Greed, Sex, and “the Latest Thing”: Review of William Charland’s Soundings

Mary E. Hotvedt reviews Soundings by Bill Charland, who will be on the panel Books, Nooks, and Hooks: How the Publishing Industry is Changing on Friday, September 27 at the Festival.  In a short while we will post an interview with Mr. Charland on this blog.

Greed, Sex, and “the Latest Thing”

When I was in a Sex Research program we post docs used to play a game: Name a technology or advance in society and then figure out how people used it for sex.  (We didn’t have a lot of money and had to amuse ourselves with cheap wine and parlor games. Good times!)  We came to the conclusion that, for long as homo sapiens has been around, every discovery and creation has been used to some sexual advantage by somebody somewhere. Think: “How do you like my new clamshell necklace?”  and on up to virtually any internet app.

Bill Charland’s novel Soundings ( Wheatmark 2008) takes us back into the ‘90’s and the fast-changing telecommunications world, the outcome of deregulation. The pressure is on in Denver to keep Telwest viable in the post-Ma Bell world, with cell phones cutting further into the market. Fortunes rise and fall, and a cutthroat executive is called in to ruthlessly weed out Telwest employees who are not creating instant profit.  Picture poor Wally Arneson, the geek close to a breakthrough in his division, if only they can get the address codes right for the video phone. But before it’s perfected, his code writers are furloughed. Still the video phone is glommed onto as “The Latest Thing”-with some unintended and funny results, results which reminded me of our post-doc game.

Charland’s protagonist, Hawk Kitree, is Wally’s PR agent and a man uncertain of his own nature. The author writes him and two other key characters as marginal people, placed between cultures and careers in such a way that they have inside/outside perspectives on this Denver scene, on rampant greed and growth in general.  Hawk and his distant cousin Cassie find their way to each other at the same time “The Latest Thing” spins out of control. Meaningful, old-fashioned face –to-face encounter vs. –well, what do you imagine would sell a video phone?

In case you think the fate of the fictive Telwest is passé, think again. I read the denouement of the book while half-listening to two techies with a new app discussing “The Latest Thing” on public radio. They used the very same catch-phrases and optimistic tones that Charland puts in the mouths of his telecom execs. And I have no doubt people have already worked out a sexual use for that sexy new app.

Charland is himself a man part of many worlds-journalist, clergy, academic, therapist. He uses that diverse history to write with authority about his subject and his characters. He displays both sympathy and dry humor for the denizens of the frantic ‘90’s scene. I look forward to the next novel by this author. I hear one is in the works.


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