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In New Novel, Phillips Subtly Tackles Big Themes




We know what you mean, Madeleine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: I'm considering everything. I'm Madeleine Brand.

SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel.

Back in the 1990s, Arthur Phillips was a five-time champion on "Jeopardy." Like most champions, he was finally defeated. So it's a good thing that Phillips had a backup career as a novelist. His latest book is called "The Song is You." And our reviewer Alan Cheuse puts it in the category of great American iPod novel.

ALAN CHEUSE: The main character, TV commercial director Julian Donahue is grieving from the loss of his two-year-old son and the end of his marriage. He stops off one night in a Brooklyn bar and catches a glimpse of Cait O'Dwyer, a young Irish singer, which sets off one of the great obsessions in contemporary American literature.

As Cait moves along in the early stages of finding herself a public success, Julian courts her using all available contemporary technologies from answering machine to cell phone to email and, of course, his beloved iPod, that greatest of all human inventions, as he calls it. He never meets her face-to-face. He even enters her apartment and cooks her a meal without meeting her. And that's weird.

So, though all this may sound like an inside out version of the traditional Hollywood meet cute, Arthur Phillips is one serious subtle writer. He deals quietly with big themes such as illusion versus reality, offering wonderfully satirical moments, on making commercials, playing "Jeopardy" and some piercing, painful moments on what it's like to age in youth culture.

He also writes extraordinarily well about grief and music. Julian especially loved, Phillips writes, how Cait handled the songs originally sung by men, as if she were singing what a man had once sung to her and now she was only recalling it. By the end of this book, Phillips makes a reader feel as though he's doing much more than merely recalling this story. He reveals Julian to us in all his humane nakedness.

SIEGEL: The novel is "The Song is You" by Arthur Phillips. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.