2015-09-01 - Quarter Notes - WCPE's Member Magazine - Fall 2015

By R.C. Speck
Original Review (page 15)

Life in the shadow of his virtuoso cousin Boston was never too bad for Portsmouth... as long as he managed his expectations.

Against the serene backdrop of Pauktaug, a fictional waterside village on Long Island, That Iron String, by author Jack Kohl, tells the story of two Classical pianist cousins as they prepare for a prestigious piano competition in New York City. Portsmouth and Boston are named after port cities because of the tragic circumstances of their arrival in Long Island. Their parents were taking them as unnamed newborns from Connecticut to Long Island by boat to show them off to family. Mysteriously, the parents died on the trip, but the boys did not. For all anyone knows, they could be brothers. As they grew up, they found they approached their art from different perspectives: Boston from innate mastery and perfection, and Portsmouth from constant striving and practice.

Portsmouth seems as though he has the steeper climb, but through a series of letters from Boston, we discover that that may not be the case. While living on the west coast, Boston found that his performances had been sliding a bit, and he’s not sure why. He’s due home in Pauktaug any day now to begin his preparations for the competition but seems strangely unhurried and uncommunicative.

Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, That Iron String explores the psychological terrain that dedicated musicians must traverse in order to perform on the highest levels. It also offers an unadorned look at the egos and politics one has to deal with in the world of Classical music. Most importantly, it provides powerful insight on how artists must position themselves vis-à-vis the big aesthetic concepts of Truth and Beauty. There is a lot of that in Boston’s letters, which provide just about the only glimpse of this enigmatic character until perhaps twothirds into the novel.

Resigned to coming in no better than second, Portsmouth practices diligently in the home of his aunt and uncle. They run a funeral home. Their home is the funeral home. So this complicates Portsmouth’s preparations. So does the appearance of Lana, an old high school flame. This new distraction really is the last thing Portsmouth needs. Yet his playing seems to improve as previously dormant passions are aroused by his rekindled relationship with Lana. He’s discovering things about his playing that he never knew before.

Will Portsmouth’s newfound artistry be enough to trump the invincible genius of the returning prodigy Boston? Or will Boston overcome his complex demons and reclaim his position as the nation’s premier young pianist?

These, in the end, are only some of the things Jack Kohl invites us to contemplate while reading That Iron String.

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