Lewis Shiner broke into print as a cyberpunk, but over the years rock dreams have come to occupy him as much as the universe-resolving fantasies that typically fuel speculative fiction. There's Eddie, dropped-out minor rock star and mystic traveler, in Deserted Cities of the Heart. The fringe culture of skatepunk and conspiracy zines shapes Slam. Glimpses imagines a protagonist who psychically wills to completion great unfinished rock albums like the Beach Boys' Smile. In the new Say Goodbye, a music journalist narrates the rise and stall of young Laurie Moss, who blows into Los Angeles, generates a buzz, and then tries to survive the aftermath.
Fiction about rock is notoriously sappy, like rock in French; maybe graceful, coherent prose is the enemy of a genre that somehow pulls moving art out of a mix that includes deliberate crudeness and gold-rush greediness. A romantic himself, Shiner hasn't solved the problem. And his grasp of the life of a mainstream wannabe like Moss (think Patti Rothberg dreaming of Joan Osborne dreaming of Sheryl Crow) is far from insiderish. I doubt, for example, that a major label would reshoot a video to please the college-radio magazine CMJ.
But the doubts a reader might feel about Say Goodbye's "rockingness" actually jibe well with the uncertain quality of Laurie Moss's rockingness. The thing about mainstream successes, with no particular ties to a scene or tradition, is that early on they're virtually indistinguishable from mainstream failures. No one can be sure, least of all the musicians who think they're hearing everything finally click into place. Does the obsessive love for Moss's music that the journalist instantly feels speak for millions who haven't had the chance to hear her? Are the songs that tumble out of her worth more than the fragments her guitarist, a long-lost cult figure and junkie, can just barely squeeze out?
Shiner is far more interested in artists who never can leave the club scene behind, a new addition to his career-long theme of people mulling over how much of themselves to throw into borderline pathetic fantasies. He's great at sketching sexual relationships, too, like the one between Moss and her guitarist, because he cares about the small tugs of desire and dryness. This isn't the great rock novel we may never have. But like Tom Perrotta's The Wishbones, Jessica Hagedorn's The Gangster of Love, or Nick Hornby's two novels, it's an emotionally credible account of how rock's grandiosity affects down-to-earth lives.
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