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White Tears

The Suffering You Didn’t Have: On Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears”

White Tears
Hari Kunzru
Penguin Random House, 2017

Review by Will Preston

On a dark night in 1920s Mississippi, the story goes, the bluesman Robert Johnson walked out to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil. He was gifted with a preternatural ability to play the guitar in return: the strings bending beneath his fingers, his voice filled with what sounded like the anguish of generations. When he died mysteriously at 27, he left behind almost nothing, just a scattering of records and a swirling fog of myths. Johnson’s songs feel bracingly authentic to this day, filled with the violence and repression facing blacks in the Depression-era South. But the stories told of his life are anything but authentic. Johnson’s identity was hijacked in the decades after his death, largely by white fans eager to spread legends and half-truths about the voice in their record player. This was not an unusual legacy for black, pre-war blues musicians. “White urbanites reshaped the music to fit their own tastes and desires,” the historian Elijah Wald has written, “creating a rich mythology that often bears little resemblance to the reality of the musicians they admired.”

There is a Johnson-esque character at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s new novel, White Tears, a 1920s bluesman named Charlie Shaw. Like Johnson, Shaw is a ghost, a shadowy figure who made a single recording in 1928—an eerie, haunted song called “Graveyard Blues”—and then vanished without a trace. When the record is unearthed in present-day New York and posted on the Internet, it sparks a frenzy among record collectors who are captivated by Shaw’s voice, “ancient and bloody and violent,” rising up from the crackle. It’s the kind of voice that burrows inside the listener, straight to “the guiltiest of his secrets.” (166)

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