Jane Smiley’s Folk Music Novel Hits Some Bum Notes

LUCKY, by Jane Smiley

Fictional folk singers have generally been the butt of the joke, holy fools or total idiots: Think of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” when John Belushi’s Bluto brutally smashes the guitar of the young man whose only offense is singing “I gave my love a cherry…,” the sincere saps of “A Mighty Wind” or the Coen brothers’ prickly, unattractive Llewyn Davis. With the glorious late-career renaissance of Joni Mitchell and the eye-opening recent Joan Baez documentary “I Am a Noise,” however, perhaps the time is right for Jodie Rattler, the protagonist of Jane Smiley’s new novel, “Lucky.”

Born in 1949, Rattler grows up in St. Louis with her mother (“the problem was that my father was married to someone else”) and a large extended family where half-hour singalongs follow dinner. Her “luck” begins with a talismanic $86 roll of $2 bills she wins at age 6 at the racetrack with her Uncle Drew. Through a combination of talent and happenstance, she becomes a jobbing singer-songwriter while still at Penn State.

The lives of Jodie’s real-life influences — Joni, Joan, Judy, Janis and their contemporaries — were fraught with incident, from drug abuse and unwanted children to secret marriages and suicide. Rattler’s problem, beyond introversion, is of a different dimension: money (too much). Her debut Elektra single — and songwriters of the Spotify era may want to look away now — earns her three royalty checks totaling roughly $215,000, which, invested by her uncle, is worth a cool half million by 1974.

Jodie, who “didn’t need the success,” becomes her own directionless trust fund kid. There is a 1974 solo album, the admirably named “Fair Isle,” that doesn’t seem to sell, and by the age of 30, she wants “to use my performances to get to places I hadn’t been before, to explore.” Less of a vocation, then, and more an opportunity for sightseeing? The song titles and their accompanying lyrics are well observed (though it’s odd that none of them seem to have choruses) but as often happens in fiction, the band names — the Scats, the Ceiling Fan Fliers and the Garter Belts — aren’t.

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