Review by Tobias Carroll
Titles can be misleading. Tim Kinsella’s debut novel comes with one that’s both hefty and esoteric on its cover: The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense. Given that Kinsella is also known for his role in numerous bands that juxtapose the cerebral, the experimental, and the visceral, one might expect something else here: a narrative deconstructing karaoke rituals, or some sort of surreal The Tooth of Crime-esque world in which singing “Wanted Dead or Alive” helps ward off attackers. In the end,The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense is much more of a work of realism (with one notable exception) than one might have expected. Its title wasn’t chosen for its cleverness or for some evocation of kitsch; instead, it’s a very literal reading of some of the primary settings and themes of the book to follow.
It begins with a funeral. Three siblings — Mel, Will, and Kent — are brought together in their hometown of Stone Claw Grove for the first time in five years, and the details of what hangs unsaid gradually emerge. Here, dramatic secrets don’t explode and ravage lives; instead, the tension is subtler, focusing on an accumulation of smaller disappointments. Mel has let a talent for art go fallow, and now works at a gentlemen’s club-slash-karaoke bar; Kent struggles with his anger at nearly everyone around him; and Will makes his way through the novel irrevocably damaged due to his addiction to fighting, one that’s left him physically scarred and terrified of a relapse.
While these three siblings are at the center of the novel, we are also given other perspectives, many of which illuminate the history of The Legendary Shhhh, the bar at which Mel works. Norman, the bar’s owner, becomes a more complex character the further we get into the novel. He’s the closest thing this book has to an antagonist, especially with respect to Mel. At the same time, there’s something deeply sad about him, as he struggles with his own feelings of inadequacy (a cringeworthy online dating profile makes an appearance) and the legacy of his beloved father.
Families, both blood and makeshift, fuel much of the action. A lengthy subplot focusing on the life of a boy kidnapped several years earlier serves as a counterpoint to the story of Mel, Will, Kent, and Norman, periodically threatening to intersect with it. At times this subplot clicks; at others, the impression given is of a novella sharing some of the same characters welded to one family’s story. The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense is not driven by plot so much as placing its characters into contact with one another and seeing what comes as their shared histories intersect, boil over, or collide.
Those collisions prompt conflict, and from that conflict arises the self-defense of the title — in Will’s struggles to restrain his own impulses, and in Mel’s growing hope that he might return to his old ways in order to exact some sort of retribution on Norman’s person. The siblings at the center of Kinsella’s novel all seek some form of catharsis, from Will’s time in recovery to Mel’s fondness for karaoke. The mode here is a realist one, with the sole exception being Will’s journey into escalating violence, presented in flashback, which eventually takes a turn into the surreal — a magic realist moment surrounded by the understated and quotidian.
The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense takes moments and characters who could be quirky or grotesque and finds their essential humanity via the minutiae of their lives. For all of the pyrotechnics that threatens to erupt, the novel’s conclusion is one of quiet resolution, of sidesteps away from crisis.