Despite its prevalence during the latter half of the 20th century, rock music has always had a hard time finding its way into the novel. Back when the music was new, there may have been a fear that rock culture would swallow literature whole, a sense that its leather-clad ilk were the barbarians at the gate, and it was high literature’s job to hold fast lest the walls of civilization come tumbling down. There was also the problem of bringing the bombast of rock to the page. How, writers puzzled, do you use these little chicken scratches called words to render something like David Lee Roth? Finally, the most likely candidates for writing rock lit, musicians or former musicians, are far more accustomed to creating art in hot, short intervals in the form of songs: potent, almost instantaneous infusions of truth and beauty that can be universally compelling. Compare this to the years-long marathon of novel writing, and who could blame a singer-songwriter for sticking with what she knows, grabbing that guitar, searching for a new hook that could be the beginning to the best song she ever wrote, which could be finished by the end of the hour?
It’s not like writers haven’t tried writing rock novels, and many to great success. The tone of the genre was set in the 1980s and ’90s when classics like The Commitments by Roddy Doyle, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and The Wishbones by Tom Perrotta presented compelling characters swimming deep in rock milieux. The next great wave of rock fiction came in 2011 when three rock novels—A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Pulitzer Prize), Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (one of the New York Times ten best books of the year), and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (National Book Critics’ Circle Award nominee)—made major pushes for literary awards and customer eyeballs. Not only did this help even up the gender disparity in the rock lit canon, it reminded readers and writers alike that rock music was far too pervasive a force in our lives to be ignored in our literature.
Which brings us to 2014, when my search for rock-tinged titles yielded no less than five new entrants in the genre, a veritable boon compared to decades of more hand-to-mouth offerings. Interestingly, none of these 2014 titles concerns itself with conveying the over-the-top elements of rock on the page. Rather, they focus on characters dabbling in rock within the larger context of their more domestic pursuits: growing up, falling in love, finding a path, having a family; in short, the arcs that have been part of the novel’s scope since at least Austen. Much of the trouble for these characters comes when their more universal journeys collide with their need to make music, play in band, tour in an airbrushed bus. Can these two seemingly disparate lives flourish together? Should they?
Stacey D’Erasmo grapples with these questions in Wonderland. The novel’s protagonist, Anna Brundage, a forty-something singer-songwriter who decides after a long hiatus to jump back into the indie rock world with a new album and a European tour, struggles with rejoining a profession where shock and glitz get first dibs, and what that means for her self-perception. “When I look at myself, done, in the long mirror,” Anna narrates, “in the bedroom of the borrowed apartment in Christiania, I see a woman who looks as if she could vault into other people’s dreams and vault out again before daybreak.” A woman looks in a mirror, wonders how she comes off to others. D’Erasmo is always most concerned with what moves her characters forward, and only secondarily with the stellar gigs and backstage shenanigans that might be the focal point of a less realized rock book.
Central to Anna’s self-image is her perception of her father, a famous artist in the 1970s who has since fallen on unpopularity and ill health. D’Erasmo writes, “Our father loved us, both our parents loved us, but there might be such a thing as too much visual pleasure.” Wonderland partially concerns itself with Anna’s battle to see the world outside the trappings of a creative life—whether a switch to something else is preferable, or even possible. Anna says of playing music: “There are many things—most things, really—that I can’t do. But I can do this. It is far too much, and not nearly enough.” The status quo, for all its upside, doesn’t quite cut it.
Anna’s affair with the unavailable Simon has the underpinnings of both rock and domestic lives, and yet it is neither.
I felt his hand with the wedding ring on it; I loved it that he didn’t bother with the lie of taking it off. And the vulnerability of that, I thought: to be married, who would dare it? It was more foreign to me than Lebanon.
If “rock star” isn’t right for Anna, “wife” surely isn’t either, making her search for the right path even more fraught.
For all her concern with Anna’s domestic affairs, D’Erasmo takes pains to show what it’s like to be onstage with a touring band, both the transcendent moments and crash landings. Here’s Anna during one show: “I’m in good voice tonight, we’re all in good voice, pacing one another, a team of well-trained horses, well-watered, well-fed.” Then at a bad show, “I am not soaring, not transformed… If anything, I feel more stubbornly and irredeemably myself, flattened and contracted, alienated, very much alone, and something like bored.” These onstage ebbs and flows not only convey what rock life is really like, they also set off the conflicts that befall the band as they traverse foreign lands and each other’s divergent personalities.
