BY W. PERRY HALL/contributing writer

“White Tears”
Hari Kunzru
Random House

White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” said Son House, a Mississippi blues singer who made his start in the 1920s. The blues got there, it is generally acknowledged, via the adapted rhythms and methods of West African natives enslaved in the American South.

One of the blues’ most customary components came from the group work songs of the plantation slaves, who used the African practice of “call and response,” which bluesmen have most often transformed into a conversation between the singer and his guitar. It is no coincidence the Mississippi delta region, so rich in fertile soil for large plantations, is the birthplace of a veritable blues “who’s who,” including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.

In “White Tears” (Random House), novelist Hari Kunzru cleverly and ambitiously lays bare the wounds from which the blues bled, journeying from Manhattan to the Mississippi Delta and from the present to the late 1950s and again to the late 1920s. With sinister strains threaded throughout, his novel scrutinizes white exploitation of black culture, the forced labor of black convicts through convict leasing to white farms (which some call “slavery by another name”) and related issues of race, class, poverty and musical authenticity.

The novel begins in Manhattan with Seth and Carter, best college buddies rooming together after bonding over a mutual love of black music. Seth recalls how “Carter taught me to worship — it’s not too strong a word — what he worshipped. He listened exclusively to black music because … it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.” According to Carter’s sister, he ”feels guilty for being a rich boy. That’s why his heroes are always poor or black.”

As it happens, Carter lives off a trust funded by his family, which owns a conglomerate of construction, energy and private prison businesses. So when the pair decides to open a recording studio, Carter has little problem bankrolling it with Seth, a sound engineering whiz, managing the business. The talents of these “audio craftsmen, artisans of analog” have thrust them to the mat of success with a contract to record a successful white hip-hop artist.

Seth often adds a variety of sounds to his audio bank by strolling about Manhattan with his parabolic mic and recorder. One afternoon upon playing back the sounds he recorded of nothing in particular near chess players in Washington Square, Seth is shocked to hear a haunting voice singing a blues song:

“Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own
“Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own
“Put my enemies all down in the ground
“Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
“Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
“Wrote his name all down my back”

Carter pounces upon hearing the recording, and they stay up until six in the morning, cleaning up the recording and deciphering the words … Carter cooks up a guitar track over which to lay the mystifying voice and asks Seth to “Make it dirty. Drown it in hiss. I want it to sound like a record that’s been sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years.”

Carter fakes a “scuffed and faded” recording label for a 1928 recording of what he labels “Charlie Shaw’s Graveyard Blues,” a “rarity” that he uploads to the internet. The collector trolls instantly trill. One going by the name “JumpJim” drills them about the song and pushes to know what is on side B, saying he has not heard Charlie Shaw’s voice since 1959.

A suspicious hit-and-run leaves Carter comatose a third of the way into the novel and the buddy-centric thriller seems, in hindsight, like a bluesy vamp to the main numbers.  

The story takes an ominous turn into the territory of noir mystery when Seth seeks out the collector to learn about his 1959 trip to Mississippi with an unscrupulous older collector who plucked Charlie Shaw’s only recording from Shaw’s voodoo-ish sister, and of the ominous events leading to that man’s shrieking end ablaze among his collection of authentic blues recordings. 

Seth convinces Carter’s sister to accompany him on a trek to the Mississippi Delta to sleuth a possible link between the real Charlie Shaw, the counterfeit recording and the hit-and-run. This nightmare-like journey to the soul of the blues thrums with tension and a droning dread that calamity lurks around the corner. As they approach the delta, the menace intensifies and time starts to tilt.

In the novel’s final, spectral phase, the past and present merge into a sort of discordant call and response. Time ultimately comes undone. Without giving too much away, readers will learn of Captain Jack and how Charlie Shaw never made any more records when all he wanted was “to pass something on … to reach forward, to obey the urge of life.”

Seth becomes alienated by circumstance and is shunned by Carter’s family. The story pounds with the profane nature of a payback tinged with aspects of the supernatural and voodoo, and the novel ends with a shockingly unforgettable judder.

“White Tears” is a bold, formidable novel that is not for everyone. Yet, the venturesome reader will be rewarded as Kunzru explores the corrupted nature of “blaxploitation,” dredges the sordid past of the music from which “all … American music derives its most distinctive characteristics” (James Weldon Johnson), pays tribute to the music’s legacy infusing much of our culture today, and vilifies the vinyl hipsters and their obsession with authenticity in the blues while disregarding the pain integral to the end product.