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The Red Album of Asbury Park by Alex Austin

Review by Jay Benedict.

Red AlbumRegular 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. Publishing.  2008. ISBN: 978-1602642188.  260pp.

13 comments on “The Red Album of Asbury Park by Alex Austin

  1. Ralf
    April 10, 2009

    Sounds interesting. I like the idea of the storyline and the setting. I know the place and the Stone Pony. Got to smile at TC tho – that indisputable leader of the gang!! Might give this a go. Thanks for the review. Great site btw.

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  3. Jackie
    April 10, 2009

    Why do so many macho type books never have women other than as paper dolls only there for sex? They are never multidimensional women. Is it their disdain for females or just lack of imagination?
    This book sounds way too drenched in blood for me to think of reading. And the stuff about the horse is too upsetting. Did that have to be in the review?
    I must say that the cover of the book is quite nicely done.

  4. Moira
    April 10, 2009

    A fictional horse in a fictional accident? You’re way too tender-hearted for this world Jacks. If that’s what particularly stuck in the mind, it’s entirely valid to mention it.

    I had a quick look at this book before I forwarded it to Jay, and I can completely endorse the comments about the descriptive passages. Not pretty, but really vivid.

  5. Jackie
    April 10, 2009

    When I’m reading, everything is absolutely real to me, so it’s as if it really happened.It’s true in some alternate universe, inside the book. That’s why I could never write a book with something horrible happening to the characters.
    I know it’s weird.
    It’s bad enough that he said the horse got hit by a train, I didn’t want to hear the details. If I don’t want to read the book because of the gore, I don’t want to read it in a review, either.
    I hope the horse died instantly, before all that gross stuff happened to it’s body.

  6. rosyb
    April 10, 2009

    Sounds like not your kind of book, Jackie. But I think, yes, things like that have to be in the review. Because the review is showing the reader what the book is like and from that the reader can perhaps decide whether the book sounds like something for them or not. So maybe this review has done its job.

    I enjoyed reading this btw. Vivid review. The book sounds quite vivid too, despite the negatives.

  7. mitchell
    April 11, 2009

    Interesting. This is my sort of thing. Maybe not perfect but I like books with attitude. Attitude and rock n roll does it for me!! Good to see a review of a book from a POD publisher on here too, there\’s good stuff out there that doesn\’t get a fair shake just because it\’s POD. Thumbs up to you for that.

  8. Alex Austin
    April 13, 2009

    I appreciate the space given to my new novel, The Red Album of Asbury Park, on Vulpes Libris, and I am gratified by many aspects of Jay Benedict’s lively and witty review. But I’d like to offer a few corrections and clarifications.

    In Jay’s version of the storyline, two local mobsters are getting rid of a “body” in Wesley Lake . They would have more luck hiding a stiff in a koi pond. Wesley, which divides Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, is essentially a shallow water feature adjacent to an amusement park. The narrator, Sam, describes the men from his hiding spot in the mechanical swan, but makes no mention of a body or any other objects. Something is thrown in Wesley Lake , but it couldn’t be much more than a knife or a gun (and as the mobsters in the book later point out, even that would be a stupid move).

    Jay has Sam waking up the following morning knowing his mother’s address because she wrote it on a postcard he received in a dream. Not exactly. On Sam’s train ride back to Asbury, he had a real postcard (the “Greetings from Asbury Park ” postcard)” with his mother’s Ocean Grove address. With all the excitement on the train (a woman, an accident), he left the postcard behind, which is why he was lost. He woke up remembering the address on the postcard. Nothing preternatural here.

    In the next scene, Sam indeed tracks his mother down, but at her Ocean Grove apartment, not a factory as Jay wrote. This is important not just because it’s a factual error, but because Sam gets home on Sunday, in an era when Ocean Grove’s Blue Laws were observed, and it was mandatory that the streets be cleared of motor vehicles, another factor in his being lost.

