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Hearing America Singing in the Lives of One Family

There has never been any doubt about Richard Powers' bold

ambition. When minimalism was all the rage in the '80s, this writer dared to

think big. In his very first novel, "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance"

(1985), he married the untamed imagination of Thomas Pynchon, the intellectual

firepower of Saul Bellow and the vivid storytelling of John Irving.

Each of the successive six novels, from "Prisoner's Dilemma" through

"Plowing the Dark," demonstrated a willingness to grapple with big themes.

Often they sprang out of Powers' scientific education, wrapping around

explorations of artificial intelligence, cyber-reality and genetics. Others

displayed the depth of his knowledge of classical music (he is also a trained

cellist) and the history of American�capitalism. Clearly, here was the

brainiest of novelists.

Ironically, Powers' very intelligence has sometimes been used against him.

However thoughtful and well-conceived, detractors argued, the books were marred

by a lack of passion. Subordinate to theme, his characters could seem not

altogether real, even bloodless.

Yet there is no denying the man's enormous talent. Powers is an authentic

American original. His latest book, "The Time of Their Singing," filled to the

brim with passion, is not only one of the best novels ever written about race

in America but one of the best ever written about the joys of music.

To encompass his mighty themes, Powers creates a truly all-American family

out of black and white, native and immigrant. Two classical-music lovers meet

accidentally at Marian Anderson's legendary 1939 concert on the Washington Mall

(after she's been banned by the racist Daughters of the American Revolution

from its nearby concert hall).

David Strom is a German Jewish refugee, a physicist pondering the

conundrums of space and time at Columbia University. Delia Daley is an aspiring

classical soprano, out of Philadelphia's Talented Tenth. They marry, to the

astonishment of her family (his has been swallowed up in the Holocaust), have

three children, and then must suffer the consequences of breaking the color

line.

If David works on the frontier of atomic physics, the Stroms are an

experiment in racial pioneering. Their hope is to banish the very idea of race,

to refuse to be constrained by its boundaries. When little Jonah and Joseph,

his brother a year younger, ask their parents what race they belong to, Da

replies with a benign smile, "You have to run your own race." Mama says, "You

two boys are one of a kind."

While the children are young (Ruth is born four years after Joseph), home

schooling keeps the world at bay. And making music together makes home a wonder

to behold:

"After dinner, they came together in tunes. Rossini while washing the

dishes, W.C. Handy while drying. ... They'd do workhorse Bach chorales, taking

their pitch from Jonah, the boy with the magic ear. Or they'd crowd around the

spinet, tackling madrigals. ... In old music, they made sense. Singing, they

were no one's outcasts."

Soprano wunderkind Jonah is sent off to a Boston conservatory and then, at

Juilliard, evolves into an extraordinary tenor. The not quite as talented but

more reflective Joseph, a steadying influence on his volatile brother, follows

along, settling into a career as his devoted accompanist.

No matter how committed they are to transcending race, their venture into

the world means confronting the world's racism. Even as they march from one

concert triumph to another, they encounter slights and prejudice. In the

story's background, we also hear the rumble of African America struggling to be

free - from the quasi-integration of U.S. troops in World War II to the

Million Man March at the end of the century.

Like Dr. Strom ruminating on time curving in space, Powers conjures up two

narratives, one hurtling forward with the Strom offspring, the other bending

backward into their mother's past. Thus the author fashions his story into a

great churning boil of a debate - the past and the future arguing ceaselessly

over the present.

"I'm tired of racial thinking, Mama," Delia complains in the early '50s.

"You just tired of being colored," her pragmatist of a mother scolds.

Though Jonah yearns to break into opera, he turns down the Met in 1968 when

he's offered a leading role as "The Negro" in a new work. "I won't be the

Caruso of black America," he fumes. "The Sidney Poitier of opera."

He flees to Europe, that perennial refuge of black artists, where a career

in medieval and renaissance music eventually results in rave reviews and a

recording contract, even a Grammy, for the group he founds, Voces Antiquae.

Meanwhile, the partnerless Joseph flounders, playing the piano in cocktail-bar

hell. Worse, Ruth renounces classical music and her white father ("He

humiliates her just by being"), drops out of college and casts her allegiance

with the Black Panthers.

Toward the end, as if this gargantuan undertaking were exhausting even its

author, the novel loses some of its juice, and the undoing of Jonah is too

patly, too bizarrely emblematic. The Stroms themselves, however emblematic,

aren't emblems at all but richly imagined, full-bodied characters.

No one should underestimate Richard Powers' achievement. This is a major

novel, harrowing and haunting in blending such intense beauty and such great

sorrow into one great, unforgettable American symphony.

BOOK REVIEW

THE TIME OF OUR SINGING, by Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 631

pp., $27.

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