The novel's central character is Desmond Howl, a reclusive former rock star who has lived in virtual seclusion from the world since the death of his brother Danny in a car accident. Instead of engaging with the world, Howl spends all his time composing instrumental symphonies for the whales that congregate near his dilapidated seaside mansion. Howl's life is turned upside down, however, when he finds a mysterious woman named Claire asleep in his living room one morning.
Whale Music by Paul Quarrington is written about the life of a former rock and roll star named Desmond Howell. Desmond subsists mostly off of a diet of drugs, alcohol, and jelly filled doughnuts. Due to Desmond's heavy drug usage he has an extremely poor short term memory. This results in the story frequently jumping around. He rarely makes it through a paragraph without getting distracted by something and switching topics. The story is extremely fast paced and well written, Quarrington' s writing style makes the reader feel as though they are inside of Desmond's drug fueled mind. Most of the story is told through Desmond's drug and alcohol induced flashbacks, giving the reader a glimpse into the reclusive rock stars past. The story Begins with Desmond finding a naked woman asleep on the couch in his seaside mansion. He is confused about how she got there as he rarely allows visitor into his home. When she awakes she tells him that she is from Toronto. Desmond thinks that Toronto must be a planet in a nearby galaxy and that Claire must be an alien. Her space ship must have crashed into the nearby ocean and that the reason she is on his couch is because she is seeking refuge. He tells the young "alien" that she may stay with him until she decides she is ready to return to her home planet. Claire moves in and starts helping Desmond with things like cooking, cleaning, and running to the store so that Desmond never has to leave the house. Desmond does not allow visitors inside of his house, other than his mother who often shows up unannounced and lets herself in. After her arrival Desmond's mother, (also named Claire) generally snoops around his house looking for checks he has yet to cash. Desmond's flashbacks show his childhood, including his brother and abusive father. Desmond's brother Danny was always their fathers favorite and everything he did their father got way too invested in. This caused Danny to often quit hobbies as the pressure their father placed on him proved to be too much. Desmond however, tried as hard as he could to please their cold father. Yet nothing he could do was every good enough. Their father was a musician when he was younger and had a single hit on the radio. He pushed both of the boys into music, Danny quickly grew bored of it and quit, whereas Desmond tried to learn every instrument he could in hopes of receiving his fathers approval. After Danny grew tired of most of his interests due to his father being over bearing he ended up becoming very interested in "going fast". He started with doing things such as going to big hills on his bike, but eventually progressed to stealing someone's car. This landed him in military school. During this time, Desmond got extremely into music and learned countless instruments. When Danny returned home from military school, Desmond tried to become close once again with his brother. They ended up bonding while Danny was working on his car and Desmond went out and started singing with him. The pair then made their first song about Danny's car called "Torque, Torque". Their father heard them playing an decided that they needed to create a band and pushed the boys into doing so. He then declared himself their manager. They then went around looking for someone to help mix their music, and ended up working with Fred the head. Fred was very passionate about mixing songs and even showed Desmond how to do it. Desmond was very excited about this, and got extremely into mixing. He and Fred would spend hours locked away and mixing songs. Their father then started looking for a record label to sign the boys. He found one and they released the boys first song. The boys song quickly rose the charts. Their father then decided that the boys needed other band members and put out an ad for people who played instruments and were teenagers. They wanted the other band members to fit the "California look". The band quickly rose to stardom, and the boys all started doing drugs and drinking heavily. Most of the members also got really into women, and had sex with tons of groupies but Desmond preferred to just drink do drugs and play music. He later ended up marrying a groupie named Faye. While married to Faye, Desmond stopped partying as heavily and acquired an office job. He would go to the office, make songs all day then head home to his wife. One day he went home and found Faye in bed with their mutual friend Farley O'Keefe. This marked the beginning of Desmond's retreat from humanity. He kicked Faye out and began withdrawing into his house. He then also began heavily drinking and doing drugs. Danny then got into a fatal car accident plunging from the cliff where he was drinking into the ocean below. This proves to be Desmond's final straw and he fully withdraws himself from civilization, completely stops leaving his home, and stops allowing visitors in completely. He starts doing drugs even more heavily as a way to avoid reality. The copious amounts of drugs fry his brain which is the reason for his poor short term memory. He also starts seeing things that are not actually there such as audio, and verbal hallucinations. He spends all of his time working on the Whale Music which is a series of songs he is writing for the whales that often swim by his seaside home. The Whale Music is his passion project and the only thing that brings him joy. This brings the reader to the present, where he finds Claire. Things go well with Claire until she invites Desmond's friends over for dinner. Desmond gets angry at Claire and reminds her that he does not allow visitors into his house. They get into a fight until finally Desmond agrees. Desmond then says he is going to the studio quickly to work on the Whale Music, but promises he will be back in time for dinner. When Desmond returns, dinner is over. He and Claire get into a giant fight that results in Claire walking out of the house. Desmond then goes back to working on the Whale music. After Awhile he stops being angry and realizes that Claire actually left for good. He decides to go after her and steps out of his house for the first time in years to go look for her. When he steps outside a small dog runs at him and he kicks it across the yard. The dogs ends up being okay. Desmond apologizes to the dog and promises him a steak if he follows him into town. When they get into town Desmond buys the dog the steak as promised. The dog then decides that he rather likes Desmond and starts following him everywhere. He then heads for a nearby bar to look for Claire. He asks if anyone there has seen her and a man says that he did at the strip club and offers to take Desmond. The trio then heads to the strip club. Upon arrival Desmond finds Claire. He jumps on the stage and demands she return home with him. A security guard approaches to kick Desmond out. Desmond ignores the guard and keeps trying to persuade Claire to go with him. The security guard keeps saying his name which he finds odd as he doesn't think anybody should be able to recognize him. Eventually Desmond turns around and the security guard ends up being Farley O'Keefe. Desmond runs at Farley in hopes of punch him but before he makes contact he is thrown to the ground. The security guard then starts screaming and Desmond assumes that he hit him when he notices that the dog has attached itself to Farley's leg. Desmond and Claire both end up getting arrested. Down at the station everyone got put into a separate room. Desmond's record company provides him with a lawyer and Farley agrees to not press charges resulting in Desmond getting released from custody. He asks about Claire but they say that she is in the country illegally and so she wont be released. Desmond then tells the officer that they are engaged and they release Claire as well. In the parking lot Farley approaches Desmond to ask why he's so mad at him as they used to be friends. Desmond tells Farley that its because of his infidelity with Faye. Farley reminds Desmond of what actually happened that day stating that Desmond walked in on Danny in bed with Faye, not him. Desmond's memories then snap into place and he remembers the fight. He then also remembers how he kicked Danny out that day and refused to speak to him. He also remembers that Danny died before he had the chance to forgive him. Desmond finishes the Whale Music and has a party at his house to celebrate. They have giant speakers lined up all over the property point out at the ocean so that the whales could hear. Desmond and Claire sit on the rocks beside the ocean at the bottom of the property. No whales show up for awhile and Desmond looks sad. Claire says she had never heard one of the songs that was playing and asks Desmond what it called. Desmond tells her its called "Have you guys seen Danny" she begins crying and asks Desmond why he cant be happy and then Desmond admits that he wrote all the songs because he never got the chance to forgive Danny. 
The novel won the 1989 Governor General's Award for English fiction, and was a shortlisted nominee for the Stephen Leacock Award in 1990. It was also adapted into a film in 1994. Quarrington co-wrote the film's screenplay, with director Richard J. Lewis, and the Canadian indie rock band Rheostatics composed the film's soundtrack.