    Except for spelling her name as Gillian and not “Jillian” in the paragraph describing the young woman Sam meets on the train, there is no factual error, but an unfortunate omission. Jillian is not just “a spaced-out dope chick,” but the lead singer of the one commercially successful band coming out of the Asbury scene. Perhaps I have not successfully created the character I had in mind, but she’s much more than a reader would infer from this dismissive description. Julie, Sam’s girlfriend from his teenaged years, is also more than “dead straight but a great fuck.” She’s the middle-class girl who veered left in her 60s college years, but now is returning to a middle-class career and values. Sam’s ambitions are linked to his past relationship with Julie and her rejection of him.

    Same with the “two surfer dudes,” who are black and white teenagers violating numerous ground rules of this place in this time, and Glen, the Viet-Nam vet who “feels sorry for himself.” Jesus, he lost an arm. Give him some slack.

    Toward the end of Jay’s critique of my storyline, he mentions that TC brings “cotton candy” to Sam as a kind of farewell gift. Well, no, it was “Salt Water Taffy.” Trivial point? A box of Salt Water Taffy was (probably still is) the traditional souvenir (memory) of the Jersey Shore . On every box you’ll see an illustration of the ocean and the boardwalk. Cotton Candy would be a rather sticky and short-lived memento.

    This leads to a response to Jay’s question “What Red Album?” Sure, I wanted the book’s title to evoke musical albums (The White Album, etc.), but an album is also a book of memories (photographs frequently but not always), and the title The Red Album of Asbury Park refers equally to scenes (through a narrator/participant) of an Asbury Park that once was and will shortly, violently fall apart. The fall of Asbury will also be the source of Sam’s music (as if was the source of Springsteen’s first album “Greetings from Asbury Park ”). So the scenes in the album will be the songs on Sam’s album.

    I like Jay’s graph that compares a static quality in my novel to Tennessee Williams’ play Camino Real. However, Jay concludes negatively that we must sometimes change the record. On the new David Byrne and Bryan Eno album, Everything that Happens will Happen Today, the chorus of the title song says,

    “Everything that happens will happen today
    & nothing has changed, but nothing’s the same
    and ev’ry tomorrow could be yesterday
    and ev’rything that happens will happen today”

    This sense of being stuck, seeming to go somewhere, but really going nowhere, and the feeling that all events are simultaneous (I conclude Chapter 3 with the sentence “Everything that happened, happened on this night.”) and interwoven are among the novel’s themes. The mechanical swan seems to float unfettered around Wesley Lake , but is actually attached to an underwater track. The Ferris wheel, the carousel, all the dark rides on serpentine rails, everything moving but going nowhere, forever. The ever-present Jersey mobster, the town that wants you only to be what you were born to be (“… a working class hero is something to be …and you think you’re so clever and classless and free… but youE2re still peasants as far as I can see”). This is what Sam struggles against… to get out of that schematic.

    Jay found that “the novel jumps backwards and forwards so frequently it leaves you exhausted.” Chapter 1 begins a couple of years after that night when Sam arrived in Asbury. Prefaced by a caveat by the narrator Sam (not “the author”) that he may lie a little to his friend, with a couple of exceptions, Sam tells in quite linear fashion the story of his life in Asbury.

    And Sam does change. I would argue that there is profound character development in Sam. He begins the story, apolitical and narcissistic, and he ends that night by advising soldiers to desert.

    In general, “never defend, never explain” is a good policy, but I think the above may help Vulpes Libris readers to decide if The Red Album is worthwhile pursuing. The review also neglected to mention that the book is a sequel to my first novel, The Perfume Factory.”

    Rock on.

    Alex Austin

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  10. Jackie
    April 17, 2009

    I’m wondering if there wasn’t too many Americanisms that would pass a European by? The author assumes the reader will understand all of these references, some of which are almost unnoticed by people in the US, who take such trivial details for granted. Maybe this doesn’t translate for those unfamiliar with the minutae of American culture of the time? I’m sure the opposite would be true as well, as sometimes I have no idea of what’s being said in Britspeak, even though I’m rather familiar with the culture & language.

