The Key of Life

Garrett Hongo’s The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo is a symphony in words.

perfect sound, garrett hongo
Steven VARNI

Garrett Hongo’s The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo is nearly impossible to encapsulate. It comes framed as a personal exploration of audiophilia, which it is in part, and yet for all the discussion of amps and vacuum tubes and speakers, the relative benefits of analog or digital recordings, Hongo has something broader and more elusive on his mind. “My adult quest,” he observes in the closing pages of this monumental and magnificent piece of writing, “has been to retrieve a history I intuited as lost through the negligence of culture and our lack of care for it as descendants of laborers brought over from southern Japan in the late nineteenth century. My thought since college days was to honor it through words.” Born in Hawaii and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena, Hongo is emblematic of a variety of overlapping diasporas—ethnic, cultural, political, historical, and familial—all of which weave in and out of one another not only in these pages, but also in the complicated and at times contradictory territory of his heart.

What this means is that The Perfect Sound is not a single narrative but rather several narratives in one: a history of music and recording across time and genre; a son’s reminiscence of his father; a social history of California, Hawaii, and America since the 1950s; and perhaps more importantly, a poet’s notes on how he found his voice. Hongo lays it all out for us in a passage describing his experience as a “seasonal meter reader,” working college summers for the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The job required a lot of walking, which in turn afforded time to think. “And what I thought about,” Hongo tells us, “entailed a kind of rhyming—squaring the experience of hard, blue-collar work against my liberal arts college courses in Shakespeare, British and American Romanticism, Chinese and Japanese literature, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

The mind-body problem, in other words—or it would be, were Hongo not seeking a different kind of synthesis. “What I didn’t want to do,” he continues, “was isolate one experience from the other. What I wanted was to join my life—one of work along the wide and narrow avenues of L.A.—to the great voices I was hearing in my head.” The metaphor is as good as I can imagine for the blending, or blurring, in which The Perfect Sound is engaged. It is only by creating space for everything that the author is able to make room for the main thing: a voice, or an internal music, that belongs both to him and to everyone, made, as it is, of all the bits and pieces, all that he has seen or been or read or heard.

That this is the purpose of art should go without saying, although it’s a lesson more easily recognized than absorbed. Some of Hongo’s most trenchant writing has to do with that conundrum. “As a poet,” he observes of his early efforts, “I was like a cover band, a television fake like Bobby Sherman in a hair-sprayed pompadour, singing tunes of the famous in styles copped from their hits.” That’s an astonishing admission, especially coming from a poet whose 1988 collection, The River of Heaven, won the Lamont Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer; Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i (1995) received an Oregon Book Award. It’s necessary all the same. The Perfect Sound may not be about coming-of-age per se, but such a process, of discovering one’s sensibility, one’s own perspective, occupies its center. The whole book, then, resonates like an elaborate oratorio—or better yet, one of the operas Hongo adores. Late in the telling, he recounts a visit to La Scala to hear Puccini’s La Bohème, an experience that leaves him gasping. “The setting, the music, and lyrics,” he recalls, “were too much. A sob shuddered through me with every high note, with each swelling pulse of music from the orchestra.”

Hongo is describing the ineffable mystery of art, its ability not only to move but to remake us. What makes his own art in this memoir so transcendent is his insistence that such inspiration is everywhere. There’s La Scala, yes, but also the author’s brother, a blues guitarist, weeping behind dark glasses as he performs T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” at their father’s funeral. There’s the sound system Hongo researches and installs at his Oregon home, which represents, in turn, an homage of sorts to that much-mourned father, himself an audiophile who built his own hi-fi in the early 1960s from a do-it-yourself kit. Decades later, while cleaning out his parents’ house after the death of his mother, Hongo discovers an old speaker, “one of a pair that had created that magical sound throughout our living room back when I was twelve, my father playing his big band tunes and Hawaiian LPs, sometimes after he’d tinkered with his amp or preamp by changing tubes or modifying the circuit somehow.”

For Hongo, that speaker “was my grail.”

It’s too easy to say Like father, like son. It’s too easy to walk that line. Hongo is excavating more of a loop or a labyrinth, the pattern of a life. And not just one but many, the lives of generations, going back to the forebears he may or may not have known. One is his grandfather, whose journal Hongo literally invents, writing “that it was so in a diary of my own dreaming, as if it were a memory, though I knew I had not lived it, that the book did not exist.” Such an act of dreaming allows him to invent a space for himself, “for a counter tale that justifies, in the powerful way that literatures do, my own presence in my own time in history.”

The moment is emblematic for its inchoate sense of longing, but also because of the silence against which it stands. This has to do with both the author’s family and a more collective history, which is another thread in Hongo’s narrative. “I come from an affectless, unsentimental people,” he writes, “their emotions battered by three generations of brutal life on the plantations and conditioned to its harsh disappointments, resigned to limitations of birth and station. When I was a child, I cannot remember kind words, let alone testaments of devotion between us, and the embraces we made were public and ceremonial.”

In that regard, music is (it must be) less a hobby than a necessity, a mechanism for expressing that which cannot otherwise be expressed. At the same time, Hongo understands that it won’t save us because nothing ever does. That speaker, that grail, is a case in point; when he plugs it in and listens to his father’s favorite music—the stylings of Arthur Lyman, Artie Shaw’s “Moonglow”—“the sound was still not as rich as my memory of what the speaker once made.”

The point is that the past is past; once gone, it cannot be retrieved. The same is true of those we’ve lost. “They are ashes,” Hongo acknowledges, with more than a little bit of mourning. “But from the work and the play of effortful lives I wish to maintain what was the shine of their presence on earth.”•

Pantheon Books
THE PERFECT SOUND: A MEMOIR IN STEREO, BY GARRETT HONGO
Pantheon Books Bookshop.org
$27.60
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