September 2005

Michael Schaub

features

Wrapped Up in Books: A Guide to Rock Novels

It's easy to write about rock; it's nearly impossible to write well about rock. But those of us who care about literature and rock and roll never stop hoping for the great rock novel. I solicited suggestions from the readers of Bookslut — with some help from David and the readers of Largehearted Boy. I received more responses than I thought possible. What follows are short rundowns of 50 rock novels, many of which were praised by our readers (and a few of which were panned). Some, like High Fidelity, are extremely popular; others, like The Last Rock Star Book haven't found (or sought) a wide mainstream audience. But there's something for everyone here, whether you're an indie rock snob (Hi! I'm Mike!) or a dedicated Elvis fan. My thanks to the readers of Bookslut and Largehearted Boy — I hope you all find something of interest here.

WE WANT THE AIRWAVES: PUNK ROCK NOVELS

The Anomalies, Joey Goebel (2003).
Goebel was the lead singer for the punk band The Mullets, and his first novel follows a band of five Kentucky misfits who play "power pop new wave heavy metal punk rock music." Characters include a wheelchair-bound Satanist and an 80-year-old nymphomaniac, and if that doesn't make for a good band, then just shoot me now. The Baltimore City Paper called the book "enjoyable" and "often funny." Goebel's latest novel, Torture the Artist, earned the young author comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk.

The Primal Screamer, Nick Blinko (1995).
Written by the enigmatic lead singer of Rudimentary Peni, The Primal Screamer was an autobiographical work, apparently based on his band's early years. One of the most celebrated books ever about punk, it's long out of print, and selling for more than $100 on most used books websites. The novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize when it was released, and remains a cult classic.

Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schweser (1998).
The first novel from these two young writers is funny, smart and surprisingly compassionate. Set in early '90s D.C., the novel follows a Tennessee teenager who moves to Washington to take part in the city's legendary (or once-legendary) punk scene. Himelstein and Schweser ditch the traditional narrative form in favor of letters, journal entries, and issues of a fledgling zine — and it works unbelievably well. If you've ever gone to a Food Not Bombs meeting or vandalized a WalMart, you'll find a lot to identify with here. If not, you'll still have a great time reading this incredibly entertaining debut.

The Gangster of Love, Jessica Hagedorn (1996).
Hagedorn, raised in Manila and San Francisco, is probably best known for her novel Dogeaters, but she gained countless fans from this book, the story of two Filipino siblings who move to the States in the '70s. The sister, Rocky, plays in a rock band called The Gangsters of Love while trying to adjust to her new home. Time magazine called the novel "elegant and smart," and Francine Prose praised the book in The New York Times.

Cut My Hair, Jamie S. Rich (2000).
The debut novel from the editor-in-chief of Oni Press is a sweet look at a California teenager who "spends his nights acting stupid in punk rock clubs and his days aimlessly reading comics and listening to tunes." It's beloved by those lucky enough to have heard about it; the Willamette Week called it "a lyrical elegy to lost youth, the death of modern rock, and the search for something authentic." Very highly recommended.

Hard Core Logo, Michael Turner (1993).
Turner is one of Canada's most dangerous writers — in a good way — and this is the book that gained him that reputation. The novel chronicles the reunion of a popular Canadian punk band years after they broke up. There's plenty of hilarious moments, but the story hurtles toward a devastating, though necessary, conclusion. Turner's cult classic book became a cult classic movie in 1996, when it was adapted by filmmaker Bruce McDonald. Read the book, then see the movie — in a lot of ways, this novel is punk rock.

BELIEVING THE STRANGEST THINGS, LOVING THE ALIEN: SF ROCK NOVELS

The Armageddon Rag, George R. R. Martin (1983).
Out of print for years, Spectra recently reissued this SF/horror thriller about the murder of a singer and a music promoter. Martin is known and respected among SF fans for his short stories, but this novel drew a dedicated following among genre and mainstream readers alike.

