Bill Konigsberg’s THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS takes its name from a Seamus Heaney poem, titled “Song.” In the final couplet of that poem, Heaney’s poet tells of, “that moment when the bird sings very close / To the music of what happens.” And, in a nutshell, this is the same song, the same spirit, at the heart of Konigsberg’s surprising young adult novel.
I was not prepared to enjoy this new release as much as I did. Indeed, about 60-pages into the book, I wondered if it and I were ever going to “click.” And then something very strange began to happen. I started picking up the book more frequently. I started refusing to put it down again. I started sneaking in bits of reading between grading papers, running errands, or watching news segments, muting commercials so I could read for 90-seconds before Rachel Maddow popped back onto my television screen. The beauty of an experience like this is that it feels so natural. Without realizing it, I was myself immersed in the music of what happens in Max and Jordan’s lives, in their bumpy relationship, in their sometimes cozy but sometimes horrid home worlds, and in the circles of their friendships, which sphere separately and then converge.
The two protagonists take turns telling their parts of the story, in an intercalary format that has become ubiquitous in the YA genre. Max is a handsome, popular, masculine latino teenager who seems to have everything going for him. He is gay but only selectively out. Jordan is quieter, a poet. He is gay and more openly out, though as an introvert, he doesn’t talk to many people besides his two best friends and his problem-ridden mother. They come from very separate households and backgrounds, but the magic of a 1980s food truck brings them together, and the rest is the music that develops as their two souls and experiences meet. They learn from each other; they learn how to be with each other and they learn to bring their two worlds into harmony. Like all good stories, and good romances, though, there are struggles along the way. Max must deal with an absent father and a painful secret. Jordan must deal with a single mother who acts more like a child, and with worldly inexperience that leaves him possibly unable to help Max when he needs it most.
Race, gender, masculinity, friendship, family, economics, sex and romance, sex and assault, first loves, first jobs, first times. I’m not sure what else a novel could tackle, but this one seems to do it all. Yet, far from being overwhelming or overstretched, Konigbsberg allows Max and Jordan the time and space, the introspection and extroversion, needed to experience, process, and grow from all of these experiences. It’s a near-masterful coming-of-age novel in this way, and an equally delightful romance. A book I will hang on to, to learn from and to enjoy again someday.