Sunday, April 21, 2013

West of Babylon by Ted Heller, reviewed

It’s hard to watch our rock stars get old, because that means that we, too, are older. We’d like to remember Paul as the cute Beatle, Mick before all the wrinkles, and Gregg with his original liver. At least we can take comfort in the fact that they’re all still out there rocking, living the rock n’ roll lifestyle, earning millions. But what about the middle-of-the-road guys, the ones who didn’t sustain that level of success? Whatever became of them? Well, they’re still there, you just have to look. WEST OF BABYLON, Ted Heller’s fourth novel, takes a look at one of these types of bands, the fictitious Long Island-based The Furious Overfalls.

The Furious Overfalls consist of founder and singer/guitarist Danny, skirt-chasing lead guitarist Jules, the OCD-afflicted bassist Howie, and clueless drummer Joey. The four musicians are now playing small clubs for little money, selling CDs by hand for ten bucks, and doubling up in crappy hotel rooms. The glory days of road crews, fancy hotels, and air travel are now just a memory. And health insurance, what’s that? When drummer Joey gets sick, the band faces a crossroads they’ve been avoiding for a while: continue as a band or finally pack it in. But first they embark on one final national tour. Can they bring Joey back alive, as Danny promises Joey’s wife? And even if they do, what then? This is the only life they’ve even known.

The novel covers the arc of the band from their beginning up to the present day. The reader is plopped into their world, where we meet the myriad supporting cast of groupies, hangers-on, and producers, and where we experience the high and the lows of an aging group of musicians on the road for over 30 years. And don’t forget the music—which I could practically hear, it was described so well. Additionally, the dynamics between the four (very different) personalities is handled deftly, and what each member is thinking about life as they push toward sixty. One scene that will stick with me for a long time is when Jules is walking alone around Manhattan the night before Thanksgiving, desperate to find someone to hang out with. But he can't connect with anyone from the old days—because those days are long gone; the people are long gone. This is a turning point for Jules, as he begins to see that the guys in the band need each other more than they’d realized.

Heller is one on my favorite authors, and he continues to surprise me with how well he tackles varied subjects. His first novel, SLAB RAT (Scribner, 2001) satirized the world of magazine publishing; his second, FUNNYMEN (Scribner 2003) took on the world of Catskills comedy; and POCKET KINGS (Algonquin Books, 2012) addressed the current state of book publishing (along with online addiction). With BABYLON he takes on the music industry. It is not a comedy/satire like his other novels (though it does have its comedic moments); what it is, is a poignant look at friendship, family responsibilities, and growing old. And, of course, rock n’ roll (if you couldn’t tell from the Clash-flavored cover).

I was truly sad to see the novel end, as I had gotten attached to the characters. The only thing missing from this rock n’ roll novel is an actual soundtrack. I guess I’ll have to wait for the movie.