Less credible are the flashbacks to the studio, especially when a coke-addled producer leans over a writer-blocked Anna, trying to motivate her to musical sublimity by going “Come on, come on, come on.” If ever a pop song were composed in this environment, you wouldn’t want to hear it. Similarly, the moment of inspiration that unblocks Anna during this session, and the aesthetic vision behind the subsequent album, feel unrealistic. I have no idea what this music sounds like. Still, such disappointments in Wonderland are minimal. From the outset, D’Erasmo is shooting more for Virginia Woolf than Veruca Salt.
The Guts, the latest rock novel by veteran Roddy Doyle, also deals with people of a certain age who have bigger concerns than the caprices of the 21st century music industry. For Jimmy Rabbitte, the protagonist, it’s bowel cancer, and a sense that, at forty-seven, he’s losing his vitality. Anyone familiar with Doyle’s work knows of his Barrytown Trilogy, which includes The Commitments, a title that features Jimmy during his younger years as the manager of the titular band. Now, with a wife and four kids, Jimmy’s priorities in The Guts are quite a bit different, but he manages to work rock culture into the family dynamic where he can.
Marvin put his hand out and Jimmy let him take the vinyl. Marvin held it exactly as he should have. There was religion in the kitchen. A Lion King moment. The other three had seen Marvin, how he’d held the little disc at it sides. They copied him. Jimmy let them.
Jimmy has managed to keep a toe in the rock world with a music production company that he and his wife Aoife own, which made its nut reuniting Irish punk bands, booking them for gigs, and selling their songs online. It worked so well that the couple sold most of the business to Noeleen, who kept Jimmy on as an employee. Post-diagnosis, Jimmy uses his position there to compile Irish music that has its roots in 1932, to be released in conjunction with an upcoming Catholic church event that hasn’t occurred in Ireland since that date. Doyle reveals Jimmy’s reasoning for championing the project:
One of the few escapes, beside real escape—emigration, like—was music. It’s always been like tha’. Music is the great escape. In the words an’ the rhythm. You could do things an’ say things that weren’t allowed. And not just sex now. Although everythin’ is sex.
Thumbing his nose at what he sees as the church’s patronizing ceremony is just what the doctor ordered for Jimmy, who goes to great lengths to unearth the most provocative music from the bygone era.
Like Anna in Wonderland, escape through music isn’t enough for Jimmy, who takes up with former Commitments background singer Imelda.
There were all sorts of reasons why he shouldn’t have done it, and all sorts of reasons why he shouldn’t have been able to do it. But he’d put his hands on the skin of a woman he didn’t really know, didn’t know well, and he’d pushed all the worries and doubts away.
Jimmy’s infidelity represents what might be his last chance to sample his carefree youth. It would be a mid-life crisis if Jimmy weren’t so potentially at the end of his own.
Despite being set in 2010, The Guts feels like a different time and place. The book drags at the beginning; the first fifty pages are dedicated to Jimmy revealing his diagnosis to every person in his life—friends, family, coworkers. Once the kids know, I was ready to move on. Moreover, the scheme Jimmy hatches with his son to pull one over on Noeleen and the rest of the world doesn’t resonate, and the concert Jimmy attends at the end of the book won’t remind anyone of the juicier rock events from their own lives. At one point, while remembering his time with the Commitments, Jimmy refers to it as “Back in the days when Jimmy was Jimmy.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Anyone who’s read Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy knows how revolutionary his Irish working-class dialect was when it was first published in the 1980s. These pages—despite retaining that style—don’t ring so fresh. Is Doyle going to the well one too many times, or has our (by which I mean my) ability to be absorbed by such a tale as The Guts waned in the age of Facebook? I found myself hoping for the former, but I can’t discount the latter either. Maybe we should both try harder.
But rock and roll goes on in contemporary times. At least that’s the case in Bud Smith’s novel F-250, where young guitarist Lee Casey hopes to leave New Jersey and try out California with his duo Ottermeat. Or does he? His best friend and the other half of the band, drummer Seth, certainly does. Lee, however, has a nascent landscaping business in town, a job he doesn’t necessarily hate, as revealed when he builds a wall on a rich person’s property.
