Bennie Salazar, owner of Sow’s Ear Records, experiences shameful memories as he meets with executives of his record label. They talk about a band he signed called Stop/Go, a sister duo who are managed by their father. When he signed the band they seemed like an excellent bet, but they are aging now, and haven’t put out an album.
Bennie’s shame is rooted in in his past, and these memories have a ruinous effect on the present moment. Signing Stop/Go is one of many causes of his shame. The connection between their age and lack of future success reflects the obsession with youth found in American popular culture.
The word “sisters” brings back a memory to Bennie from twenty years prior. After a night of partying, Bennie hid behind a fence as the sun rose, listening to cloistered nuns sing. The sound of their voices is magical to Bennie. Later he set up a meeting with the mother superior, where he pitched an idea to make a record of their singing. Before leaving, Bennie approached the mother superior to say goodbye and kissed her on the lips. The mother superior is appalled and injured by his action.
This memory from Bennie’s youth is expressed first with a sense of nostalgia. The sunrise, as a symbol, speaks to the hope Bennie felt as a young man and the magical role of music in his life. Bennie, however, is impulsive, and his action of kissing the mother superior is not only harmful to her, but interferes with his opportunity to record their singing. This kind of poor and impulsive decision-making is a theme through Bennie’s life.
Shaken by the memory, Bennie does not want to listen to the Stop/Go mix with his colleagues. Instead, he decides to visit the sisters at their home after picking up his son Christopher from school. Before leaving, his assistant, Sasha, brings him a coffee, and he sprinkles gold flakes into it. He read in a book on Aztec medicine that the gold flakes help with sexual potency. His sex drive has expired, and he is not sure if his recent divorce from his wife, Stephanie, or the battle over his son, Christopher, has caused it. He sips the coffee and looks at Sasha’s breasts, seeking the feeling of arousal in his body. He feels nothing.
Bennie’s sexual dysfunction is literally and figuratively related to his failures. In his life in general, he feels impotent, and the more he focuses on his malfunctioning body the more despair he feels. Impotency is also a sign of aging, which is another insecurity Bennie lives with. The gold shows Bennie’s desperation to regain his sexual potency—he is willing to try this very expensive and absolutely absurd method to redeem himself. Here we also start to see how Egan’s characters appear tangentially in each other’s stories, as Sasha plays a minor role here.
On his way to pick up his son Christopher, Bennie listens to classic punk rock music and laments the current state of the music industry. Five years ago, he sold his record label to a crude-oil extraction company, and feels resentful that he has to produce terrible music to make them happy. As he drives, his mind drifts to an award ceremony where he accidently called an accomplished jazz pianist “incompetent” instead of “incomparable.”
When it comes to music, Bennie is a purist. He loves music that is authentic and raw. The sale of his business to the oil company both depicts his personal downfall in the industry and the capitalistic nature of the music business, which is more about money than art. Again, memory leaves Bennie ashamed, and the word “incompetent” can be read as a projection of the way Bennie feels about himself.
Bennie picks up his nine-year-old son, Christopher, and notices that his own mood changes as soon as he gets into the car. On the back of a parking ticket, he writes, Bennie “Incompetent” and “Kissing Mother Superior.” His therapist, Dr. Beet, suggested writing down his insecurities instead of burdening his son with them. They decide to get coffee together, but Bennie tells Christopher he can’t tell his mother about this. Bennie feels connection to his son through defying his ex-wife. As they drink their coffee, Bennie sprinkles some gold flakes into the cup. Christopher asks what it is, and Bennie tells him it is medicine. Christopher asks if he can have some, and Bennie gives him one flake. Christopher becomes increasingly talkative, and Bennie wonders if it is because of the flakes. Bennie notes that Christopher is more talkative than he has been in the year since the divorce.
The shift in Christopher’s mood signifies the relationship they share. Bennie struggles to connect with Christopher, which has been made worse by Bennie’s tendency to burden Christopher with his shameful memories. Bennie’s feeling of connection to his son when he defies his ex-wife points to a spiteful element of his identity, but also a willingness to go to sometimes harmful lengths with his son for connection. Bennie is so desperate for redemption through the gold flakes that he even credits them for Christopher’s talkativeness.
Sasha waits for Bennie at the house of the Stop/Go sisters. As Sasha says hello to Christopher, Bennie again looks at her breasts and feels nothing. He then looks up at her face and realizes, though they have worked together a long time, he doesn’t really know her.
Bennie uses Sasha as gage for his sexual potency, revealing a self-centered and sexist component of his character. The fact that he doesn’t really know her after years of working together furthers this idea. His self-centeredness has created a lack of connection to others.
The sisters, Chandra and Louisa, look fantastic, and have a bunch of new material to show Bennie. Chandra’s daughter, Olivia, is also there, and Bennie notes Christopher’s reaction to her, like a charmed snake rising from a basket. In the recording studio, Louisa sits at the keyboard. Olivia takes up some bongo drums, and hands Christopher a tambourine. Bennie feels a sense of hope being in the presence of music. Sasha brings him a coffee, and he sprinkles some gold flakes into the cup. As they begin to play, Bennie feels great. He starts to record the music. Simultaneously, he smells Sasha’s perfume, and becomes aroused. He seizes a cowbell and begins hitting it, feeling as if he were on fire.
