What does a title reveal about the contents of the book? What director subliminal message does it give? I asked myself these questions as I read “The Upright Piano Player” by David Abbott. Even though music plays a role throughout the novel, the upright piano is mentioned only once or twice, a hold from the narrator’s childhood.
As I pondered more, I noticed the title’s interesting wordplay. Is the player of the piano an upright character? Does the pianist play an upright piano? Or, perhaps, is the reference to both?
Henry Cage, a man who has defined himself by practicalities, work, and uprightness, is now retiring. Over the years, his work ethic has cost him his family. Alone now, he sits at his upright piano but doesn’t know which tune to play. The chorus of his life seems to be filled with melancholy and random events that are often violent. Cage is often in the wrong place at the wrong time and the reader wonders if he had changed the signature, whether this might have made a difference in the outcome of those events.
Part One, much as a first verse, sets the tone for the book. It is so painfully sad I almost didn’t turn the page to begin the second. But I kept reading because of the depth of Cage’s character and the complexity of the plot. And when I finished the story, I knew I would read the book again.
Like a haunting melody, this story waits for a second encounter. I kept putting off that next reading of “The Upright Piano Player” because I wasn’t sure I wanted to experience the emotions another time, but I knew I had to. I had to find the mention of the piano and I had to make the connections between the music and the characters.
You see, I think the author is making comparisons between life and an old upright piano. Some of the keys, like life experiences, are white; some are black. There are harmonious chords and discordant combinations. Each song has a beginning and each song has an ending. If the upright piano also happens to be a player piano, then whatever roll the Master inserts is the song that plays, regardless of the body whose hands are poised over the keys. Whether the music is chosen for us or we choose the song, it must be played.
Just as songs must be played, stories must be written, and books must be read. It is our obligation as readers to bear witness to the message. Perhaps our role is to join the choir and acknowledge that life is often unfair. But perhaps we are simply to gather around the piano and, even as we question the choice of the upright piano player, merely listen to the heart-wrenching beauty of those bittersweet tunes.
~ Deb Carpenter-Nolting