Thursday, April 19, 2012
Jules Older's understatement
In the library, in a rush. Gotta’ catch a plane and need a book for the long ride.
I grab a fat one from the shelf. Never heard of the book, never heard of the author. Scan a few grafs on my way to checkout. Mutter to self, “Looks OK.”
Looks OK? Looks OK? That turns out to be a statement so underwhelming, it is factually incorrect. As I discover on the plane and for the next dozen nights, I've grabbed the most powerful book I've read in years.
It’s not for everyone. There’s cruelty and crime, insanity and evil, bad drugs and attempted rape. The reason it took me a dozen nights to reach page 513 is that, for many of those nights, I was just too overwhelmed with the power of the prose to read more than a chapter or two.
The book is The Five. The author is Robert McCammon. The story is… Because I hate giving away plots, I'm pretty careful what I say about stories. So, here's what I can tell you.
The Five is the name of a rock band of serious but less than star-status musicians. As they drive the Scumbucket, their beat-up old van, from gig to gig, things begin to go terribly wrong. Lives are imperiled, authorities are involved. The band plays on.
Boy, does that not do justice to a great book! McCammon has the uncanny ability to get into a dozen heads, to issue ring-true words from a hundred mouths. His drummer never talks like his bass guitarist. Cop number one never sounds like any other officer. Touring bands each have their distinctive sound.
And it’s not just dialog and music. Here’s the band’s manager ruminating on his decision to leave show business and get a real job:
…in this business—in any of the arts, really—success was always a lightning strike away. Yeah, he would do fine as the rep selling audio units on the road. He would get to know the products so well he wouldknow what the client needed before he eyeballed the venue. But was that going to be enough? Was he going to wake up one night when he was forty years old, listening to a clock tick and thinking If only I had stuck it out...
And then there's the action. My definition of a great book includes — maybe starts with — its ability to glue your eyes to the page. Time after time, night after night, I had to tear mine away from The Five.
One thing that worries me when I'm in the thick of a book I'm loving: Is the author gonna be able to stick the landing, pull off the ending? By my count, The Five has three endings, and McCammon stuck every one of them.
All this would be more than enough. Strong characters, compelling plot, realistic dialog, fierce action, satisfying ending(s).
But wait — there's more.
The Five is also a history, real and imagined, of rock ‘n roll. Of musicans, fabled and fancied. Of the usually gritty, sometimes uplifting history of American music and the people who create it.
That alone is worth the price of admission.