Passing Through the Flame, Norman Spinrad (1975).
An old paperback edition of this book carries the tag line: "From rock stars to porno kings...a major novel of sex, drugs." Despite that promise, the novel is now out of print, but it's recommended by a Bookslut reader named Edward St. John, who describes the book, about a director working on a rock movie, as "kind of a rock version of Haskell Wexler's film Medium Cool.'" That, plus the sweet '70s cover art, is enough to make me curious. Spinrad recorded a song of the same name, based on the novel, with the band Schizotrope, which also included Richard Pinhas and Maurice Dantec.

Glimpses, Lewis Shiner (1993).
The novel follows Ray Shackleford, a feckless baby-boomer repairman who gains the ability to hear and record famous unfinished rock albums. The Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages called the book "a rock lover's wet dream set to type." Maybe a 50-year-old white male rock lover's wet dream, but hey, there's no shame in that.

Idoru, William Gibson (1996).
I have never heard of this particular author, but apparently he is well-known for innovating the "computer punks" genre of fiction. (I'm just kidding. Seriously. Don't say mean things about me on your blog.) Gibson's popular novel follows a popular Japanese rock singer named Rez, who is engaged to a woman who may or may not have been created by a computer. Neuromancer might be more famous, but some Gibson fans regard Idoru as his best.

IT IS MY LIFE, IT IS MY VOICE: INDIE AND ALTERNATIVE ROCK NOVELS

Boy Island, Camden Joy (2000).
One of America's greatest rock writers, Joy takes on the rock of David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) and the first Gulf War in this novel about music and self-acceptance.

You Think You Hear, Matt O'Keefe (2001).
A roadie for Delaware college rockers the Day Action Band, Lou Farren tours with his friends and falls in love with Cree, the drummer (who is herself in love with a singer from a band called The Radials). Fellow author Blake Nelson called the novel "beautiful" and "the definitive road novel of the indie punk generation." I read the first 50 pages last night — it's hilarious and nearly impossible to put down. (Even at three in the morning.)

The Exes, Pagan Kennedy (1998).
Kennedy, widely regarded as a demigod of the early '90s zine world, garnered critical praise for this novel about a Boston indie-rock band, told in four parts. (Each band member has a chapter.) It's probably a good choice for anyone who still fondly remembers the Boston indie scene of years past (The Pixies, think Blake Babies) or who can't help but roll their eyes at "the secret brotherhood of the ultracool indie guys."

The Carpet Frogs: Music After Tomorrow, Alan Arlt (2001).
It's only four years old, but Arlt's debut novel has already become sort of legendary. It's the story of Symon Smith, a young Minneapolis rock singer/bassist dealing with success and loss in the music world. Some readers have drawn comparisons to The Beatles, though it's more likely that Arlt based his story upon legendary Minneapolis rockers The Replacements. This was recommended by several readers, many of whom said it was the best rock novel they've ever read.

Never Mind Nirvana, Mark Lindquist (2000).
A Seattle attorney tries to reconcile his life as a rock musician and fan with his career as a deputy DA. He's forced to prosecute a fellow rocker on charges of date rape, earning him the enmity of several of his former music scene acquaintances. Tama Janowitz called Lindquist's book "the first novel I've read that makes music as important as food, clothing, romance," and The New York Times found it "very often entertaining." (The cover's pretty funny, too.) The novel was controversial upon its release, after some Seattle journalists accused Lindquist of exploiting the story of Isaac Brock, the Modest Mouse singer who was accused of date rape in 1999. (Brock was never charged with a crime, and Lindquist denies basing any element of his novel's plot on the Brock controversy.)

How Soon Is Never?, Marc Spitz (2003).
Fans of Morrissey and Marr will undoubtedly be interested, but anyone who's ever been despondent over the breakup of their favorite band (I'm still upset about The Delgados) can relate to Spitz's novel. It's a love story about two earnest fans trying to bring The Smiths back together years after the band's dissolution. Just try not to smile in recognition at sentences like these: "When these songs make me laugh and cry and smile or even want to drink, I know it's a real impulse. I laugh. I cry. I drink." That's what rock's about, isn't it?

