San Francisco author Jim Provenzano’s new fifth novel “Now I’m Here” was more than a decade in the making.
“I’ve been dabbling on this one since maybe 2002. I kept getting distracted by other ideas and starting other books,” says the writer, who reads from the new release at Dog Eared Books in San Francisco on Thursday. “It took Queen to kick me in the ass and get this finished.”
The British rock group — a touchstone of Provenzano’s adolescence — serves as muse, role model and escape hatch for the rural Ohio teenagers at the center of “Now I’m Here,” a wrenching love story that delves deep into the experience of growing up gay in heartland America during the late 1970s.
The book and each of its chapters share titles, and themes, with Queen songs. During Provenzano’s appearance in The Castro, a selection of those tunes will be played by guitarist Peter Fogel.
When Provenzano learned that the Queen movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” (opening Nov. 2) was finally being made, he knew he had to finish and publish the book before the film’s release. “I didn’t want anyone to think I wrote the book to take advantage of the film,” he says.
Yet the lyrical prose and fine-grained detail of his novel are a far cry from the jubilant bombast in the film’s trailer. “Now I’m Here” offers flip-side of a biopic, focusing not on celebrities’ lives, but on the faraway lives of people they touched.
One of Provenzano’s achievements in “Now I’m Here” is his evocation of the relationship between listeners and pop music before the internet.
“The only way we could hear new music,” Provenzano, 56, recalls, “was to play the radio. Especially if you couldn’t afford to be buying lots of records. When a song you liked came on, you would stop everything you were doing in order to listen. You didn’t know when you were going to hear it again.
“It was such a big deal to see a band live and then come into high school wearing a fresh new ELO or Aerosmith or Queen T-shirt.”
In “Now I’m Here,” a Queen show serves as backdrop to a burgeoning romance: “Brian May’s guitar solos curled about the songs with a rococo flair, and induced by both his sudden passion for David and the pot haze, it seemed to Joshua that May’s flowing sleeves floated like wings. The two boys were entranced…”
In addition to conveying the power of listening to music, Provenzano captures the intensity of making it: When Joshua, a piano prodigy and would-be rock star, sets fingers to keyboard, Provenzano beautifully renders his passionate character’s combination of fugue state and frenzy.
It’s hardly a surprise that the author grew up playing piano: “I kept asking if we could get one from the time I was about 5 years old,” he says.
Provenzano’s father, who ran a construction firm, eventually found a battered old upright in a building that was set for demolition and brought it home for his son. That’s one of many memories transformed into fiction in “Now I’m Here.”
Such tender, autobiographical aspects may well be a part of why Provenzano took as long as he did to finish the book.
“I really did transcribe ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and play it at a piano recital when I was a teenager.” Provenzano says, pointing out another episode from his life reflected in “Now I’m Here.”
In Queen’s most famous song, Freddie Mercury wonders, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
While Mercury answers himself by singing that it “doesn’t really matter,” such questions clearly matter to Jim Provenzano.
“There just haven’t been books about gay boys growing up at that particular time in that part of the country,” the author says. “This is a novel, but I needed to get everything right.”
IF YOU GO
Jim Provenzano, Peter Fogel
Where: Dog Eared Books, 489 Castro St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 20
Contact: (415) 658-7920, www.dogearedbooks.copm
Now I’m Here
Written by: Jim Provenzano
Published by: Beautiful Dreamer Press