Today marks the publication of the American author and former Rolling Stone Press director Jonathan Wells’ raucous debut novel The Sterns Are Listening, published by Ze Books, set against the backdrop of the legendary club CBGB and East Village’s punk spirit of the 1970s. The novel was praised by Forbes as “a deeply felt, richly detailed, and imaginatively conceived literary novel” last weekend.
Ze Books is the brainchild of the founder of Ze Records Michael Zilkha whose signees were regulars at CBGB, Wells’ novel is set in the epicentre of the East Village music scene. Jonathan himself, like his protagonist Benjamin Stern, suffered from a hearing loss after many late nights spent at CBGB.
With sweet humour and wry reminiscence of the golden days of New York music scene, Wells tells the story of Benjamin Stern, whose own days of rocking out at New York’s famous club CBGB are long gone; his wife, Dita, who with a grandiose sense of drama has remade herself into an Italian donna; and their children Alessandra and Giorgio. The needle drops on two tracks at the outset: First, Benjamin’s ne’er-do-well brother Spence ropes him into a scheme to market a loud-and-proud set of hearing aids to aging Boomers lamenting their lost youth and burnt-out eardrums. Then Giorgio returns home unexpectedly, having escaped the off-the-grid reform school he’s been sent to. And now the Sterns’ quiet existence is suddenly ringing with action and agitation. Music plays a significant role in the book as classic albums like Television’s Marquee Moon presents itself as the motif for discourses between the father and son.
Wells’ upcoming book is also the first novel published by Ze Books, following from an impressive catalogue of titles by Mary Gaitskill, Adele Bertei and more. As noted in a recent Guardian profile, Michael brings to publishing the same passion, infectious enthusiasm, and audacious taste that made his label Ze Records an underground hitmaker in ’70s and ’80s New York, having released records by countercultural heavyweights like SUICIDE, John Cale, Lydia Lunch, The Contortions, The Waitresses + more. That music scene also forms the genesis of The Sterns Are Listening.