, insight into medical challenges and prose that snaps like well-placed plucks of guitar strings. In the end, Evan’s plight is universal. Despite his deepest flaws, the greatest secret is the one he keeps from himself: his worthiness to love and be loved.
I hold up my lighter and turn it full-flame for Stein’s latest work. Encore!
By David Flood
Books on the Mountain
‘How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets’ begins with a funeral. The funeral, it turns out, is for Evan’s high school girlfriend who was killed in a tragic auto accident, leaving behind a 14-year-old son – Evan’s son – born out of wedlock and raised by his mother after she decided against the abortion she had insisted she wanted. Now Evan is suddenly confronted with the reality of his parenthood and a boy who needs a father, even if 14 years late.
And – wouldn’t you know? – circumstances arise that require Evan to keep the boy for at least a few days, providing a chance to contemplate the options for his future involvement as a parent and for Evan to develop the beginning of a real relationship with his son, Dean – not to mention, examination of choices made in his past and the consequences of those choices. Evan’s career as a struggling rock musician in Seattle might need to be re-examined as well as management of his severe epilepsy (‘how Evan broke his head’) brought on by an accident in his youth. Evan’s family is also in for quite a shock since they were unaware of of Evan’s son’s existence.
‘How Even Broke His Head and Other Secrets’ is an original, somewhat offbeat novel that offers many rewards – a humorous writing style, an unusual protagonist, revealing insight into the NW music scene and a realistic examination of family and ethical issues that will have strong appeal for many age groups while still being an easy read. The novel forces the reader to contemplate what is really required to be a parent as well as the consequences of allowing others to make our choices for us. Evan’s relationship with his very proper, status conscious parents who have always been less-than-approving of his rock star lifestyle – but from whom Evan has kept many secrets – is another provocative thread in the novel.
Garth Stein’s sister suffers from epilepsy and the author brings keen insight into the illness from his up-close perspective. And, because his character Evan lives a rock musician’s rather loose, bachelor life style the prospect of parental responsibilities cause a reexamination of how he has managed his illness. In addition to the pleasures that ‘How Evan Broke His Head’ offers the reader in vivid characters, original plot, and outstanding writing, reading this book offers new insight into the experience of living with the challenges of epilepsy.
It is not necessary to be twenty or thirty-something or an aspiring rock musician to thoroughly enjoy this book!