Book review: ‘That Iron String’ by Jack Kohl
By Stacy Santini
“Call me Portsmouth” … so the opening line of Jack Kohl’s new book, “That Iron String” could read. Faintly echoing thematic visions from “Moby Dick,” Kohl’s character, Portsmouth, narrates a sophisticated storyline much as Ishmael does in Melville’s world-class epic novel. Not for a very long time has Long Island birthed an author who unabashedly delivers a tale so worthy of recognition. “That Iron String” cannot be called an easy read, but it is not meant to be. Its intricately woven plot certainly entertains, but its value lies in the book’s prodigious subject matter, esoteric themes and philosophical questions.
A Northport native, Kohl’s adoration for the picturesque towns that hug the Long Island Sound is apparent. There is a fond innocence for the town that has claimed him and this easily translates in “That Iron String,” which is set in a fictional small water-side enclave on Long Island called Pauktaug. Describing his utopic passion for Long Island, Kohl states, “As I walk along the beaches of the north shore, I see Long Island in the light of the tremendous shadow of New England. It is right there across the water; almost as if New England is a giant hen that laid an egg which became our home.” With main character names such as Portsmouth and Boston, his affinity for all things New England is also appreciable, and theoretical relevance from authors such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne play a prominent role in development of the novel’s copious themes. The title itself, “That Iron String,” is a derivative from the famous Emerson essay, “Self-Reliance.”
Identification as author joins Kohl’s prestigious resume and is aligned with pianist, musical director, conductor and scholar. Classically trained, Kohl commenced his piano studies as a child under Marie Babiak; he went on to attend the pre-college division of The Juilliard School, completing his educational tenure with a doctor of music arts degree in piano performance. Currently associate musical director at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, Kohl has accompanied numerous theatrical productions over the decades and continues to perform as a solo pianist in both the classical tradition and jazz. It is not surprising that his novel draws deeply from his experience in those genres.
The piano is at the forefront of “That Iron String,” and both the instrument and the music that emanates from it are personified and central to the plot. When discussing one of the driving forces that inspired him, Kohl speaks of Moby Dick. “Of all the interpretations of Moby Dick, I most related to the analysis that was a hyper-burlesque of Emersonian Transcendentalism.” Kohl has an erudite vernacular, and one often feels they are in a Victorian tea parlor when speaking with him. However, do not let the dogma of this inspiration frighten you because the book unwraps itself beautifully and has all the components that will keep a reader’s attention. Murder, mystery, intrigue, competition, love, and family values are all interwoven within the philosophical, amorphous boundaries.
The Pianist plays to a different audience with an intensely thought-provoking tale of passion, achievement
The book is essentially about two cousins, Portsmouth and Boston, who are raised in Pauktaug by close relatives. Growing up under sweeping elm trees, the Calvinistic idealism of their youth seems to be grounding for one and muddying for the other. From an early age when they were not skinning knees running through woods and frolicking about on the local beaches, they both studied classical piano. Eventually, the pair parted ways as they individually moved away from Pauktaug to complete collegiate studies and become concert pianists.
Although both did exceptionally well, it is overwhelmingly apparent that one of them is more than gifted with infinite skills and supernatural ability. This ability drives him further and further into isolation and forces self-introspection that is revealed throughout the novel in a series of letters. The plot unfolds slowly as they return home to practice for a competition for which they have both qualified after many, many years of not seeing one another. There are numerous surprises along the way as well countless representations of beautiful imagery.
Longing to debunk clichés, Kohl knew the book would have to be much more substantial than a storyline about a pianist who struggles and would eventually have some kind of victory over those struggles. Kohl wanted something more for his potential readership than the unoriginality of that type of theme. While sketching notes, Kohl examines how he started to unravel a deeper image of that concept, “I thought what if I had a pianist who knows there is nothing he can do to be playing better than he is and is still very idealistic about his fellow man. He wants to persist and keep playing but his career begins to wane in competitions according to the judges and he doesn’t understand why; who or what is to blame? He starts to develop this anger and it builds up and builds up, where is this anger to go? This was my jumping off point for the plot.”
When conversing with Kohl, one will find that one of his favorite words is “balderdash,” which can be translated to mean “senseless talk or writing,” ironic for an author who has written a novel that is anything but.
“That Iron String” is available for purchase at www.amazon.com.