Dylan Hicks blends fact and fiction in impressive debut novel “Boarded Windows”


Maybe it’s weird to talk about because the book isn’t coming out for another four months, but local author Dylan Hicks has a novel swaggering up to the horizon. Hicks, whose short works have been published previously in such burgeoning writer-drool-inducing places as The Village Voice, The New York Times, The Rake, and Dislocate. He even had a “piece of fiction dressed as a review of Barbara Streisand’s Guilty” make it into Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2007. There’s no doubt about it—I’d say both subjectively and objectively—that Hicks is a talented writer whose time has come. However, I’m wondering how many of his supporters are wondering how he’s going to do with a novel. To curious parties, I offer a short answer (to be expounded upon in the following paragraphs): he did pretty darn good.

In Boarded Windows (Coffee House Press), his debut novel, Hicks tells the loose life story of an underemployed, undermotivated record store key-holder who receives an unexpected but not wholly unwelcomed visit from his shiftless father figure Wade, who Hicks says was actually the main character of a very early draft of the book. “I eventually realized that I didn’t want access to Wade’s consciousness,” Hicks says. “He had to be enigmatic and couldn’t be too self-critical. My hope is that he’s both seductive and repellant, that his allure at least flirts with the Mephistophelean, but that the reader sees that he’s capable of kindness as well, though some of his kindness is ill-inspired.” Over the course of this visit the narrator learns some things (a couple, at least) about himself, Wade, and his two mothers—one biological and one adoptive.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. Like life, it’s kind of complicated in an almost you had to be there sort of way, or, rather, a you had to read it sort of way. Wade knew both of the narrator’s mothers in the 1970s; he hints a couple times at the possibility that he might be the narrator’s father, but that seems to stem more from his desire to intentionally create ambiguous situations in order to preserve the power gained by his mystique, and he shares a name similar to that of the narrator’s girlfriend Wanda (as well as a sexual willingness to explore bondage). In fact, there are a lot of name similarities in the book—the narrator’s mothers are Martha Dickson and Marleen Deskin, who met at a political rally for Marxist sociologist Marlene Dixson—which serve a striking psychological purpose for the reader and the narrator, though one seems more fixated on it than the other. About the name parallels, Hicks notes that he’s “not trying to endorse or advance any grand theories with all of this, though; I was mainly just following hunches that seemed right for the book’s narrator and its form,” which sounds to me like the stuff of great writers.

As if all of these characters with similar names floating in and out of the book’s multiple timelines—parts of the story take place in the seventies, others in the early and late 90s—weren’t already a handful, Hicks also has much of the book centered around the fictional musician Bolling Greene, who I had to Google before realizing he was a fake. “Yeah, Bolling Greene is a fictional country singer-songwriter,” Hicks says, “mostly remembered as a second-tier figure in a moment I’ve modeled very closely on outlaw country. He’s something of a phony, but has grown rather honorably into his adopted roles, as persistent fakes sometimes will.” (Bolling’s outfit is why Wade left the narrator and his adoptive mother, “Marleen, we gots to ramble,” he says). As a character, he is similar in ilk to Wade, both representing, to borrow from the description on the back of my uncorrected proof review copy, “the fading embers of America’s boomer counterculture.” 

Hicks, a musician rediscovering a formerly halted craft, has created a companion piece to accompany the book called Sings Bolling Greene, the content of which takes cues from the book by featuring songs in and of the novel. When asked if the album represents what Bolling Greene would sound like in the 70s Hicks replied, “No. It’s sort of as if I were in a cabin with a copy of his greatest-hits album, but no stereo, but for some reason I tried to cover his songs from memory, or just from a title. There are a few lyrical anachronisms, such as to Pac-Man and Costco. And though I played with some country motifs, and the band and I nodded here and there to seventies singer-songwriters, there wasn’t a careful effort to make a pastiche, which I probably couldn’t have pulled off anyway.”

It’s worth mentioning, too, that Bolling isn’t the only fictional artist in Boarded Windows. “Perhaps about a quarter of the musicians referenced in the book are fake,” Hicks says, “and there are also invented movies, comedians, writers, brand names, and lots of made-up places. Sometimes it’s a blend: a fake album by a real artist, for instance, or a real painting in a fake anthology. A few of the fakes have been borrowed from other books in which invented artists appear, so I guess those fakes are in some way realer.” On why he included so many bogus people, places, and things when the book is so clearly rooted in the world, our world, the Midwestern world, Hicks had this to say: “I like fiction—I’m thinking now of stuff by Borges, Nabokov, and Thomas Bernhard, but also recent work by Dana Spiotta—in which historical and invented artistic figures intermingle and perhaps blur. I love it when art criticism of a sort is joined with fantasy. Since many of the characters in my book are of questionable reliability, I sort of want the reader to be uncertain as to what’s real and what’s fake, even if the uncertainty sometimes arises at a passing reference to a romantic comedy or a hip-hop band.”

Between Hicks’s impressive lexicon and masterful creating of sentences, crafted seemingly as someone less talented would simply draw a line, fans of Hicks and rapier-sharp prose will find a great delight in Boarded Windows. However, if one is looking for a deep, wide-ranging story where things change, people change, and the world becomes a better place, this probably won’t be the first book you pick up. Overall, it’s a very solid first novel.