Searching for Jimmy Page
by Christy Alexander Hallberg
Livingston Press, 2021
Reviewed by Marshall Moore
Luna Kane’s mother Claudia blew her own head off with a shotgun some years back—this is the South we’re talking about, after all, and eastern North Carolina to be more precise—and as you’d expect, Luna hasn’t been the same ever since. Back in the late ‘80s, when Searching for Jimmy Page is set, people in that impoverished end of the state were quite matter-of-fact about shocking tragedies: Oh yeah, my cousin Victor—you didn’t hear? Got run over by his own tractor. Cut him right half in two. Or: Remember Aunt Beulah Mae? She died in late July and that little house of hers didn’t have air conditioning. When they found her, she already done rotted through the floor.
Full disclosure: Christy Alexander Hallberg and I are from the same hometown. We went to different schools and only met a couple of times, but we know a number of people in common. When I found out about this book, I was adamant about reviewing it. To answer the obvious question first, yes, she absolutely nailed the setting: the rich bleakness of the place itself, the paradox inherent to a location that has loads of potential and also must be escaped, the rhythms of the characters’ speech (when one said “I swanny,” I knew I was in good authorial hands), all the uniquely weird nuances you’d have had to grow up there to have noticed.
In other reviews, much has been made about the musical references in the book. As the title suggests, the music of Led Zeppelin is a key plot point: Claudia was obsessed with them, and with Jimmy Page in particular. At a key moment in the story, Luna receives a copy of a Page album as a gift. This ignites, or reignites, a desire to understand her late mother better as well as to track down her missing father (who, it is hinted, might be the rock star himself). Some novels in which music is a central theme have cringe-inducing passages when the authors’ reach exceeds their grasp and details like the names of bands and bandmates, or descriptions of the music itself, clash with the rest of the prose. That doesn’t happen here: Luna isn’t a musician, and her obsession is with solving the mysteries from her past, not so much with the music itself. This is a fine distinction, but it allows Hallberg to stay in control of her prose and perspective.
Luna’s desire to connect with her mother and track down her father is symbolic at first (drugs, sex), then literal (she travels to England in hopes of meeting Jimmy Page in person). And it is this final part of the story, in which almost everything that could go wrong in London and Birmingham does, that the book really comes into its own. Through Luna, Hallberg notices England with the same intensity she inhabits eastern North Carolina. To Americans coming of age in the 1980s, the color and brashness of the Second British Invasion gave the impression of the UK as a place of fun and refuge, and Hallberg plays her hand well in portraying Britain as being… rather different from what her young American character might have been expecting.
Having said all this, I think the real strength of Searching for Jimmy Page is in its connection with its Southern Gothic roots. All the tropes are here: family secrets, weirdness, madness, death, poverty or the proximity to it, nostalgia for long-gone better times, disappearances. You can’t write about the South without acknowledging its darkness. The hallmarks of Southern writing are the prioritization of place and the awareness of a certain rebellious distinctness that accompanies Southern identity. Hallberg clearly knows this, and her writing evokes the linguistic richness of South: the indirectness, the elisions, the regionalisms, the steel behind the kindness. Hallberg acknowledges the entrenched problems of the region—racism, religiosity, a propensity for irrationality—without necessarily putting them front and center. This is the work of a writer who knows her craft well.
This actually brings me to my one item of criticism: depending on the narrative distance from Luna in the story, the style goes from rich to a bit overwritten. In a way, this makes sense: Luna is not even twenty yet and wants to be a writer. Is a writer. It stands to reason that she’d overdo it at times (an example from p. 65: “I wondered for the first time if my rejection of her had precipitated her derision of me, if she needed me as much as her sycophants to retrieve what her mother had taken from her.”) So it’s an appropriate stylistic tic, but one I noticed more often than I wanted to. At the same time, and I feel strongly about this, Southern writing does not have to conform to the tidy, glassine clarity of standard American MFAese. Hallberg knows the difference, and it shows here.
All in all, this is an excellent book, a confident debut by a writer who clearly knows how to tell a story. It’s also a book about a part of the US that literature has largely overlooked. For decades, North Carolina has punched well above its weight in its production and nurturance of excellent writers, but not enough has been written about the remote eastern third of the state. I’m delighted this book can take its place in the Down East canon.