It felt like it was building itself in a way. Sometimes that happens with manual labor. Especially when it’s creative. Like making a sculpture. Sure, there is a physical element to it, but it’s also a lot like painting a picture. You lose yourself in it.
Lee suspects not much will change for Ottermeat in the land of sunshine and movie stars, especially with Seth’s penchant for cocaine, and his rowdy girlfriend Denise. Lee thinks one night while in his bedroom: “My window, specifically, was exactly the kind of window built to let a girl like Denise in.” Add to all this conflict Lee’s penchant for crashing his F-250 truck, his fear of where his irresponsible life with Seth might lead him, and the fact that he’s already made one unsuccessful trek out west, and suddenly hunkering down with a good-paying job in his hometown—and nailing the window shut—seems like the way forward.
Smith is most deft when depicting locals on the wrong side of bad choices, like the night when Lee and Seth visit an off-track betting facility during the Kentucky Derby.
It was a rail skinny woman from the trailer park, bleached hair all fluffed out and haywire, faded jean jacket and stone-washed tight denim pants. She was on her hands and knees, praying. Actually praying to the jumbo-tron before her. The horses were at the gate. Tears streamed down the woman’s leathery cheeks. I noticed her shoes were gone.
This kind of failure is all too prevalent in Lee’s world, and he suspects the decisions he makes now could push him into the same kind of life.
Enter K Neon, a college girl housesitting at the place where Lee builds his wall, and June Doom, K’s girlfriend, who comes to town after K and Lee have started an affair. The three traverse New Jersey and New York looking for something like escape as the real world looms just outside, only to find themselves deeply entangled in their relationships with each other and with those less fortunate.
Ottermeat becomes the container for all of the possibilities lingering inside Lee that don’t involve hauling rock. Smith writes:
First you write the songs in your bedroom or wherever, then you show them to a close friend, they say cool, so you start jamming in a cold garage, your fingers freezing, crowded around a kerosene heater, hating life. You rehearse for months like that. Then, you find a bass player… the bass player knows a singer… you’ve got a band.
The working-class romance in F-250 is hard to miss, with drug addiction, home eviction, and random violence the abyss the music is meant to hold off, at least for the length of a song.
But not everything in F-250 resonates so well. The book is burdened by a sense of emotional vagueness, of the rock-and-roll bouillabaisse being only half-baked. Lee starts the novel as a teetotaler, and later takes up drinking, but Smith never reveals what this switch means to him. Characters blend together; K and June are interchangeable, as are Seth and Feral. As much as I wanted to believe this novel is set in 2005, there’s little that goes on in Lee’s life that couldn’t have happened in 1985. (Do bands still go to California to “make it”?) Vibrant characters like Speedboat Ron and The Harpie show up too late to make a real dent. A few more passes in the practice room may have been in order to help make Smith’s tale shine.
No such problem hinders Rob Yardumian’s debut novel The Sound of Songs Across the Water. Not only does it aptly portray the push-pull relationship of studio life in 1990s-era rock, it also unravels a compelling story about the competitiveness of former bandmates, and a wife with her own agenda that both does and doesn’t involve them.
Yardumian is at his best when dramatizing the small elements that bring an aspiring musician’s life into relief. Riley, a struggling singer-songwriter, comes to Los Angeles from the east coast looking for his old bandmate Will, who in the fifteen years since the two played together has become a successful producer. Riley admits to the jitters when he performs his new songs for Will and his wife Lena, a sort of living room audition. “After [Riley] flubbed the first guitar arpeggio, he told himself to settle down and play the chords. Let the song sell the song.”
Once Will signs on to produce Riley’s album—a chance for them to settle some bad blood from their tragic past—the jitters go out the window, replaced by jockeying for alpha position, which puts Lena in play. The sexual tension between Riley and Lena becomes palpable when Will goes on a business trip, leaving the two alone for the weekend.
The cool air on the patio, the jasmine night in bloom, sharpened her like a keen wash of sound. Inside, she’d slipped out of tune; out here, she vibrated back into fine, humming pitch. Like she’d stepped right out onto Riley Island, jammed a flag in the soil. Felt herself drift away from the dock, the mainland fading into distance.
