High school senior Piper wasn’t born deaf, but by the age of six she’d all but lost her hearing, which has left her reliant on hearing aids and lip reading—and made some aspects of teenage life difficult. It’s especially challenging, then, when the lead singer of Dumb, the hottest (and only) band at school, asks her to be its manager.
Author Antony John opens the book powerfully by describing Dumb’s first concert at school, all from Piper’s point of view. It isn’t until the end of the chapter, when she tells us she’s deaf, that we realize everything she’s described has been visual: the crowd’s reaction, the bassist’s spiky hair, the lead singer’s gyrations.
No doubt about it, it’s an interesting scenario. John has endowed his likable main character with a good, snarky sense of humor, and he set her story in a great town for music: Seattle. But he also handles her pain with grace and sensitivity, understanding that some aspects of her situation might be really problematic rather than simply an interesting challenge. Her father, for instance, has never fully accepted her deafness, and he refuses to learn sign language, her preferred method of communication.
Since she can’t really hear what Dumb sounds like (other than “loud”), Piper has to get creative in order to whip them into shape. She lays down a beat for them by watching a metronome and banging out its rhythm on the floor with a broom—just like the 17th-century composer Lully, who conducted his orchestra by beating a baton on the ground, as we learn from Piper’s nerdy friend Ed. (Fun details about the history of rock, punk and grunge come courtesy of guitarist Kallie.)
At nearly 350 pages, the novel is a bit longer than the story calls for, and debut novelist John asks us to suspend our disbelief that a high school cover band could get interviews on radio and TV shows, not to mention recording time in a professional studio. But with Five Flavors of Dumb, John has given us an entertaining, sensitive story that makes his own allegiance to music touchingly clear. From the moment Piper and the rest of Dumb visit the music mecca that is Kurt Cobain’s house, the power of rock makes Piper just a little more daring, a little more rebellious—a little more herself.