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What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man

Review

What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man

“What is this book? It is Act II: What follows the pinnacle? Sex on the road, just for the thrills, reading books to calm it down, the Road to walk it off, Kathryn Cermak to ease my soul, and children to end the aloneness, writing (hello, dear Reader), always singing, so there’ll be a work life. Years roll by this way. It is my response to grand good fortune.”

So begins Art Garfunkel’s lyrical WHAT IS IT ALL BUT LUMINOUS, his poetic musings on a life well-lived --- one that is still moving forward, always creating, always luminous. This isn’t your typical autobiography. Garfunkel’s history is told in flowing prose, bounding from present to past, far from a linear rags-to-riches story. Born to middle-class parents in Kew Gardens, Queens, young Art made one of the most important connections of his life when he met classmate and fellow music lover Paul Simon in the fifth grade. The two were castmates in the play “Alice in Wonderland” (Paul played the White Rabbit, Art the Cheshire Cat) and unknowingly formed a long-lasting musical bond that famously ebbed and flowed over the years, creating some of the most iconic music of the 20th century.

"This isn’t your typical autobiography. Garfunkel’s history is told in flowing prose, bounding from present to past, far from a linear rags-to-riches story."

Their complicated relationship was fraught from the beginning. Simon’s bandleader father made his feelings about 12-year-old Art clear from the beginning: “Not everybody likes everybody, and I just don’t like you.” He said that --- to a 12-year-old. So it’s no surprise that the seeds of discord were planted early on. Singing came naturally to Garfunkel, feeling his vocal chords “vibrate with the love of sound.” While still in high school, the duo recorded their first single, “Hey Schoolgirl,” which hit #40 on the national charts and sold 150,000 copies. Their place in the storied tapestry of American music was firmly cemented by the time they scored Mike Nichols’ The Graduate in 1967.

But far from being a one-trick pony, Garfunkel also dabbled in acting (Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22, both with Nichols), and had a successful solo career after Simon & Garfunkel initially broke up (the pair have since reunited several times and have toured and worked together), featuring high points with albums like Watermark and Breakaway. In addition to music, Garfunkel has become an avid long-distance walker, having walked across America and several swaths of Europe: “I walk because I’m fiercely in love with being alive. I walk for the lungs to exhale and expel…. I love to see decrepit things --- history, old shacks…. Most of all, I walk to relax…” And throughout his adventures, he has taken meticulous notes and written diary entries every step of the journey, including keeping a detailed list of all the books he’s read since 1968 (which you can see on his website). Seriously, it’s impressive.

And throughout his “grand good fortune,” Garfunkel has experienced deep and lasting love. His relationship with actress Laurie Bird was shattered by her suicide in 1979, a loss that sent him reeling: “After Laurie died, nights began to feel sadder than days. Going on the road for shows had an aching lonesome…check in time in strange hotels at night. Where am I? Why?” In 1988, he married Kathryn “Kim” Cermak and had two sons later in life.

If you’re expecting a predictable A-to-B musical autobiography, this is not it. Flowy and lyrical, like his songs, it does not follow a traditional path. It goes back and forth in time, a tad confusing at points (using different names to refer to his wife and son), but always showing Garfunkel’s artistic heart. Fans of Simon & Garfunkel may be a tad disappointed that the book doesn’t spend more time on that part of his life and career, but glimpses and anecdotes show the profundity of that relationship.

After the historic concert in Central Park in 1981, Garfunkel wasn’t that pleased with his own performance: “We were front-page news of the New York Times next day. I voted myself a C+ as I walked offstage. –We blew it. (I wanted the nuances finer, more controlled.)  -Are you crazy, Artie?” Despite all the career highs, it clearly demonstrates how artists will always be their own worst critic.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on September 29, 2017

What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man
by Art Garfunkel

  • Publication Date: September 26, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Music, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0385352476
  • ISBN-13: 9780385352475