Paul Vesper is fifteen and impressionable when he first meets Jack Holberg, a blind pianist and sort of folk figure in the town of Grogbusters, a man totally different from Vesper’s “rotarian dad.”
Though Vesper eventually leaves town, goes off to college, and works as an engineer, he finds himself drawn back home when Holberg returns home from studying composition at a European conservatory. Eventually Vesper becomes part of Holberg’s milieu, a transcriber of Holberg’s compositions, confidante of his wife and sister-in-law, friend and admirer of Holberg’s iconoclastic, elderly aunt, and a member of the “hideous Greek chorus of yes-men who can’t do a thing ourselves.”
The relationship between Holberg and Vesper and the parallel relationships between Vesper and the other members of Holberg’s “family” are fascinating for their psychological insights, and Astley develops them with sophistication and elegance. The debilitating effect of Holberg on those surrounding him is obvious, but just as obviously, most of those involved with him are unable, for a variety of reasons, to break clear of him. They are, as Vesper says, “like the slaves who built tombs for the pharaohs,” until, of course, the tension builds to a life-changing climax for all.