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Review by Jay Benedict.
Regular Vulpes guest Jay Benedict joins us again with another highly individual review – this time of a novel which isn’t exactly an everyday story of country folk …
The first thing you should know about Asbury Park is that it’s a city in Monmouth County, New Jersey, United States – on the Jersey shore and part of the New York Metropolitan area. The city is widely known for its rich musical history and was also, in 2008, ranked the sixth best beach in New Jersey in the Top Ten Beaches contest sponsored by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium. (Nothing like an independent view of your own, is there? It’s like the World Series in baseball only taking place in America or the music competition where one person enters and wins …)
The second thing you should know about Asbury Park is that the single most famous person to emerge from there was the professional wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow (“Not Bam Bam!” do I hear you say?) who named his finishing maneuver, an over-the-shoulder reverse pile driver, after Bruce Springsteen’s first album – Greetings from Asbury Park – in tribute to his hometown. Mickey Rourke filmed there recently, playing another wrestler in the film curiously titled ‘The Wrestler’ which says not a great deal about Asbury Park and its wrestlers, but possibly more about the desolate nature of the place.
Asbury Park is also considered a mecca for musicians, particularly for a sub-genre of rock and roll known as the Jersey Shore sound, which is infused with R&B. It‘s the home to The Stone Pony, founded in 1974, and a starting point for many performers, like Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
This, then, is the backdrop to our book.
To start … let me give you an idea of the storyline:
It’s the late 1960s and Sam Nesbitt – our hero and twenty-two – is trying to find his way back home after three years away in the Navy. Flying in from Barcelona, he gets hopelessly lost and finds himself in the vacant streets of Asbury Park, in mid-winter, on a mile long stretch of aging boardwalk amusements. At the Wesley Lake bridge he sees a swan’s outline near the shore and making his way past a stretch of boarded concession stand, a miniature golf course and a dozen kiddie rides, he sets his sea bag and guitar on the dock. Lifting the tarp from the swan he finds four seats, then a hollow under the swan’s breast.
There he tries to sleep for the night, but memories come flooding back of Julie, his childhood sweetheart – so instead he starts drinking Bourbon and pulls out a knife to finish off carving her initials in the swan – initials he’d started years before.
So far, so good …
Suddenly, headlights sweep across the lake and Sam disappears back into the swan: Sonny and Fabricio are getting rid of a body. The knife in Sam’s hand slips and he cuts through most of the tendons in his fingers. Sonny and Fabricio appear to dump a body in the lake then leave. His hand is bleeding profusely, but he somehow manages to fall into a sleepless sleep only to wake up with his Mother’s address, bleeding through the postcard she’d written him in his dream. He tracks her down and finds she’s working in a factory on Westside where she solders transistors to printed circuit boards.
Sam dreams of making it in a rock and roll band but needs to fix his hand if he’s ever going to play again, and the hospital tells him he needs a $2000 operation at least, so he pumps his Mother for information about the whereabouts of his father. This is not Frank who stepped out into the road one day coming out of the pub, only to get upended by a car then run over by another one close behind: Frank who’d taken on his Mother knowing she was pregnant: Frank who drank till four in the morning, slept for two hours, then went to work – a standard, a memory. No, this is his real father, Stephen Wise, a lawyer he’s going to ask for money to fix his hand.
He finds him, is rejected, and winds up in a bar getting drunk – only to be violently thrown out by none other than Fabricio, who then offers him a cigarette as he’s bleeding all over the pavement, and hands him his card – SHORE FINANCING – NO COLLATERAL NECESSARY – should he ever need any help.
(Now, you can’t have people beat you up one minute and then say ‘I love you’ the next, but that’s the way it is in Asbury. There’s a sado-masochistic, recidivist theme going on throughout the book. Every time Sam tries to break away from these people they beat him up and he keeps coming back for more.)
He makes up his mind and calls TC – the Capo di tutti Capi and local Soprano of the operation. (With a name like that he’d have to be, wouldn’t he? Think Top Cat/Officer Dibble/Hanna Barbera cartoons and you’ve pretty well got your cast of characters. ) Sam takes the money from TC, thereby selling his soul and from that moment onwards TC and his cast of characters own him. We enter into a world of white pompadours and sandbag bellies, olive oil canned tomatoes and pasta – and characters who dunk their biscotti into a drop of Amaretto only to put it into a hole in their cheek as if it were a second mouth.
