Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fiction: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan

In the world of rock n’ roll novels, Bill Flanagan (A&R, New Bedlam) has got the most butt-kicking blurbs. Ev-ah. Dream up the two most perfect blurbers for this book and you won’t pull these two names. Ready? Bono (who says the book “feels truer than what really happened”) and Bob Dylan. You don’t need to go further than that. (Even though Flanagan does, with a blurb from book-writing, history teaching rock journalist, Sean Wilentz.)

Evening’s Empire (Simon & Schuster) looks behind the Faustian deals of the music industry and exposes a generational-saga-like tale of 40 years of life behind the curtain with fictional rock band, the Ravons, and their manager, Jack Flynn, our narrator on this journey.

We follow Jack and the Ravons from London in the sixties right through to the inevitable present day reunion tour. Oddly enough, though, it’s just not as fun as it sounds. This has nothing to do with Flanagan’s voice -- which is assured -- or his knowledge -- which is complete. It’s just that Evening’s Empire is a little... relentless. Where Flanagan’s landmark 2000 novel, A&R, had a certain raw energy and an undeniable muscularity, Evening’s Empire -- which in some ways covers similar ground -- is sometimes dark and dreary enough, you just want to throw up your hands or close your eyes. For me, this comes from the place Flanagan has chosen to stand in order to tell this story. Admittedly, it’s a place that might really work for some readers, but it did not do it for me at all.

Flynn narrates as though he were telling a rock biography. And not the kind of rock biography that makes you think you’re reading a novel, but the type penned by non-writers who have somehow ended up with a book contract to tell someone else’s story from a place that is nearby. I suspect that this rock biography voice is part of Flanagan’s art: that it’s a choice he’s made but, again, I found it distancing. I like the lines between fiction and non-fiction well-defined. I don’t ever want to have to wonder, or be lulled into thinking I’m reading something I’m not. In fact, if those lines are to be blurred, I’d prefer if go the other way: I sometimes like lyrical, poetic creative non-fiction. But fiction should sound... well... fictional. It should be a story that I ride away.

All of that said, those who enjoy seeing behind closed doors in the music industry will like Evening’s Empire. I might quibble with the way Flanagan has chosen to tell this story, but on every page of his novel, you know that the notes this author has hit are authentic and that the story he’s chosen to tell engages at a lot of the important levels.

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