The story looks back to follow a young Smith as he struggles through his adolescence and early college years, honing his musical talent while dealing with insecurities and heartbreaks. Levin captures the mind of an adolescent boy with sensitivity, infusing awkward moments with gentle humor and the darker ones with empathy and compassion. Brian’s richly detailed inner life is the book’s primary focus, leaving its secondary characters less developed. Some readers will want to know more about the band’s other members or Serena, Brian’s unrequited love. However, Brian’s relationship with his father is dynamic, loving, and deeply musical.
The other key relationship, of course, is with music, and Levin’s book is a rock fan’s delight. Though the Beach Boys are the primary musical lens, references to and insights about other bands and songs abound. The invented Call Field material is convincing, as Brian shares both his song lyrics and the creative process he uses to write them. Levin himself also highlights his work’s construction, often directly addressing the reader, making heavy use of reflective foreshadowing, or acknowledging the limits of nostalgia. His work here is indeed “incomplete,” though, as the story only covers the beginning of Call Field’s rise to fame, leaving the rest of the story for a follow-up. By exploring music as a path toward personal growth, this sensitive, lyric novel offers a refreshing twist on the standard bildungsroman.
Takeaway: A Beach-Boy loving ex-punk rocker reflects on life, love, and music in this engaging novel of the rise of a band.
Great for fans of: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Rachel Cohn’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
In Levin’s novel, a rock star–turned–English teacher is thrust back into his musical past.
In the opening pages, narrator Brian Smith recounts his modest success with the punk band Call Field, which had a minor hit in the year 2000, and how he later became a high school teacher. He details his suburban lifestyle and the demanding nature of his job; introduces Veronica Jones, his music- and dentistry-inclined teaching assistant; describes his home office, decked out with rock memorabilia; and relates his complex, abiding love for the Beach Boys. As he teaches Veronica to write efficiently, he reveals his past, and readers learn that his father named him after Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson and taught him to play music. He tells of opening up to his dad about his difficulties in life when he was a teenager, including the fact that Serena Rios, his first crush, dumped him. He also recalls the story of when he, along with Serena’s new beau, Steve Öken, and other students auditioned songs for a high school graduation performance, and how later, at UCLA, he met guitarist Noelani Mele’kauwela Aukake’ho’opae, with whom he fell deeply in love. Several pages of this novel are adorned with black-and-white photos that highlight key objects in the tale, such as Brian’s Beach Boys memorabilia, and this helps to bring him to life as a character. Levin also peppers the text with abundant 1970s and ’80s pop-culture references—particularly regarding various bands, which music history buffs will appreciate. However, it’s the nonmusical aspects of Brian’s life—his family history and, in particular, his high school and college romances—that readers are likely to find to be the most relatable and engaging parts of the novel.
An engrossing rock-’n’-roll bildungsroman.
Incomplete by J.D. Levin is a powerhouse work that weaves contemporary music history into a riveting narration of the highs and lows of the music industry. Levin takes a fresh approach to this topic from the perspective of the former rock star turned high school English teacher who is perfectly content to leave the past forgotten. That is until a determined student begins to suspect our mild-mannered educator might be more than a grammar and literature junkie. Through her dedicated probing, we come to witness a breathtaking story unfold of young kids creating music for the art of it. Over the chapters, readers watch a group of adolescent high school students create a band that evolves before the audience’s very eyes. Levin captures a flurry of musical history from more well-known groups such as The Beach Boys and The Ramones to lesser-known favorites such as The Breeders and Weezer. Levin does an exceptional job of touching on a variety of acts that dramatically impacted the music industry over the years. We are guided in our tale by our storyteller not the lead singer but the vital songwriter who turned simple words and phrases into moments that would last a lifetime. Through his perspective, we come to see how isolating and lonely the stage can feel, particularly for the talented individuals who experience the stage at such a young age. Faced with depression, anxiety, and industry pitfalls, our young storyteller reluctantly shares his experiences in front of the lights, why he left the industry, and what improved his mental state, or who rather. Beyond music history, Levin captures the significant relationships, both romantic and platonic, that develop over and around music. Our author’s use of language is engrossing and moving. Time and again readers will find themselves rereading passages for their poignancy and intuitiveness. Brilliantly, Levin states, “some things are more important than rock and roll…a reminder that music—even great music—is only one monotone color in the broader palette of life.” A fascinating read for its awareness and depth, readers across disciplines and capabilities will appreciate the content and consideration of this work. Although the content may speak to an older audience who has experienced the hills and valleys of life, early readers will garner a number of life lessons. Moreover, younger readers will appreciate this approachable survey of a generation’s musical scrapbook. Levin’s Incomplete is a five-star work that will leave readers anxious for the next installment!
Reviewed By: Jessica Tingling
A tender, wise, and engrossing coming-of-age tale…
Levin’s compelling debut examines age-old questions of love, grief, and art. It’s been ages since Brian Smith, the now high-school English teacher, used to be a rock star: it was in the summer of 2000, when Brian’s one-hit-wonder punk band released a radio-friendly pop song and made it big. But then, just as quickly, it all went to pieces. And now, Brian is content living his mundane life as a young father, husband, and a teacher trying to make a difference in his students’ lives. Things change when the whipsmart, articulate, and determined fifteen-year-old Veronica becomes Brian’s student. A school essay sets Veronica on the trail of Brian’s past. As the ghosts of his rock & roll past resurface to haunt him, Brian finds himself at a crossroads. Levin traces in the minutiae of each small moment of Brian’s life while delving into his inability to come to terms with his past, his longings and regrets, and the self-doubts, fears, and insecurities of his younger self while exploring the thin line between jealousy and rage and love and hate. Over the course of the narrative, readers engage with the challenges of adolescence and young adult life, and learn about the harsh realities of pursuing an art career. Along the way, Levin takes readers on a tour of the vibrant rock & roll music scene, exploring the music of The Beach Boys and others legendary bands. Levin expertly captures a sense of place, and his intelligent writing and sharp wit, combined with his ability to skillfully handle his entertaining cast and snapshots across two timelines, make readers thoroughly invested in the story. The pacing is measured, the prose crisp, and the plotting tightly constructed. Brian’s conflicts over his impossible desires and broken dreams are brilliantly distilled, and they seamlessly fit together into the affecting narrative. Throughout, there are beautifully crafted moments of tenderness between Brian and Mel and their young daughter Sam. With his keen understanding of human psyche and compassionate eye, Levin makes Brian’s story deeply affecting, providing a profoundly moving view of the future touched by the past. The book’s strength lies in Levin’s ability to provide freshly minted perspectives on a coming-of-age story that may seem old and familiar. This poignant novel about learning to live with past failures and love one’s imperfect self will greatly appeal to lovers of literary fiction.