Through Lena’s growing affection for Riley, Yardumian shows how rock charisma can wreak havoc on the lives of those who feel its gravitational pull.
If anything is missing from this story, it’s the underlying darkness that frequently inhabits those who possess real musical talent. Riley and Will have quirks, but they’re little more than predilections. Rock novels don’t have to be loaded with debauchery to be entertaining or insightful, but some sense of these characters’ darker motivations can give them more depth. The further they’re willing to go for this life, the more arresting their drama.
Losing in Gainesville by Brian Costello presents a decidedly different take on mid-1990s musician-dom. The protagonist—writer, musician, and n’er-do-well Ronnie Altamonte—has reached a point of poverty so gruesomely low he decides to relocate from Orlando, Florida, to the college town of Gainesville, which promises a more vibrant creative scene and laid-back vibe. Gainesville offers a cast of musicians, students, and creative types that play well to Ronnie’s slacker tendencies. Take Alvin, one of Ronnie’s first Gainesville roommates.
[Alvin] was squat and barrel-chested, with stubby arms like uncooked hotdogs hanging at his sides. He was buck-toothed. Double-chinned. His curly blond hair was short, greasy, and matted, like the pubic hair of a Swedish wino. He wore primary-colored t-shirts decorated with drawings of big fish and captions reading “I’M OUT FOR TROUT.” Faded gray sweatpants and velcroed white tennis shoes finished the outfit. Somewhere at UC Berkeley, there was a supermodel astrophysicist, and she was the yin to Alvin’s yang, righting the precarious balance of the universe.
If you hear echoes of A Confederacy of Dunces in the above passage, you’d be halfway to where Costello is going with Gainesville. Ronnie, with his dual desires to get drunk and get some words down, seems to straddle the fence between self-importance and college-town silliness. He senses he should be pursuing something more in line with his intelligence and college degree, but this new milieu proves too enticing. Maybe living in Alvin’s trailer is as good as it gets.
Music is the happy middle ground where Ronnie can forget this conflict and bond with others. During the “Sweat Jam,” as Ronnie plays with a cadre of Gainesville musicians, Costello writes, “Day-to-day life is nervous energy channeled into right and wrong places, but here, with the music, it’s all focused on this, and every distraction, every good and bad memory, all the drama of the Great Gainesvillian Soup Opera, fades to nothing.” Like Lee in F-250, music for Ronnie is that place where the questions melt away. Maybe it’s the answer, or maybe it’s just an excuse to drink more beer. Either way, play on.
The women of Ronnie’s life reflect some of the same magic for him, but they also pull him toward a life where he might fulfill his potential. From their first encounter, Portland Patty hopes there’s more to Ronnie than a post-collegiate haze of music and booze.
[She] wants to believe Ronnie Altamonte is different as she watches him roll out of her bed and shuffle across the creaking hardwood floor on bare feet, out of the bedroom into the hallway light, used condom between thumb and index finger like the tail of an unwanted fish on the verge of getting tossed back into the lake.
Gainesville succeeds in many ways—as a chronicle of post-collegiate ennui, as a book depicting the struggles of a young artist, as a rock-and-roll Moby-Dick—but the novel shines brightest when revealing ’90s-era Florida, like when Ronnie delivers pizzas on the day of a big football game.
As Ronnie walks through apartment complexes and courtyards, up and down these residential streets, he hears the cheering, the curses, the slow hand-claps of good plays. Interspersed between the game day, calls not football-related: Pre-med students on study breaks—twenty pound anatomy textbooks, bleary eyes, gifted with an unfathomable (to Ronnie) drive and motivation; metal kids in black Megadeth t-shirts taking the pizza at the door, cumulonimbus marijuana clouds behind them, guitars wrapped around them.
As much as Ronnie functions on the fringe of this world, he’s intently focused on the center of it, never sure if his interest in the people of Gainesville is satirical or sincere. Gainesville is a story of learning to feel comfortable in what David Foster Wallace called a single-entendre view of the world. You are who you are, and the world is the world, and that’s okay. It’s going to have to be.
Rock life inevitably overlaps real life, which is a central problem for anyone who tunes up a guitar and hits the stage. How much of each is necessary for those who crave both stability and music? All of these novels render characters who are searching for the right balance between rock and home.