The narrator of Dylan Hicks' first novel, "Boarded Windows," knows a lot. In a couple of pages, he might cite Goethe's Young Werther on Ossian, paraphrase Gogol, refer to Cartesian duality and songs like "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "Ol' Man River," compare someone's hair to Schopenhauer's or Bozo's, and offer a Charles Mingus anecdote. He speaks of a backroom Bakunin and a Lachaise sculpture, quotes Wallace Stevens and Duke Ellington, and uses "digital hegemons," "asymptote" and "lachrymatory" in passing. But for all that, the narrator (who is nameless) doesn't know enough. He doesn't know what he needs to know -- that is, where he fits into his own story, which is far too focused on somebody else, a sort of father figure named Wade Salem.

Wade, whose appearances and disappearances give the story its shape, is attached in some way to (fictional) musician Bolling Greene (the book includes a free download of "Sings Bolling Greene," a "soundtrack") -- as a songwriter, a "batman or Doctor Robert," then as a bassist. When we first meet him, Wade's on his way to Berlin to become a DJ. Briefly, he moves in with the narrator and moves in on his girlfriend, a comedienne of the most avant garde sort.

As the narrator goes back and forth between his first experience of Wade (as a not-quite-stepfather) and his last, we get a sense of the older man's hold on the younger's imagination, but also an idea of how dubious that hold might be. Early on, in fact, there's a wonderful exchange about Wade's plans, where the narrator says, "You speak German?" and Wade answers, "Sure, I was a German major ... I mean, I didn't finish, but sure." Challenged, Wade says, "You studied German?" to which the narrator responds, "Not really. I took a couple years in high school."

This is, in a nutshell, the book's dynamic: one know-it-all lording it over another, who's just trying to keep up. The narrator, enthralled by Wade's superior chops, will never be contented. It's a sad story, because we're allowed to see through Wade's low-grade megalomania while the narrator isn't. But along the way, we're treated to the musical reflections, reminiscences and judgments that the narrator has woven into some sort of personality, however inadequate, and these are as interesting as they are hopeless.

Out of what he knows about music, what he thinks about it, what he feels about it, the narrator, taking his cue from Wade, is trying to create something, make sense of himself -- to, as a character in Mary Gaitskill's "Veronica" has it, "live like music" -- but what he ends up with is not so much music as liner notes.

Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.