What’s It About?

“What’s it about?” is the question I typically receive — often in a whiny voice — from my literature students when introducing them to a new story. Although they phrase the question in this way, what they are actually enquiring to know is “What happens?” In other words, their focus is primarily on plot rather than theme. To an English teacher, however, stories are not so much about what happens but about what “what happens” means. What universal truths and themes does it reveal and confirm?

This is also the question posed in a slightly different way in one of the most underrated songs from any film score: Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song “What’s It All About, Alfie?”, written for the 1966 movie Alfie.

Although the Dionne Warwick-sung version had the most chart success, for my money the Cilia Black rendition, which was featured in the film, remains the seminal performance. Perhaps, it is the somewhat unusual and childish-sounding name of “Alfie” that has caused many people to undervalue the song; however, it is actually quite complex musically and profound lyrically. After all, there is no more important or meaningful question to ask regarding one’s plac in the world than “What’s it all about?”

“What’s it about?” is also the most common question asked of me and the most difficult for me to answer after a novel’s release. It’s a common sense question, and I really should have an “elevator pitch” ready at all times, a thirty to sixty second summary to answer the dreaded question. However, it’s so difficult to condense a 75,000-word novel into such a limited reply that I tend to deflect the question rather than answer it. Like trying to explain what the meaning to one’s life is, it’s too expansive of an answer for a brief synopsis.

However, another question, posed by David’s lyrics to the Alfie character, nicely applies to the main character, eighteen-year old Gal Lafferty, in Belfast, Ohio, my latest novel. The lines begin, “Is it just for the moment we live? // What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? // Are we meant to take more than we give?” My answer and my novel’s reply to the final question in that series is, “No, we are challenged to give more than we take.”

As Belfast, Ohio, opens, a bright future awaits Gal, a good student in the bliss-filled throes of his first love relationship. However, the events of the novel will ask him to sacrifice everything he has going for himself in order to serve a greater good than his own happiness. It’s not sexy, but sacrifice as a path that leads to redemption is a theme that runs throughout the novel. It’s a path that a number of major characters in the novel must choose either to walk or to take the easier route that provides less resistance but no redemption.

“What’s It All About, Alfie” also challenges the eponymous character’s budding nihilism when it asserts, “I know there’s something much more // Something even non-believers can believe in.” As a young adult trying to figure out his place in the world and trying to make sense of his existence beyond what others have told him to accept as right, true, and good, Gal is experiencing what the sixteenth century poet St. John of the Cross described as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” Despite his attendance in Catholic schools or maybe because of it, he has been growing increasingly agnostic and skeptical of his religious training, but he will be forced to pause and reconsider his spiritual backsliding when he witnesses a string of potentially supernatural occurrences, which seem to confirm for Gal that he — like the Blues Brothers — may actually be on a “mission from God.”

Perhaps, we all are.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order my most recent novel, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

2 thoughts on “What’s It About?

  1. I always enjoy reading your insightful words. In this particular post, I enjoyed the video of the “Alfie” theme song. It has always been a favorite and it was nice to be reminded of it and all it says! I will be ordering your new book today!

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