The Sterns Are Listening tells the story of Benjamin and Dita Stern, two seasoned New Yorkers whose life in their Upper East Side building has settled into a state of staleness. Their two children no longer live at home, and their professional lives were never fully realized.

Then Benjamin’s brash younger brother Spence, founder and CEO of the hearing aid company Belphonics, asks him to collaborate on a new product line inspired by the brothers’ rock-and-roll youth at CBGB’s—the club where, Spence believes, his hearing was permanently damaged. If the idea works, it might salvage Benjamin and Dita’s tenuous financial position. Yet they both know that getting involved in Spence’s schemes comes at a high price.

That same evening, with the Sterns’ daughter Alessandra over for dinner, Benjamin’s news is upstaged by the startling appearance of their son, Giorgio, whose violent adolescent behaviour resulted in his being sent away for most of high school. Now seventeen, he is adrift and still a very troubled young man. As Benjamin and Dita reckon with their parental choices, Giorgio takes the reins of his own story, and we learn not only that his name is not, in fact, Giorgio, but also the extent to which all the Sterns share some measure of responsibility for his plight. 

The novel is set against the backdrop of CBGB and nostalgia for East Village’s raucous punk rock spirit of the 1970s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary New York venue, and Wells’ novel takes you to the epicentre of the East Village music scene of the time. Jonathan himself, like his protagonist Benjamin Stern, suffered from a hearing loss after many late nights spent at CBGB.

With sweet humor and wry reminiscence of the golden days of New York music scene, Jonathan tells the story as he recalls it, through the eyes and ears of Benjamin Stern. Music plays a significant role in the book as classic albums like Television’s Marquee Moon presents itself as the motif for discourses between the father and son. Like other great, funny New York novels of fractious families, this story maps an intricate network of family trouble and trauma onto the troubled city they call home. It sticks with you, ringing in your ears.

A funny and deeply felt debut novel from poet and memoirist Jonathan Wells, The Sterns Are Listening explores a family on the verge of both collapse and regeneration. Brimming with affection for its troubled characters and the troubled city they call home, the novel traces a courageous path to the deeply uncomfortable heart of the matter, one that just might lead to redemption.

This is also the first novel published by Ze Books, the independent publishing idea of Ze Records founder Michael Zilkha, an underground label in ’70s and ’80s New York that released the likes of Suicide, John Cale, Lydia Lunch, The Contortions, The Waitresses, and many more.

Available from Ze Books

Jonathan Wells’s memoir The Skinny was published in 2021 by ZE Books. He has also published three collections of poems: Debris (2021), The Man with Many Pens (2015), and Train Dance (2011). His poems have been published or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, The New Republic, AGNI and the Bennington Review. The Sterns Are Listening is his first work of fiction.

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.