Rock Star Superstar, Blake Nelson (2004).
Part cautionary tale and part love letter to the great American high school rock band, Nelson's young-adult novel has plenty of not-so-young-adult admirers — particularly in Portland, where the book is set. Called "sweet" and "realistic" by the readers who recommended it to us, Nelson's novel doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of the music business.

SONGS MEAN A LOT WHEN SONGS ARE BOUGHT: ROCK INDUSTRY NOVELS

Gimme More, Liza Cody (2000).
A thriller about rock widow Birdie Walker and a harsh critique of the music industry, Cody's novel, like her others, fared better in Europe than the States. Her fans love this novel, but I'm not sure I can get past the godawful cover.

Fuel-Injected Dreams, James Robert Baker (1986).
Baker's novel, a cult classic that's now back in print, is almost certainly a roman a clef about Phil Spector. (Though don't tell that to the publisher's lawyers.) Dennis Contrelle (read: Phil), an unhinged rock producer married to a beatiful singer named Sharlene (read: Ronnie), becomes entwined in the life of DJ Scott Cochrane. Baker's fans consider this a classic of Los Angeles fiction, and an indispensable reflection on rock in the '60s.

Off the Record, David Menconi (2000).
The first novel from a North Carolina-based music critic, Off the Record is "the very unauthorized account of the rise and fall of the Tommy Aguilar Band." It garnered good reviews from music critics who liked Menconi's inside jokes and merciless depictions of music industry bad guys.

Platinum Logic, Tony Parsons (1981).
Evil music executives and tons of coke in Thatcher-era England. This is the kind of sleazy-but-sometimes-fun book they used to sell in airports, before Satan invented Mitch Albom. It's long out of print, but you can find it used.

The Last of the Savages, Jay McInerney (1996).
A few readers recommended this one, but a few more reported they were unimpressed by McInerney's fifth novel. It follows two prep school friends, one who becomes a lawyer, and one who becomes a record producer (and drug addict, as record producers in rock novels inevitably are). Publishers Weekly called it "affirming and wise," but Salon's Stephanie Zacharek disagrees: "McInerney's understanding of the blues as an art form goes about as deep as two fingers of cheap scotch, and it's borderline racist to boot."

WE HEAR THE PLAYBACK AND IT SEEMS SO LONG AGO: 1980s ROCK NOVELS

Twisted Kicks, Tom Carson (1982).
I haven't read it. But everyone I know who has swears it's the best, so this first novel by longtime journalist Carson (who now writes for Esquire) might be worth checking out. It's the story of a New York rock singer who moves back to his hometown of Icarus, Virginia.

The Smiths' Meat Is Murder, Joe Pernice (2003).
Continuum's 33 1/3 series of books is one of the coolest publishing imprints on the planet, and here's why. Pernice, the singer-songwriter behind the Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline and the Pernice Brothers, writes his recollections of the seminal Smiths album in novella form. I love both Pernice and the Smiths, but it's hard for me to imagine even Morrissey's detractors not liking this book. Like everything Pernice has ever done, this is highly recommended.

The Lonely Planet Boy, Barney Hoskyns (1995).
The veteran British journalist's novel, which garnered praise from Nick Hornby and Jonathan Coe, follows a music writer/superfan who follows a singer named Mina on her tour. It's published by Serpent's Tail, which is always a good sign.

ONE MORE BIG TIME ROCK AND ROLL STAR: ROCK STAR NOVELS

The Rich Man's Table, Scott Spencer (1998).
A young man finds out that his father is legendary folk singer Luke Fairchild (read: Bob Dylan).

Spider Kiss, Harlan Ellison (1961).
Originally published as Rockabilly, this is one of the writer's most admired works. It's also one of the first rock novels ever written. The main character, Stag Preston, has echoes of Elvis, though he was evidently based on Jerry Lee Lewis. Several readers recommended this one - it's published with Ellison's 1982 Stalking the Nightmare.

