Do you like music? Do you like stories? Do you like stories about musicians?
I noted in my post that I’ve been reading Robert McCammon’s latest novel. I first read McCammon back in the 80s with his post-apocalyptic/horror novel Swan Song, followed by Stinger. The latter was a straight-ahead horror novel. Then there was The Wolf’s Hour, which, as best I remember, is about a werewolf who is also a secret agent for the Allies during WWII.
I haven’t much kept up on him since then, but from what I understand, he branched out from horror. Seems like that started with a book called Boy’s Life or something like that, which was a coming of age story. Seemed a weird departure at the time, though I’ve since come to understand the urge to write something outside a given genre. Hell, I never thought I’d be writing crime novels, but there you have it.
But when I encountered his latest novel, The Five, at the library, I picked it up. I wasn’t sure that I’d actually check it out. First, it was a monster—it comes in at 513 pages in hardback—and I was looking to get L.A. Confidential (having just watched the movie) and the next novel in the Dexter series. Sure, seeing that he was still at it was sort of like encountering an old friend. Or at least an old acquaintance.
But, just like in one of those encounters, you’re both different than you were way back then, so you’re justified in wondering if you have anything in common anymore. I saw the he’d also written a book called Mister Slaughter, so I went back to the shelf and learned that it’s part of a trilogy of what appear to be mysteries set in colonial New York in the early 18th Century, with a main character named Matthew Corbett.
It was reading the flap, though, that convinced me to pick The Five up and give it a try. Well, that, and the opening sentence, which reads: Nomad decided he would have to kill the waitress. How can you resist a book that opens that way?
The story itself drew my interest, too. I’ve always loved music. I was a major fan in the 80s, big on heavy metal. I got to see bands like KISS (though they weren’t in their heyday), Night Ranger, Iron Maiden (Up The Irons!), even Metallica with opening act Queensrÿche in 89. There’s folks that make fun of me now, saying, “You really listened to those hair bands?” Well, not all of them fell under what that term has come to mean now, because it refers to bands like Poison who were all about glam. Maybe they made good music, too, but image and big hair was definitely a major part of what they did. But, hey, it was the 80s, man. I loved it.
So when I saw that The Five was about a band going on their last tour and slowly falling apart as they do, I figured it would be good, a change of pace from my crime novels. A good break from Dexter, too (though I find it hard to need a break from him). Stephen King blurbs it as the best novel McCammon has ever written, and since I remember being impressed enough with Swan Song to read more of his books, I decided it was worth the try.
Well, I’m glad I read it.
I’m not sure where you’d classify this story. Which, I guess, is about what you’d expect from someone who has successfully hopped genres. It starts out just as I described. The opening scene takes place in a Denny’s just off I-35 at Round Rock, about twenty miles north of Austin, Texas, where the band is based. It’s ten o’clock or so in the morning and The Five—John Charles, aka Nomad (guitar, vocals), Ariel Collier (guitar, vocals), Mike Davis (bass), Terry Spitzenham (keyboards), and Berke Bonnevey (drums), along with manager George Emerson, aka the Little Genius—are having breakfast on the first morning of a month-long tour that will take them all the way to California and back. What they don’t know, but will quickly find out, is that George is ready to quit. He’ll take them through the tour, but then he’s gonna go back home to Chicago and work with his cousin pushing audio setups on churches and schools. He’s tired of the touring life, wants something else. He feels old at 33.
Needless to say, this kinda sets the band back on their heels. And it gets worse when Terry says he wants to quit after the tour, too. His dad will loan him the money to set up a business repairing and selling vintage keyboards. Turns out, not only is Terry one of the best keyboard players on the circuit, he’s also a minor genius at repairing old Moogs and such. He’s burnt out, too.
Well, isn’t that just great? Nomad, the self-styled “emperor” of the band (a tongue-in-cheek title), figures that’s it. Sure, they could go on without Terry, but even if they got another keyboard player, none of them would be Terry, and The Five would not be The Five anymore. They’d be…someone else. Well, okay, fine. Whaddaya say we write one final song together.
What, you mean all of us?
But…you and Ariel are the songwriters in this band. Terry does a little. None of us have ever written anything.
Well, let’s just try.
Bullshit, Berke says. This is just a lame attempt to keep the band together.
So they clam up and go to an interview shoot in Waco, put on by a local Toyota dealer who also runs a video show on cable TV. Afterwards, they hit the drive-thru at McDonald’s for lunch and Nomad ends up with a cheeseburger. That’s not good because he’s highly allergic to dairy. This is just too much. He makes George pull the van over and he gets out and walks down a dirt road. George follows along, with everyone trying to coax Nomad back in.
At the end of the road, they have a strange encounter at a blackberry patch. Ariel, who is a modern hippy and rather spiritual, is convinced it means something, and Mike ends up believing it, too.
What the band doesn’t know is, when the car dealer airs his interview, he’s intercut questions he never asked and made them look as if their song “When the Storm Breaks” is calling Iraq and Afghan vets kid killers.
Enter Jeremy Pett. Jeremy was a Marine sniper in Iraq. His spotter now lives his life out in a vet center with half his skull crushed in. Pett’s wife and son died in a traffic accident while he was Over There. Suffice it to say that Pett’s grip on reality isn’t what it should be. In fact, he’s in his ratty apartment in Temple, Texas, eating Tylenol and getting ready to slit his wrists in his bathtub. Except, the TV is on and he sees the “interview” the car dealer airs. And decides he has to kill The Five.
So there’s the set-up, the main plot.
It seems simple, but it’s not. While this novel hovers somewhere on the tripartite border of horror novel, revenge novel, and contemporary novel, its driving force is that it’s a character-driven story. By the time you finish, you care about these people, even Jeremy. There’s redemption here, and lots of love, and the novel ends on an upbeat note of hope, despite some of the dark things that happen.
Along the way, you get to see what it’s like behind the scenes of a moderately successful touring band from Texas, and Austin in particular, where it appears bands are falling out of the woodwork. Austin, home of the South By Southwest festival, is arguably the live music capitol of the world. Standing out in an atmosphere like this means something, and The Five have been at it for something like four years by the time the book opens. They are a family, and that’s how they view themselves. And when Jeremy invades their lives, it just adds to the misery of the family breakup.
I would have to say the biggest problem I have with this book is the one I already mentioned in my regular post: McCammon writes in head hopping third person. He’s good at it, but I’ve become so used to transition breaks to clue me in on viewpoint switches that reading this kind of book throws me a little now. That’s not going to be a problem for everyone. The only other possible problem is that, because it’s a character-driven story, it can get a bit slow at times with long passages of exposition. But, I’ve been reading so many crime novels in the last six or eight months, with their faster pacing, that diving into something with a little slower pace throws me off my pace.
McCammon has been in the business a long time because he is good. And, for an author to work in more than one genre, and do so successfully without resorting to pseudonyms, speaks of his talent, at least in my mind.
So, if you enjoy a good character-driven story and like (or love) music, pick up this book. I liked it even with the problems I mentioned above. Like most good character stories, it creeps up on you and gets into your soul without you really realizing it. And by the time you do realize it, you’re deep enough into it that you won’t care.
Give it a try. Read about The Band That Will Not Die (as they are called by the end), and maybe you’ll come away, as I did, hoping you’ll maybe hear a little more about these characters, even as you know you probably won’t. Their story is done. But there’s an old adage that states something along the lines of every story has to end for a new story to begin.