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Monday, October 3, 2022

Book Review: “Human Blues” by Elisa Albert

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HUMAN BLUES, by Elisa Albert

A musician friend once spent hours in a greenroom with Robin Williams. He said Williams started riffing, and that was it. No one spoke and everyone watched, amazed at the ferocity and speed with which his brain spun out like a racecar on an oil slick.

Well, fasten your seatbelt — or better yet, put on one of those five-point safety harnesses — before you dig into “Human Blues.” Elisa Albert’s third novel takes off with magnificent speed and never lets up. There’s no time to take a breath as we follow Aviva Rosner, a singer-songwriter who has launched her fourth album, “Womb Service,” to growing acclaim. Aviva is way hipper than you or me. She throws out graphic expletives as often as my childhood Camp Fire Girls leader said, “Pep and go!” Her clothes are so fashionable, most people wouldn’t recognize them as style. And yet, she’s entirely relatable.

As you might have guessed, Aviva’s new album is focused on her womb, an organ with which Aviva has gone to battle as she tries (and tries and tries) to get pregnant. She consults her rabbi, a doula, an herbalist, an acupuncturist, a tarot reader, a nutritionist and numerous doctors. She gives up a great deal in her efforts to conceive without technological intervention. “Coffee she could live without, alcohol she could live without, veganism she could live without, soy she could live without,” Albert writes. “Preservatives she could definitely live without. But weed? That hurt.”

Alongside her baby lust, Aviva has the sex drive of a rutting buck, so Albert’s narrative follows a double helix of mania. Her desires are frequently tested while she’s on tour — she’s alone, and there’s a marching ant line of interesting people, including one man she’s admired for years. Like many music obsessives, he’s homing in on Aviva as her edge-of-marginal fame moves closer to the center with this latest album.

Stardom is not a fire Aviva is stoking, however, as she can barely manage to speak to interviewers without sarcasm or rancor. On social media, which she understandably loathes, Aviva doesn’t self-promote but instead fixates on photos of a friend’s child, whom she hilariously calls Harmie Schmendrickson. In her little free time, she visits her formerly Afrin-addicted father and dines with her mother, whose grandmotherly urges have been grotesquely magnified by narcissism.

Aviva hates all these people and more: fans, followers, the record industry and fertility doctors in particular. The only people above reproach are Aviva’s beloved rabbi, an old music teacher, her schoolteacher husband (no one can believe she’s with this “normal” man, who observes her madness with the mellow vibe of a surfer watching waves) and Amy Winehouse, another Jewish singer-songwriter who ran through her life at warp speed. Winehouse and Aviva mirror each other so deeply, there were times when I wasn’t sure which one I was reading about. In truth, it didn’t matter. Winehouse takes up so much real estate in Aviva’s mind, they are fully intertwined, though their stories end differently. Winehouse died at 27 while Aviva — through all her struggles, her inward and outward loathing — finds a peaceful, authentic way to go forward in the end.

I’ve loved Amy Winehouse since the first time I heard her, when I pulled my car over and turned up the radio. I now love the fictional Aviva Rosner to a point where I wish I could listen to her music, to feel her intensity and honesty. I suppose I’ll have to settle for rereading this explosively hip, funny and heartfelt book.

Jessica Anya Blau’s latest novel is “Mary Jane.”

HUMAN BLUES, by Elisa Albert | 416 pp. | Avid Reader Press | $28

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