Tender, Mark Childress (1990).
Most of the readers who suggested this one seemed to find it more charming than brilliant, but Tender has a lot of fans. It's essentially a novel about Elvis, though he's named Leroy Kirby in the book.

SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND: BRITISH ROCK NOVELS

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995).
The novel that spoke to a generation of rock-loving white guys who are jerks to their girlfriends. Actually, I love this book, though it's not quite as accomplished as Hornby's masterpiece, About a Boy. If you've only seen the (very good) movie: The book is set in London, not Chicago, though Hornby's characters are fairly universal. (At least among rock-loving white guys who are jerks to their girlfriends.) The scenes describing Rob's attempts to make mix tapes — they have to be perfect — are classic moments in rock literature.

Groupie, Jenny Fabian (1969).
"Jenny Fabian" is British for "Pamela Des Barres." And that's really all you need to know about this English relic from the '60s.

Powder, Kevin Sampson (2002).
I'm planning to read this one as soon as I can, based on the ten readers who wrote me to recommend it. Sampson, former manager of The Farm, chronicles the story of The Grams, a fictional Britpop band, in this book. It's had both fans and detractors among critics, but this testimony from an Amazon.com reviewer might be all you need to know: "The characters have some depth and the stories are are laugh out loud funny. . . . One other thing to note - Sampson is obsessed with weird sex." Rock!

The Rotters' Club, Jonathan Coe (2001).
Not technically a rock novel, but you should still check out this hilarious and touching book from one of the UK's best young authors. I still laugh every time I think of Philip Chase, the prog rock-obsessed student who writes breathless odes to Yes in his school paper. Coe's sequel, The Closed Circle, was released earlier this year.

Sick of Being Me, Sean Egan (2003).
The consensus of the readers who wrote me about this one: Great, but dark. Egan doesn't see the book as another sex-drugs-rock and roll story, though. He writes: "For me, it is a literary novel, one which just happens to have feature rock and drugs in places."

Espedair Street, Iain Banks (1987). The Scottish author's fourth book was recommended to me by about — let me count — 17,000 readers. So while I haven't read it myself, I'm fairly comfortable saying that this novel has a hell of a lot of admirers. If you haven't read Banks, this is probably a decent place to start.

SO YOU WANNA BE A ROCK AND ROLL STAR: AMATEUR/GARAGE BAND ROCK NOVELS

Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story, Lewis Shiner (1999).
A young San Antonio native tries to make it big as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles. Shiner's novel was wildly praised as one of the most realistic accounts of the music industry ever. The New York Times Book Review loved it: "Shiner has written a fine novel about rock 'n' roll by believing more in musicians' human nature than in their mythologies."

Anything Goes, Madison Smartt Bell (2002).
The story of a Southern bar band ("We didn't play Nirvana, we didn't play punk and we didn't play grunge, we definitely didn't play any originals and we also (praise the Lord!) didn't play Top 40.") on a tour of the East Coast.

Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie (1995).
The celebrated Native American writer tells the story of an Indian Catholic blues-rock band. Robert Johnson makes an appearance.

The Wishbones, Tom Perotta (1997).
Perotta's novels might not be revelatory, but they're congenial and fun. The story of a New Jersey wedding band, a movie version is expected within the next few years.

THERE'S MORE TO LIFE THAN BOOKS, YOU KNOW, BUT NOT MUCH MORE: THE BEST OF THE ROCK NOVELS

If You Want Me to Stay, Michael Parker (2005).
Look for a full review of this wonderful new novel next month. A brilliant work of Southern fiction, the characters in If You Want Me to Stay are obsessed with soul music — Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Archie Bell, the Stax/Volt and Muscle Shoals sounds. Funny at times and wrenchingly sad at others, this is one of the most perfectly realized novels I've read in recent years. Very highly recommended.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie (1999).
Rushdie is a legendary rock fan — check out his essay about meeting U2 in his book Step Across This Line. His love for pop music is apparent in this novel, a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story set in India, England and the US. Any Rushdie book is a good place to start if you haven't read him, but this book is particularly sweet — he captures the feeling that rock can inspire perfectly, at every turn. It's a brilliant novel that bears reading and rereading.

