February 2009

Katie Hartsock


Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling

Michael Shilling’s debut novel, Rock Bottom, is a tale of rock n’ roll entropy -- it opens with the members of the band Blood Orphans waking up, or still sleeping, in Amsterdam on the last day of their last tour. Like other novels which take place in one day, the past must be revealed and the future speculated, and so the short hours in which the author chooses to set the scene should provide a lens into the back-story as compelling as the frame of the novel’s actual events. The day’s journey of Rock Bottom familiarizes readers with a -- may I say -- motley crew of a band who are far more sympathetic and appealing in their long downfall than during their short-lived rise.

In developing his characters, Shilling employs not only straight narrative but also telling detail. Staying in the apartment of a banker away on business, each member wakes up under a children’s blanket -- Bobby, the bass player whose hands suffer from eczema and who is suspected to be the “passenger” of the band, sleeps under Underdog; Darlo, the gorgeous sexaholic drummer sleeps under a svelte Wonder Woman, and Adam, the pure-of-spirit pushover guitar player calls out for his mother while dreaming under Mickey Mouse. Shane, the faux-spiritual lead singer, never did make it home and is absent, which I suppose makes him the Invisible Man... the fool on the hill, the Walrus, koo koo kachoo.

As the day progresses to culminate in their last show, their jilted band manager Joey, “a bottle blonde with a gimp leg,” shows up to tell the lads that the label has dropped them; Shane wanders through the city, bedraggled and covered in caking blood and peanut butter; Bobby possibly finds hope for his eczema and love life; Darlo’s porn-industry-king father is arrested back in LA; Adam questions the sacrifice of his musical integrity for the band and the merits of his Fu Manchu. And even Amsterdam fails to live up to its reputation! The Blood Orphans’ past presents itself like a sheet of glass, shattered in a way so that the intricacies of how it once all fit together are clearly visible.

A continually striking aspect of the book is Shilling’s muscular writing, intense as a Bic-lit encore nearly all the way through. Through a prose style as wickedly funny as it can be revelatory, his powers of provocative description shoulder the task of pacing between present and past, between sequential and stream of consciousness writing. It is, quite simply, a fun book to read. He has said in a radio interview, “The spiritual antecedent of this book is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, because we didn’t have a large mom to carry across a river, but we had a dead dream to cart across town.” While the Bundrens epitomize quiet desperation, whereas the Blood Orphans kick, scream and swear, the books share that capability of “pitch-black comedy” to dig down into deeply repressed psychological terrain.

Shilling also gives each of his five main characters their own third person point of view. Terse, witty irony is clearly his championed style, highlighted in the voices of Darlo, Joey, and Bobby. Shane, the doofus soul-seeker who tries on all religions badly, mostly plays the clown, and even in his own chapters, it’s as if the joke’s on him. It’s interesting then, that the weakest voice, Adam’s, fails where sincerity feels forced; however, this is brilliantly emblematic of the band’s tragic flaw -- they are victims of their own irony.

Shilling’s tendentious prose style enhances the oh-shit atmosphere, as symbols of decay are omnipresent -- the rot of Bobby’s hands, Joey’s wilted mohawk and bum leg, Shane’s stench of stale peanut butter from the prior night, Darlo’s increasing signs of mental breakdown. In the first chapter, in the third person of Bobby, a wasp repeatedly flies hard into a glass window, standing for the band’s attempts to keep the show on the road:

Every day was a cold window to bang one’s head against.

“Oh, little wasp," he said, "ye I shall free.”

And with that he smashed the insect against the pane, exploding its rust-orange exo-body but also creating a solid fracture in the glass, a flat skein that resembled the interstate in North Dakota, upon which they had often trod.

The wasp, splattered in the center, was reborn as Bismarck.

All the band members obsess over questions of returning home, and the obstacles that lie between them and L.A. As Darlo makes increasingly frantic cell phone calls back to the States, his connection to home becomes as tenuous as satellite signals:

In a fiber-optic sleezitude, he shot over the North Pole, ripped through clouds above Ellesmere Island, pounded down pine forests over Calgary, bounced off radio towers in Nevada, repelled static in Sacramento, and landed in Jesse’s soft, small-time drug-dealing palm.

The novel is set during the second term of the Bush administration (adding another level of atrophy), and a climatic scene takes place in a public park where an anti-American protest wages, complete with a burning effigy of Bush. The band members and Joey surround the scene, but the lack of personal connection which has ruined the band manifests itself here as physical distance, as the characters locate each other in the violent scene either too late or not at all. 

One of my favorite moments occurs just before the Blood Orphans are set to take their final stage: Joey, suddenly inspired as if speaking in tongues at a revival, delivers an sweeping introduction to the band, tracing their history and bringing all the crowd with them up to this point in time, rendering the moment both epic and, simultaneously, so not epic:

“You may be wondering, how did I end up in a nice but unimpressive tableau of rock-and-roll mythmaking? You may be wondering, was it something special that brought me here tonight? And the answer is yes! The answer is yes!”

This book does not lament how the mighty have fallen, but rather how the could-have-been-mighty slowly fall. Bob Dylan sings, “I’m not even acquainted with my own desires,” and the over-arching theme of thwarting one’s own unknown desires makes Rock Bottom far more compelling than a simple rock-and-roll-gone-wrong story. That the Blood Orphans play an all-cover show at their very last gig is the final nail in a guitar-shaped coffin.

Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling
Back Bay Books
ISBN: 0316031925
400 pages