Finding fulfillment in settling for less

January 23, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse

Title: "The Soloist"

Author: Mark Salzman

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 266 pages, $21 Reinhart "Renne" Sundheimer, the narrator of Mark Salzman's appealing first novel, is an unlikely protagonist -- a former musical prodigy who lost his gift and his nerve at 18 and has been struggling unsuccessfully ever since to get them back.

At 34, he is a study in arrested development; having fled his possessive, unfulfilled mother and withdrawn, defeatist father, he lives alone in Los Angeles, still a virgin, with few social contacts save those that come with his job as music instructor at the University of Southern California. Here, for the past decade, Renne has been marking time until that still-unrealized day when he will play the cello in concert again. Though he is frustrated and full of self-reproach, he has never allowed himself to consider what else he might do with his life.

Renne is priggish and fussy. He is a sympathetic character, though, because of his feeling and regard for music, which make him idealistic, and because of his irritable impatience with demands put on him, which causes him to seem more like other people. When the novel begins, he is resisting two of these demands -- that he take on a promising child cellist as a pupil and that he serve on jury duty.

When he hears 9-year-old Kyung-hee Kim play, however, he is reminded of his own youthful promise and decides to teach him for a nominal fee. At the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building, faced with a no-nonsense judge and the prospect of a murder trial, Renne is too ashamed to fabricate an excuse. He is accepted on the jury.

The State of California vs. Philip Weber is not your average murder. This bizarre case concerns a troubled young man who, as a participant in an intensive retreat at a Zen Buddhist church, was asked by the Zen master Okakura to demonstrate his enlightenment. In reply he took the master's stick out of his hands and beat him to death with it.

The act was witnessed by others in the room; the defense pleads not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury must decide: Did Weber intentionally kill Okakura, or was his already unbalanced psyche driven over the brink by the rigors of the retreat so that he was not responsible for his act?

Mr. Salzman presents the courtroom scenes, from jury selection to trial to deliberations, filtered through the observations of Renne, who also records the reactions of his fellow jurors. These sections are absorbing and dramatic, as Mr. Salzman skillfully builds the case's multifaceted and contradictory arguments.

Here is Zen Buddhism for the layman, its esoteric disciplines stripped of mysticism, presented as a weird cult whose paradoxical tenets may confuse as well as enlighten, with disturbing results. Still, as one of the expert witnesses points out in the trial, some of the teachings of Christianity, taken literally, may lead to equally undesirable outcomes.

The courtroom scenes are interspersed with descriptions of Kyung-hee's cello lessons and Renne's recollections of his own past, particularly his cello lessons with his maestro Johannes von Kempen, an elderly German who had given up concertizing to devote himself to teaching. Renne contrasts his youthful self to Kyung-hee.

If Renne is an unlikely protagonist and the frail Philip Weber an improbable murderer, Kyung-hee is an equally unprepossessing child prodigy -- awkward, withdrawn and charmless. On first hearing Kyung-hee, Renne says, "Even on that dreadful cello he played with such authority that I had to close my eyes; I couldn't bear to desecrate the music with the sight of that expressionless little boy."

The difficulties that Renne experiences in reaching a verdict in the trial and in teaching Kyung-hee allow him to change his life in a positive way. Facing intense pressure and disapproval from the judge and fellow jurors, he stubbornly sticks to his principles and convictions.

His essential nature is unaltered; still sexually repressed, he disgraces himself in a romantic involvement with another juror. Still, he learns to alleviate his solitude with the less demanding affections of a cat. This novel's modest lessons are all about finding fulfillment in settling for less. With Kyung-hee Renne learns, like his maestro von Kempen before him, the vicarious rewards of having an exceptionally talented pupil.

Mr. Salzman is good at making rather difficult subjects accessible: classical music technique, the intricacies of the insanity defense, Zen Buddhist practices. The novel's greatest weakness is the portrayal of Kyung-hee and his family; the Kims seem too much like a stereotype of an immigrant Korean family.

This caveat notwithstanding, "The Soloist" is thoughtful and engrossing, a scaled-down novel for the '90s, about the satisfactions of lowered ambitions and realistic expectations.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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