What a difference five years makes.
Since the publication of Ghost Notes, rock novels have won the Pulitzer Prize (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2011) and been named one of New York Times’ Ten Best Books of the Year (Ten Thousand Saints, 2011). Even Jonathan Franzen’s mega-blockbuster Freedom features a singer-songwriter searching for his way forward in the 21st century. Moreover, many not-as-popular-but-at-least-as-worthy rock fiction titles have managed to find their way into print in that span, and some of the best I’ve read. This subject—musicians making their way in the world while the inferno burns inside them, and after it burns out—has always fascinated me, and treating these stories with some dignity seems apropos as the rock and roll era enters its twilight.
All this to say, as I get ready to publish my third rock novel Badge in early 2014, it’s good not to be alone anymore.
With so many new rock novels published in the recent past, I feel compelled to chronicle what’s good, great and classic in this nascent genre. Over the week, I’ll announce my Top 20 Rock Novels of All Time, publishing five titles a day—starting with numbers 20 through 16 below—and I’ll march us right down to my pick for the Greatest Rock Novel of All Time, which I’ll crown on Friday.
Some might wonder my criteria for inclusion on this list. Each of these books qualifies as a rock novel because the main character is shaped by a rock ethos. As far as ranking, these are the main things I considered:
1) The promise of the novel’s beginning;
2) Its ability to deliver on that promise;
3) My desire to read the book again.
Got it? Okay, here goes.
Ten Thousand Saints By Eleanor Henderson
In Ten Thousand Saints, Vermont teenager Jude loses his best friend to a drug overdose and is forced to live with his dad in the East Village of the 1980s, only to fall under the influence of straight-edge punks who don’t have sex, do drugs or eat meat. Henderson fills her novel with a tapestry of familial relationships that any latch key kid can relate to.
Memorable Line: “She observed Jude's romance with straight edge as she might have observed his first love—warily, with a mother's pride, hoping that, in the end, his heart wouldn't break too hard.”
Never Mind Nirvana by Mark Lindquist
Never Mind Nirvana is a story of arrested adolescence, all with Seattle’s nineties music scene providing background and ambience. Dive bars, post-punk references, and romances that come and go faster than three-minute rock songs get heavy play here, along with a date-rape case that leaves protagonist/lawyer Pete Tyler wondering if the fun’s gone on too long.
Memorable line: “A Blur rip-off of a Pavement song plays on the house stereo as Carol shakes a martini.”
Twisted Kicks by Tom Carson
One of the earliest rock novels, Twisted Kicks is the eery story of Dan Lang, a young musician who meets with trouble in New York’s punk scene of the late 1970s and comes back home to Icarus, Virginia to sort through the detritus. Carson’s voice reminds me of great 20th century male writers like John Updike, the darkness of Lang’s past creeping into every line of prose.
Memorable line: “‘That girl’s going to commit suicide some day. She’s got what it takes.’”
Boarded Windows by Dylan Hicks
Boarded Windows’s prominent curiosity is boomer aesthete Wade Salem as seen through the eyes of his (perhaps) son, a ruminative, unnamed protagonist and record collector looking for some essential truth to help break through his ennui. Expect references to Aristotle, stories about famous jazz bassists, and women who can only have sex while listening to John Philip Sousa.
Memorable line: “I was wearing, to paraphrase Gogol, whatever God or JCPenney sends to a provincial town.”
The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge
The Cost of Living chronicles the trip home to Connecticut of musician/drug addict Bud Barrett to confront his dying father about their past and, God willing, get beyond it. Plenty of sex, drugs and rock and roll punctuate Barrett’s road from guitarist in a seminal rock band to hard-living junkie and back. Roberge’s ability to render the details of drug culture shines through.
Memorable line: “But still, in that moment, things were peaceful, and peace was one of the rarest visitors my head ever received and I wanted to savor it.”
That's it for today. Check in Tuesday for #15-11.
Yours in laying down the law,
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