That may not sound like a good thing.
You’d be wrong.
See, this is a novel about the last days of a hardscrabble indie rock band — the titular “The Five” — and the horror they endure at the hands of a schizo sniper, a horror that ultimately brings them together before properly setting them apart. Contained within the story is this ghostly vein of the supernatural, a delicate component of good versus evil that never shows its full face, that always remains hidden in the margins of shadow that McCammon paints.
So, when I say “messy” and “strange,” I mean it in the truest rock-and-roll sense. Think if you will of the The White Stripes. Or The Doors. Or Jimi Hendrix. Or late Beatles. Or Sleater-Kinney. Or any garage band playing music that isn’t about perfection but about what lies beyond and within each note — the messy thump of a bass drum, the fuzz of a grinding guitar, the trippy vertigo strains of an organ. We’re not talking the measured bleeps and blips of pop music: we’re talking about the unkempt margins of rock-and-motherfucking-roll, son.
I don’t know how McCammon does it, but both the story and the execution of that story mimic that kind of garage band rock. It’s loose and messy, it deviates from expected courses, it escalates just when you think it’s going to ease off and eases off just when you think it’s going to escalate, it’s trippy and slippery. Above all else, it offers a kind of genius from a storyteller who has in my mind achieved a mode of transcendence — here, then, is McCammon as storytelling Bodhisattva, staying around this crass publishing arena to show the rest of his what it’s like to write from the heart and make it count.
Another way of thinking about it is by talking about James Joyce. Weird, I know, but bear with me: if you read Joyce’s work, his fiction doesn’t become more buttoned-up — it gets bigger, broader, more personal, and certainly weirder. Even comparing PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN with ULYSSES is a fascinating exercise: the first fairly lean, the second similar but with a far greater storyworld. ULYSSES shows Joyce beyond the top of his game — he’s climbed the ladder, gotten to the top, and kicked it down behind him — and reveals an ultimate expression of the novel. He’s not afraid to deviate, either. He wanders down alleys you didn’t even know where there, with Leopold Bloom as our vehicle through the mundane chaos, the heroic normalcy of an everyman’s day.
(Let’s not talk about FINNEGAN’S WAKE right now.)
THE FIVE is McCammon’s ULYSSES.
That’s a wacky statement. I know. But I think it’s true. This tale of “The Five” — Nomad, Ariel, Mike, Terry, and Berke — takes those same trips down dark alleys, concerning itself less with a mechanical thriller-slash-horror plot and more with the nature of these characters and the power and madness of rock-n’-roll in this day and age. This is actually marketed as a horror novel, and… it is, I guess, but only barely. That’s not to say it’s not scary. It’s rough stuff at times. But again the supernatural component, while present, is barely there — a stroke of subtlety rather than overt paranormality.
I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure about the book for the first… 20, 30 pages. But then you slip into the vibe of it and it reveals itself. Soon your heart’s thumping like a kick-drum.
If I had one complaint it’s that early on McCammon seemed more interested in describing the technical beats of the music as it played — problematic for a guy like me who has the musical inclination of a cantaloupe. (Confession: I once played the drums. Second confession: I probably wasn’t very good.) But eventually he moves away from that and describes the music in cleaner, more poetic beats — paving the way to let you know how the music’s supposed to feel rather than the rote mechanics of how it’s played. It conjures to mind that this is a novel with the potential for transmedia extensions, if only in the form of us getting to hear the music of “The Five.”
Anyway. Point being, I recommend it. Two drumsticks thrust up and twirling. It’s a powerful, profound, trippy novel that’s troubling and unsettling throughout. This isn’t like anything else McCammon has ever done — again, it’s far fuzzier at the margins. But Stephen King was right to call it “full of rock and roll energy.” It isn’t McCammon’s easiest read. But, ULYSSES isn’t an easy read, either. Even still, both novels are some of the best of the form.
The caveat applies here that McCammon is easily my foremost “totem spirit” in terms of writers who influenced me. The guy’s one of my literary heroes and it’s nice to see him not just working, but at the top of his game. I’m looking cuh-razy forward to THE PROVIDENCE RIDER and whatever horror novel he’s got after that. (I still need to see if I can get my hands on his new WOLF’S HOUR stories, though. Dangit.)
All right, cats and kittens.
Recommend a book.
And go read THE FIVE while you’re at it.