He starts working for Bott’s TV and Music and becomes the antenna guy (long before Jim Carrey ever became the cable guy) putting up antennas all over Asbury Park. He gets a van and the use of the musical amps and guitars in Bott’s shop. Things are looking up.
He’s torn between Gillian, the spaced-out dope chick he’d met in the train coming into Asbury Park and Julie his childhood sweetheart, who’s dead straight but a great f**k and wishes he’d get a proper job. That train, incidentally, had been involved in an accident on the way in when it had messily disassembled a horse. Not any old horse either. This horse had a career diving from a six story diving platform in Atlantic City.
The conductor said the horse had got loose from a nearby Estate, and the police were investigating. It turns out that …… but I won’t give the whole plot away.
You get the picture.
Along the way we meet Sam’s brother Tom, and his black friend Brandon – two surfer dudes who have spent their entire lives catching waves – as well as Glen Ketter. Glen is a Viet-Nam vet who tells us he could be living in Tahiti, only his dad is ‘fooling around’ with his sisters, so instead he prefers to pop pills, feel sorry for himself and drink.
The book ends with the city’s changing fortunes leading to civic unrest and – finally – Sam Nesbitt’s freedom. On July 4th 1970, riots result in the destruction of aging buildings in the south west quadrant – never redeveloped to this day. TC brings Sam some cotton candy and tells him he’s paid off his debt and is free – much like the slaves of old after the American Civil War; only the slaves had nowhere to go, except back to their owners …
There is no doubt at all that Alex Austin can write, and there’s a good story in there somewhere, but the narrative jumps backwards and forwards so frequently it leaves you exhausted. By page eight, we’re getting a mathematical equation about arriving at the truth as much as you start from it, by adding or subtracting what the truth needs – which is the difference between living and telling. In the author’s life, this has never been distinct … which ultimately leaves the reader thinking, “What???” It makes you want to scream. Are we talking cookery recipes or philosophy? You’d need an ‘A’ level in something to understand all this. It reminded me of the ‘sanity clause’ routine in one of the Marx Brothers movies, ending with Chico saying he didn’t believe in no Sanity Clause.
The dialogue never moves the story along and there’s no character development. Everyone seems to be stuck in a schematic – one of those diagrams that comes with everything from refrigerators to electric guitars showing how all the components and circuitry are connected. Asbury Park has its own schematic – and Our Hero is it! The goombahs remain goombahs, our hero is never going to make it, TC pulls everyone’s strings and there’s something hopeless and sad about these characters stuck in their schematic. There’s no redemption. We’re caught in a time warp like on Camino Real, where all the figures are dead. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Il faut changer de disque de temps en temps, as the French would say!
Okay, now I’m partial to a bit of rock and roll myself, and this is where the author knows his stuff. He’s more Hendrix and Yardbirds than Buddy and Cliff, so I’m on his side. Anybody who witnessed Jimi Hendrix’s performances at the Albert Hall, London, England like I did back in 1968, will recognize the man’s genius. The author’s description of his own band playing to “uninterrupted hallucinogenic masturbatory scenes” is vivid, and his recurring memories that “bubbled up like aged shit seeping from a cesspool” remained long in the mind after I’d put the book down. Likewise, in the scene where the horse gets hit by the train, the writing is just brilliantly graphic – big chunks of pink flesh bright as lipstick under the train’s headlight. He’s a really great descriptive writer, but unfortunately his narrative lets him down.
I really wanted to like this novel more than I did – but it’s a bit one-track minded. We needed more narrative from the other characters’ point of view. For instance, I wanted to know more about the women in his life – not just where they ‘got it on’ and whether or not they were high at the time, but why did Gillian get hooked on heroin and how did she come back?
Most of all, I wanted to know more about the Red Album. What Red Album? We heard a lot about the Beatles and the White Album and Led Zeppelin and ‘Communication Breakdown’ – and everyone else that we already knew about – but what about Sam Nesbitt? What made him run?
Ultimately, I never did find that one out – and that was disappointing.
Virtualbookworm.com Publishing. 2008. ISBN: 978-1602642188. 260pp.