That Summertime Sound by Matthew SpecktorLiving in Chicago, I find it hard to imagine Columbus, Ohio as a mysterious and exciting place of self-discovery. For Matthew Specktor’s unnamed narrator, however, Columbus is the heart of Rock’n’Roll. Convinced by Marcus, his freshman year roommate, that Columbus has all the best bands, he decides to spend the summer of 1986 in Columbus to realize his dream of seeing the Lords of Oblivion, his new favorite band, live in concert.
That Summertime Sound opens as the narrator drives through Pennsylvania with Marcus, his friend Lena --- both tripping on LSD -- and Invisible Dan at the wheel. Through most of the book, Dan’s name is hitched to invisibility as he hopelessly adores Lena and barely makes a dent in the plot’s progression, except to serve as an example of everything the narrator wants to avoid as they arrive in Columbus for a long, hot summer. Felice and Kitty, Marcus and Lena’s old high school friends, are the first Columbus residents that are introduced upon the group’s arrival. Felice makes a quick impression on the narrator and he wastes no time in falling in love with her.
While Felice does take up much of the music-loving narrator’s attention over the course of the summer, he never strays from his desire to see the Lords of Oblivion and its mythical lead singer, Nic Devine. A small chunk of the book is devoted to the narrator searching for information about Nic’s performances and whereabouts, including a nervous visit to the address listed under the name “A. Nicolas Devine.” When Nic does arrive on the scene, he does so with a strange mixture of aggressive confidence and defensive humility, insulting the Columbus music scene including his own band. His presence only feeds the narrator’s obsession as he acts more like a fun, carefree older brother than a superstar. Nic and the narrator, Nic’s most dedicated fan, face a few challenges together, but they don’t seem to affect Nic as he glides along, blanketed in the comfort of everyone else’s inferiority. All the real challenges are in the narrator’s mind.
If there were any tangible villains in That Summertime Sound, they would be Ohio State football fans and possibly Elvis Costello. However, their presence in the plot is peripheral: a full 16oz can of beer drunkenly thrown out a car window at the narrator’s head and the crushing realization that the beloved and perfect Felice really does like Costello’s music. Somehow Elvis Costello’s stolen name becomes an offense, as if the “real king” could never have stolen anything. Mention of the “real king” clearly refers to Elvis Presley, but it also loosely alludes to Nic Devine as he is elevated to royalty or deity by the narrator. Ironically, Nic’s own music is so obviously influenced by other bands one character assumes he only does cover songs.
The description of Nic’s music is where much of Specktor’s writing talent shows. Music that would probably sound like completely unarranged, angry garbage comes across as emotional genius. Deftly understated descriptions of songs that don’t belong anywhere near the word ‘understated” bring out all the emotion of the narrator’s transition into unsheltered young adult freedom.
Above and apart from Specktor’s clever song descriptions is a consistently close first-person narrative, a subtle marker that makes the narrator’s perspective feel like home. Excessive nostalgia is narrowly avoided by limiting the inclusion of judgments obviously made in hindsight. The pace slows to allow for quick thoughts to fully develop in the moment. Most impressive, every realization or revelation that the reader has happens in perfect unison with the narrator. Nothing is hidden from the reader unless it is also hidden from the narrator. The reader even shares the narrator’s senses when he meets Felice, the narrator hears her say “Iceleaf” twice before she more clearly enunciates, “I’m Felice.” Throughout what would otherwise be fast dialogue, the narrator’s thoughts are laid bare. Without much background knowledge of the character, the crisp, simple language that is used for the immersive first-person narration provides an identity for the unnamed protagonist.
That Summertime Sound by Matthew Specktor