The Commitments, Roddy Doyle (1987).
One of the most famous rock books, in part because of the successful 1991 film version, directed by Alan Parker. Doyle's debut novel follows a soul band in Dublin, and was released in the States at the peak of the country's obsession with all things Irish. Hilarious and gleefully profane, it includes the best/worst proposed name for a band ever: And And! And. (Upon hearing this, a character sneers "Fuck fuck exclamation mark you." Doyle's most recent novel, Oh, Play That Thing, is about an Irish immigrant who moves to Chicago and becomes Louis Armstrong's manager. The reviews have been mostly poor, but The Commitments remains a classic among rock novels.

Never Mind the Pollacks, Neal Pollack (2003).
One of America's funniest writers, Neal Pollack has been both rock fan and rock musician. (Check out the CD version of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. If the song "I Wipe My Ass on Your Novel" doesn't make you laugh, then you are, perhaps, beyond hope.) The novel's main character is also named Neal Pollack (who changed his name from "Norbert Pollackovitz"), and he's a rock critic who's had an outsized influence on rock music through the years. This might be the funniest novel about rock ever written; it's certainly the funniest novel — and the best — about rock criticism. If you read Pitchfork every day, and if you're reading this article you probably do, you'll find something to love in this hilarious and unexpectedly generous book.

Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo (1973).
Do you like rock, but also like bragging about the fact that you don't own a TV? This novel by a Serious Novelist might be for you. (I kid because I love.) DeLillo can't help coming off as pretentious occasionally — even his grocery lists probably reference obscure moments in American history in a postmodern kind of way — but this is one of his more accessible novels, and it's worth a look. The book tells the story of Bucky Wunderlick — yeah, Bucky Wunderlick — who retreats into obscurity and loneliness at the height of his career. It's not as fun as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but it's smart and occasionally funny.

The Last Rock Star Book or: Liz Phair, A Rant, Camden Joy (1998).
A young disaffected writer (named Camden Joy) is hired to write a "quickie" paperback biography of Liz Phair, and becomes obsessed with the singer — and his past — in the process. Joy is a brilliant and original writer who takes more risks per page than most authors do in their entire careers, and it's impossible not to care about his deeply funny, deeply human characters. You need to read this book.

NEW DAY RISING: NEW AND FORTHCOMING ROCK NOVELS

King Dork, Frank Portman (2006).
Also known as Dr. Frank, Portman is the lead singer for the influential Lookout! pop-punk band The Mr. T. Experience. King Dork follows an American high school student who reads The Catcher in the Rye for the first time. If Portman's fiction is as witty as his lyrics, this will be really great.

Owen Noone and the Marauder, Douglas Cowie (2005).
Cowie blends baseball and folk-punk in this recent rock novel. The Guardian says Cowie "brings a disarming voice and a freshness to proceedings that might just make you brush the dust off your guitar and try out a few chords."

Miss Misery, Andy Greenwald (2005).
The author of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo returns with a novel about a twentysomething New Yorker who becomes interested in two girls he meets online (one 22, one 17). This will be the first novel published by new Simon & Schuster imprint Simon Spotlight Entertainment.

Too Much Too Late, Marc Spitz (2006).
Spitz chronicles the Jane Ashers, a once-popular rock band that chooses, perhaps unwisely, to reunite.

Gary Benchley, Rock Star, Paul Ford (2005).
Based on Ford's popular column in The Morning News, this could become the definitive novel of the 21st-century Williamsburg hipster. Gary's band is an "indie-prog" combo called Schizopolis. A whole lot of people are anticipating this one.

The Band's Music from Big Pink, John Niven (2005).
Another entry in Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Andrew O'Hagan says the book "has a powerful style of its own and a story that might illuminate an entire period." It's a great series of books, and I'm especially looking forward to Niven's take on one of my favorite albums.