    April 18, 2009

    ” Ten minutes to Shark river,” said the stockier man….
    “It’s Ok,’ said the other.
    “What 10 feet deep?”.
    A grunt. Silence. A splash a silence.
    The door slammed the car engine turned over lazily and then roared. Tires scuffed the pavement.
    The author’s intention is to make you think that it might be a body Sam’s imagining from inside the Swan, which is why I wrote that.
    Secondly I quote from page 34, “When I finally woke floating in the residue of a dream was the postcard with my Mother’s address bleeding thru it.” That’s poetic and has strong imagery. I know about the postcard that his Mother had sent him that he’s left on the train but why bother to write that. A review is ‘precis’ after all you don’t give the whole game away, do you? You try and encompass the flavour, the essence of a story.That’s the art of good review. I never said Sam tracks his Mother down working in a Factory, I said he tracks her down, I didn’t say where, and finds that she’s working in a Factory. 2 different things. Again I’m precis-ing the facts otherwise let the author review his own book and we’re back to the baseball world series in which only America participates. When you open in a play, and God knows I’ve done many of them over the years you invite the critics in to review the said piece. You put yourself up for criticism and observation that’s the name of the game. You rarely reply by ‘having a go’ back at the critics unless they’re being patently unfair which I don’t think I’m being. I like Alex’s book and I wanted to like it more.
    As for Jillian you never get the feeling she’s this big commercial superstar travelling the world like Janis Joplin or something. You learn very little about her and I have to agree with Jackie about there being a lack of multi dimension or what I would call character development to the females in his life. A ‘straight’ in my parlay is a middle class person so the author’s nitpicking semantics with my references to Julie. As for Glen losing his arm, yeah I feel sorry for him but when I think of what para-olympians achieve today, his incestuous situation doesn’t bear dwelling on. As for cotton candy v. Salt Water Taffy I wouldn’t know the difference and I apologize for that. I was trying, once again, to convey the essence of that moment in AA’s book about offering Sam the gate to freedom.I must agree with Jackie about the minutiae of American culture. It might be something that escapes Europeans. Otherwise I stand by the rest of my review and wasn’t aware that I was under any obligation to mention this book being a sequel to his last novel which I wasn’t asked to review??!!

  12. rosyb
    April 18, 2009

    Just wanted to say that I’m rather impressed by the good manners shown by both parties here. Rather an interesting discussion in fact.

    I wrote a piece – a not very serious piece – a while ago about responding to reviews and the perils it could entail. And having worked on many plays myself I relate to what Jay is saying about theatre and inviting along the critics, putting yourself up there and nothing you can do about the result – and my god can the newspaper critics be cruel sometimes. But you have to just take it on the chin, suck it up and all those other unpleasant-sounding stock phrases. But…(reason I’m waffling here now) I wonder if the internet changes that convention. We have a commenting facility and discussion facility. We often have authors dropping by to say thanks or join in the discussion. I wouldn’t like to think that Vulpes was the kind of site where authors are allowed to reply only if they agree…

    On the other hand, I often notice that the bloggers will get more flak than the paper reviewers when the blog reviewers are usually giving up their time for free – which makes for a very different situation, doesn’t it? Sometimes writers seem to forget this and act as though a blog should provide publicity and no criticism. Maybe this is because some actually do do this. Hmmm.

    This discussion raised all these questions for me – something we have been thinking about on the site in the past with the Fox in the City post and others.

    I suppose I was just wondering whether blogs and the internet means there are new norms now for answering reviews or entering into discussion with your critics.

    Anyway, as I said before – enjoyed this.

  13. Jackie
    April 18, 2009

    When I reviewed “The Wind Off the Sea” just this past Monday, I was unaware that it was a sequel, so sometimes the reviewer just doesn’t know.They shouldn’t be faulted for that. Besides, books ought to be able to stand on their own, whether they’re a continuation of a story or not.

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