10 of the Best Literary References to Berklee
Perhaps you’re a fan of Django Reinhardt. Perhaps you are also into Stieg Larsson’s Millennium book series. If you’ve ever wished for the two to intersect (and even if, like most of us, it never really occurred to you), then you’ll be happy to know of Daniel Brolins—a fictional Swedish jazz guitarist that shares the page with everyone’s favorite hacker inked with a particular dragon tattoo in The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, written by Larsson’s literary heir, David Lagercrantz. How did Brolins get his chops? He attended Berklee, played jazz clubs in Cambridge, and cites influences (beyond Reinhardt) in his Berklee forbears, Pat Metheny '96H and John Scofield '73 '97H.
Lagercrantz struts his jazz knowledge in the new novel, but is decidedly not the first to work Berklee into a fictional universe. The time, then, seems ripe to take stock of Berklee’s wide literary presence, and while the following list is not exhaustive, here are the 10 best—or most interesting—books that feature the school in some way.
1. Sing You Home, Jodi Picoult (Atria Books, 2011)
A No. 1 New York Times bestseller, popular fiction mainstay author Jodi Picoult weaves a complicated story of love and childbirth through the life of protagonist Zoe Baxter, a music therapist who received her training at Berklee. Picoult even gives props to music therapy faculty Suzanne Hanser, Kathleen Howland, and Karen Wacks in the Acknowledgements.
2. Damascus Gate, Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin,1998)
Robert Stone’s flair for the apocalyptic thriller is in full view in Damascus Gate, which ended up a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1998. One of the central characters is Raziel Melker, a multi-instrumentalist who trains at Berklee before getting taken up in a plot filled with international intrigue and religious conspiracy.
3. Darpocalypse, Joseph Souza (Permuted Press, 2013)
Speaking of apocalyptic thrillers, ever wonder what the Berklee Performance Center (BPC) might look like after a zombie apocalypse? Look no further than the second installment of Maine writer Joseph Souza’s Living Dead trilogy, which includes the ghost character Annabelle, who, before said zombie apocalypse, studied piano on a full-ride Berklee scholarship. In one scene, Annabelle, who’s able to walk amongst the undead without fear, visits a ravaged BPC and plays Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto for an audience of aisle-wandering zombies.
4. Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann (Spiegel & Grau, 2010)
Hamann’s hyperliterate and ambitious first novel features Jack, a Berklee-bound friend of the protagonist, but music weaves its way all throughout the book. From Muddy Waters to the Cars and Al Green to the Smiths, song lyrics play an associative but key role in the lives of the characters.
5. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company, 1996)
Clocking in at almost 1,100 pages—hundreds of which take the form of tiny-font-sized labyrinthine footnotes—Infinite Jest's whip-smart author stands to be seen as one of our era’s literary titans. And even though Berklee only gets a passing mention on page 477, and even though the otherwise encyclopedic Wallace refers to the school by its former name—Berklee School of Music—hey, we’ll take it if it means gracing the pages of such a literary heavyweight. Check out our entry in a fan-made map-rendering of Wallace's fictional Boston.
6. Paradise Park, Allegra Goodman (Dial Press, 2001)
The Boston area often frequents the pages of acclaimed short story writer and novelist Allegra Goodman’s books. Her latest novel, The Chalk Artist, for instance, regales the story of Colin James, who scrawls on the streets of his Cambridge home in the titular chalk. In Paradise Park, the Boston-born protagonist Sharon Spiegelman embarks on a wild spiritual quest in which she encounters a folk dancer, a Buddhist mentor, and a Berklee-trained pianist.
7. The Unwalled City, Xu Xi (Chameleon Press, 2001)
Despite the fact that The Unwalled City’s subtitle is “A Novel of Hong Kong,” celebrated novelist Xu Xi draws on her multicultural experience living, as she says, “in the flight path between Hong Kong and New York,” to create characters far flung from the novel’s primary setting. Within that path, a love story grows ever more complicated when one character, Michael, gets accepted to Berklee and wrestles with the decision to move to Boston and pursue his jazz dreams.
8. Jam, Alan Goldsher (The Permanent Press, 2002)
To get an idea of Alan Goldsher’s writing style, you needn’t look further than the first line of his bio: “Alan Goldsher is the author of the acclaimed Beatles/horror remix novel, Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion…” And while you won’t find any undead Liverpudlians in Jam, you will meet jazz trumpeter Gabriel Baston, whose roommate at Berklee claims to be Miles Davis’s fifth cousin.
9. Make Him Look Good, Alisa Valdes B.M. ‘92 (St. Martins Press, 2006)
While Matthew Baker, the secret musical genius behind a rising pop star in Make Him Look Good, learned his craft at Berklee, the college connection transcends the fictional universe. Before embarking on a varied and decorated career as a journalist, film producer, and best-selling author, Valdes got her start as a Berklee student studying jazz composition and tenor sax. Read an interview with Valdes from 2010.
10. Four Past Midnight, Stephen King (Viking, 1990)
Yep, even the reigning king of horror himself has written Berklee into his pages. In this Bram Stoker Prize-winning 1990 collection of four novellas, the supernatural airplane thriller The Langoliers features Albert Kaussner, a “not-quite” violin prodigy en route to study at Berklee. In the made-for-TV version of the story, the reference gets shortened to “a school in Boston,” but it’s okay—this is the same miniseries that tried to make Bronson Pinchot (yes, that Bronson Pinchot) scary.