Flint Book Review: Phil’s Siren Song

By Jan Worth-Nelson

Just to get it on the table right up front, I’m pretty crazy about Flint native Tim Lane’s new novel, “Phil’s Siren Song.”  

I know, I know: another book about a tribe of 20-something blue-collar Flint underachievers — this time in the 80s — straggling from one beloved downtown hangout to another, coming and going from attempted romances and the halls of academe, getting drunk and sometimes drugged up on Flint’s east side? No thanks. 

Regardless of what resistance you might have toward another Flint quasi-memoir, you should read this book. The writing is so good, the setting so vivid, the characters so well drawn, and the laughs on almost every page redeeming of the heartbreak, that I really want to invite you to take it in and savor it.

You’ll find a buffet of plot lines about the local and national music scene, about struggles with cultural identity, dashed romance, class differences, family dysfunction and the resilience of a whole generation of kids who are now edging past middle age.

The story is told from the perspective of 20-ish Phil McCormick, who lives on Stone Street with a downtown music impresario named Joe, a genial enforcer and one of the grownups, it seems, within the tribe. Phil is halfheartedly taking classes at UM – Flint and working as a manager at Ruggero’s at the former Windmill Place. He is also selling pills (which he refers to as “candy”) at fictionalized venues like “El Oasis” and the former Rusty Nail.

While Phil is described as a “ladies man” on the book jacket, inside the story he’s more often a “horn dog.” Yet what could be inanely disparaged in some instances as political incorrectness is not so simple. Phil both loves and is sheepishly intimidated by women. 

And the women of “Siren’s Song” are formidable, generally running the show, calling out Phil’s bullshit, and mocking him genially as a “doofus” or “goon boy.” 

A recurring theme is Phil’s love of the waitresses at Thoma’s, a diner very like the late, iconic Angelo’s, where much of the story’s action takes place.

“The waitresses are pure and lovely and tough: mothers, daughters, girlfriends, grandmothers,” Phil declares. “I want to believe that what you see at Thoma’s is what you get in Flint, and if given the chance these women could save all of us.” 

Other characters include the mysterious Nigel, a reclusive poet and chess master  whose work seems to fascinate his cohort; and Karen, a love interest who never quite falls for Phil despite romantic walks through Burroughs and Pierce Parks, a reverent visit to the Bray Gallery in the Flint Institute of Arts, and many other locales you will recognize.

But the focus of Phil’s preoccupation is Stuart Page, or Stu, the main character of Lane’s first novel, “Your Silent Face.”   

I’m relieved that the perspective of the story in “Phil’s Siren Song” lifts away from Stu himself.  In “Your Silent Face,” Page, a seriously troubled kid, was found alcoholically blacked out on so many bathroom floors that I began to lose patience. It was just too dark and repetitive.  

Here though, the character of Phil offers Lane a chance for a three-dimensional development of Stu, who struggles with his supposed Native American heritage throughout “Siren Song.”

This is a return to a theme from the first book and a central theme for Lane himself, whose own grandfather was native. Stu’s grandfather “looked” native, was supposedly raised on the reservation and sometimes donned a headdress and smoked an Indian pipe, sitting wordlessly in his bungalow on the East Side. But Stu is red-haired and nobody seems to buy his lineage. What does it mean? Is he Indian or not?

Also, as in Lane’s first novel, the importance of music underlies everything – offering community, solace, meaning, and joy to the often untethered characters. I confess that during that era I didn’t go much beyond The Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson, so many of the musical references escaped me, but as readers we are strongly invited into the cultural and personal resonance of the bands and musicians of Lane’s generation.  

Despite revisiting some themes, this is a better book than Lane’s first novel. 

Structurally, I am grateful Lane indulged in chapter breaks this time around — a help to the reader trying to manage the flow of crises and emotions. His first book was unbroken, and that format annoyed me. (Of course in that case it could have been form and character working together, and here we may be seeing, structurally speaking, a reflection of Phil’s relatively more orderly mind compared to Stu’s.)

Also, this one’s funny.

There are a hundred examples I could note, many based around class differences and farcical incongruities, but one of my favorites is the discussion of what to name Stu’s disastrous and barely competent band.  

They pick “Haute Boys” to try to show how cool these very uncool boys are, and everybody has to practice how to say “haute” as opposed to “hot.” But Stu isn’t satisfied and suggests calling the group “Art Fags” instead, which was so Stu that I laughed out loud. (Fortunately, he is loudly voted down.) 

Lane, 56, now of Lansing, long married, and with two grown kids, grew up in a variety of East Side venues. He started his education as a kindergartner at the recently demolished Washington Elementary, but for the rest of his K-12 years, he was a Catholic school student at the former St. Mary’s and Powers High School. 

As a blue collar kid, he said he felt “a bit like an outsider in a high school full of many affluent kids.” He praises his Powers teachers, including Rick Morse and Mary Frillici, who “created safe havens” and introduced him to great books, films, essays, and poetry.

Of “Phil’s Siren Song,” Lane explained that his “Flint 70s and 80s experience was “a mashup of Catholicism and Reaganomics, tenderness and violence, humanism and racism, loyalty and classism, ups and downs, silent love and silent hardship, family and friends and enemies, extremism and ignorance, encouragement and discouragement, freedom and repression.

“So many juxtaposed isms,” he continued over email. “It takes novels and documentaries and songs and poetry and journalism and art to get at it.  It was such a complex experience. I’ve always wanted to understand it, capture it and showcase it.”

I won’t give away the ending, but it’s worthwhile to plunge into Lane’s attempt to capture all this history — perhaps demonstrating the audacity only an East Side kid can muster. 

Did he succeed? 

As Lane suggests, Flint eludes simple understanding – acknowledging its complexity and contradictions with respect often missing from the city’s many insulting fly-over and drop-in characterizations. But at the end of the day, I’m reminded of what somebody famous once said, that the essence of love is attention.  If that’s true, Lane’s vivid, compassionate, complex work is indeed a gift of love to his unforgettable hometown.

This article also appears in East Village Magazine’s May 2024 issue.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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