My copy of David McPhail’s Mole Music lost its dust jacket somewhere along the way, and what remains is a starry, untitled and otherwise anonymous cover, which seems about right. Here in this season especially, when invisible doings – inside branches and buds, beneath the earth that we walk on – yield to such precipitous awakenings and evolutions, this story of a common ground mammal going about his business oblivious to its reception in the wider, brighter world strikes me as a particularly vivid tribute to anyone who has ever succeeded in occasionally forgetting where all their thousands of hours of practice are meant to deliver them.
To Broadway? The Olympics? Miami Beach? That Mole’s business here happens to involve a violin may stir childhood visions of Carnegie Hall, or cheerless hours of repetition, still it’s amazing how pig-headed we become about applying our experience to expectations. Hello, parents? May I have your attention? Just a brief announcement that none of your children is ever likely to play the piano professionally, or soccer, or hockey, or flag football, or dance for money. Okay, a couple may dance for money. And one may play ball in the Philippines if he or she is very, very lucky, and be serenaded with catcalls and double-A batteries, so let’s enjoy it while we can, is all I’m saying – every perfectly executed bounce pass and magnificent jeté – lest our goals become somebody else’s failure.
And yet how happy it is to dream, how lucky the impulse to want to get better and better and better at a thing until – what? That is the magic, but also the mystery, of human achievement, though here it is a working-class mole who is the beneficiary, all at once possessed to take up an instrument from the beautiful music he hears on TV. This he accomplishes in the privacy of his burrow, going from screechy to virtuoso over what is apparently the growth span of a tree rising above ground where he cannot see it, as well as several generations of hypothetical listeners – farmers and armies and presidents and queens – still I think this audience is finally incidental to his commitment.
“There was something missing,” worries Mole from the beginning about his subterranean, unvarying existence, and if a song is not the final piece, then at least it is a puzzle, forever taunting and promising, from God’s lips to our blistering hands.