A fresh novel about the travails of a struggling musician on L.A.’s indie-rock fringe, this sequel to The King of Good Intentions continues the story of John and his jangle-pop band, The Weird Sisters. Likely at least semi-autobiographical, narrated after all by John with frequent asides to us, this takes up the tale on the 5th of April, 1994, the day Kurt Cobain died. While only Raleigh, the new drummer, feels bereft by this news as the band ends its West Coast tour in their woebegone van, John, and his fellow Sisters girlfriend Jenny and bassist Rob, convey their own emotions, as they contend with the usual litany of woes on a tiny record label’s budget, and their dreary day jobs. It’s similar to the late-career Spinal Tap playing puppet shows and pizza parlors, sans wigs or bombast.
They realise the long odds, for ‘there are zillions of Nigel Tufnels out there, in Technicolor verisimilitude, readying their teapot tempests, viewing their at once shrunken and little self-important lives through metaphorical shrink wrap.’ Fredrick, who teaches college English while fronting for decades The Black Watch, connects commentary with comedy, erudition to emotion. He takes more chances in this second novel, too. Consider, in extended set-pieces of a dozen or twenty pages, the maximalist style and elevated diction which Alexander Theroux’s books exemplify. ‘Eudaemonic snowman’, ‘plethoric poses’, ‘untinctured marzipan’, and ‘orgulous orbit’ speckle a ramble on musicians’ follies. Dr Johnson and The Rambler, besides, earn name-checks, alongside Bloom and Hobbes, Hamlet and Macbeth, Plato and Chaucer, Karen Horney and Jean Renoir. Not your usual rocker’s lament from the road. Ten pages on terrible tours entertain; so do those on a break-up, travails of record-label workers, and a diversion starting on L.A.’s woeful buses and ending in death.
Fredrick stumbles here, however, when cliches about Westside mini-moguls and riffs on a bigoted ex-pat posse of Brits in Santa Monica and a visit to randy Jewish doctor fall flat. ‘Sony Bono’ is a great typo, but too many others mar the prose’s flow. All the same, for 450 pages, this roars along, in overdrive for the frenzied satire, downshifting for clever flirtation or existential lament. You feel the ‘ass death’ of sitting in the van, you smell the farts. In the middle of a Central California highway stop, the prose bursts into ‘what atrocious colloquies one has to have in bands’. The Sisters contend with musical marginalisation a post-Kurt grunge mood, their miniscule fan base of twee chicks and twinkly critics remains so, and their psychedelic-fuzz, lyrically literate CD languishes undistributed.
But these, fans or not, delight. Bob Chalet of Bob Chalet Records, truculent publicist Sylvia Doum, Brit bar bore Barnacle Bob, Jen’s father the whingeing Ogre, the fanzine scribe Flake with ‘skin like the inside of a candy bar wrapper’ move the story along, even if John in his frustration with the mechanics of fiction relegates plots to cemeteries. For this picaresque tale recalls its 18th-century predecessors, the London scribblers of the demi-monde. Fredrick integrates his academic training in this period with dissecting late 20th-century foibles, and his scholarly bent enriches this narrative.
For Irish and British readers, this tale, like its predecessor, features engaging asides to how John, who spent most of his university years somewhere in the South of England, filters his affection and disdain for that stint into his current life in Los Angeles. He remains cagey on details about what happened overseas, still, so the final book may tell us more.
The results, which begin and end in medias res (for this saga will turn a trilogy, we are told early on), capture John’s tetchy voice, a winning if often whining one. It can be bright, as with romance, or dim, as when a nervous breakdown invokes ‘The Waste Land, stripped of…nothing.’ While admittedly ‘long on material for jeremiads like this’, it deftly conjures up Ulysses and The Great Gatsby as it fades. And with the promise of The Hollow Crown, we will welcome the conclusion of the Weird Sisters’ spells.