Again Bennie focuses on the sisters’ image, as opposed to their character, speaking to a lack of human connection. Bennie’s obsession with his own impotency leads to a sexualized impression of his son’s interaction with Olivia, a snake being a blatant phallic symbol. Music serves a redemptive and even life-affirming role for Bennie, and in the act of creating music he feels his vigor return.
As they play, however, Bennie remembers a time he was inadvertently copied on an email between two colleagues in which he was referred to as a “hairball.” He loses his focus, and his erection, as he scribbles “hairball” onto his parking ticket. Bennie then remembers a time in Christopher’s childhood when Christopher had lice. Bennie couldn’t believe it because Christopher went to a fancy private school. After this, Bennie began to spray OFF! bug spray into his armpits. Suddenly, he remembers a woman he was admiring who went into the bathroom at a party after he’d had diarrhea, and he’d felt intensely ashamed. These memories are so overwhelming that Bennie runs from the studio, apologizing on his way out.
The feeling of connectedness is ruined, however, when Bennie slips back into his shameful memories. All of these memories are connected to the body, either his or his son’s. The body is an ongoing obsession and insecurity for Bennie. As mentioned before, his insecurities around the external state of the body are reflective of his internal conflicts and struggle with identity.
Bennie drives home with Sasha and Christopher. He feels the magic of the afternoon continue to fade away, and fights the desire to look at Sasha’s breasts. When he finally looks, he feels nothing, and despairs the loss of the erection he’d had as the Stop/Go sisters played. Bennie asks Sasha what she thought, and Sasha says Stop/Go is awful. Bennie says they sounded different two years ago, but Sasha reminds him he signed them five years ago. She knows because the last time she saw them she’d come from a meeting at Windows on the World, which was in the World Trade Center. Bennie waits out a respectful pause, and then changes the subject back to the band. Bennie tries to rationalize the band’s change, saying two years or five years shouldn’t matter, but Sasha reminds him in the music business, five years is five hundred years.
Bennie continues to gage his sexual potency through Sasha, showing his self-centeredness. The conversation about Stop/Go reflects the nature of the music industry, and the way in which changing trends in popular culture leave artists behind. Sasha’s attention to the World Trade Center is a reflection of her own preoccupation with the past. Again the terrorist attack on 9/11 becomes a reflection of ruin in the novel, and speaks to the destruction these characters experience in their own lives. The pause following this conversation is also meaningful, containing pain, memory, and a kind of politeness all at once.
When they reach the home where Christopher lives with his mother, Bennie is unable to pull up the driveway. Christopher tells Bennie to take some of his medicine. For a moment, Bennie can’t find his box of gold flakes, but Sasha produces it and tells him he dropped it as he ran out of the Stop/Go sisters’ house. Bennie, Christopher, and Sasha share some of the flakes. Bennie hugs Christopher and feels tempted to tell his son not to tell his mother about the gold flakes, but he catches himself as he imagines Dr. Beet telling him to avoid “betrayal bonding.” He feels a deep pain watching Christopher walk to the house where they used to live together.
When Sasha produces the gold flakes, the reader understands that she intended to steal them, though the act of returning them is a redemptive move toward combating her addiction. The sharing of the gold flakes constitutes a moment of connection, though we’re also meant to understand the dysfunctional nature of the act. Bennie’s decision not to engage in betrayal bonding is a moment of surrender, a minor redemptive moment for Bennie.
As they drive back to the city, Sasha notices the place where the Twin Towers used to stand. She notes that it is incredible that there is just nothing there any longer. She says there should be something—an echo, or an outline. Bennie remembers looking at his mentor, Lou Kline, and thinking, “You’re finished.” Nostalgia, Bennie thinks, is the end. He then notes that Lou died four months ago after being paralyzed by a stroke.
Sasha’s desire for an echo or an outline of the Twin Towers speaks to her struggle coming to terms with the past. Unlike Sasha, Bennie refuses to feel nostalgic. He believes that living in the past is a ruinous endeavor, and attributes Lou’s downfall to this activity. Nostalgic or not, Bennie’s shameful memories are causing serious damage in his life.
At a stoplight, Bennie remembers the list he has been writing on the parking ticket. He pulls it out, and Sasha asks what it is. Bennie hands it to her, and she reads it aloud. She thinks they are song titles, and says they’re not bad. Bennie asks her to read them one more time, and feels relieved and cleansed. When they reach Sasha’s apartment, Bennie tells her that he is crazy about her. Sasha says there is no way anything will happen. “We need each other,” she says. She kisses Bennie’s cheek, and Bennie notes that it is a chaste kiss, one between a brother and sister, or a mother and son. She leaves, and as she walks up the steps she waves and mouths something. Bennie can’t hear, so he frantically tries to get the window down. He misses it a second time, before realizing she is just telling him she will see him tomorrow.
Sasha’s perspective on Bennie’s list offers him the opportunity to see his past in a new light. The words have no meaning for Sasha, which relieves Bennie of the shame he has associated with them. This ironically creates a sense of connection between them. Bennie tries to push the connection deeper, but Sasha resists. She fears deep connection, as she understands the dangers associated with loss, reflected in her comment that they need each other.