December 05, 2011
For anyone waiting for the publishing industry to embrace the rock novel, 2011 has been a breakout year. First, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Then this past summer Ecco released Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, which was just named one of the New York Times‘ 10 Best Books of 2011. Scribner followed with Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, which has been reviewed well across the board, even by me, and it was also named a finalist for the 2011 Nobbies. Each of these novels takes seriously the idea that rock and lit can mix, and each succeeds in its way. Still, I couldn’t help but find something lacking in all of them. All three employ rock and roll as an effective prop or backdrop, but what about rock as the ultimate adolescent dream–the sex, the drugs, the backstage shenanigans–that motivated so many of my and other generations? Each these novels has elements of this, but none tackles it as head-on as Tyler McMahon’s debut How the Mistakes were Made.
Mistakes is told from the point of view of Laura Loss, a jaded Seattle side musician and former bass player of the long-defunct hardcore punk band SCC, of which her brother Anthony was lead singer and front man. Laura, with punk rock tragedy heavy in her past, has seen one too many bands come and go. Her retelling of the story of the Mistakes starts with her touring in a band called the Cooler Heads, of which she quips, “They were a hipper-than-thou bunch of college kids from Seattle who sang poppy odes to their own record collections.” While in Missoula, Montana, Laura recognizes something special in their opening band, which includes local Missoulans Nathan and Sean.
They didn’t sound great that night. The mix was bad; the drummer was off. Nathan’s microphone was too quiet to hear the words. Still, they had something that a lot of bands didn’t. There was drama in their music, a critical tension between order and chaos. Much later, I would understand that Nathan tried his hardest to hold the songs together while Sean did everything he could to pull them apart.
Sean and Nathan take Laura up on her offer to help them should they ever move to Seattle, and the punk trio the Mistakes is born. The rest of the novel is spent following the commercial ascension and interpersonal turmoil of the band, and Laura proves herself a perceptive narrator throughout. She’s the Mistake least taken in by the rock and roll dream, but punk rock offers her only real path to making her own dreams come true, which include safety, stability and maybe a little comfort. While the band house-sits in an upscale neighborhood, Laura’s ponders what the Mistakes, still early in their inception, could mean to her.
I turned my back to my sleeping boys once more, under the soft geometry of cedar and stone that was the living room, and promised myself that my years of squalor and poverty were about to end. From this moment forward, I decided, I’d no longer wait for free checks and old muffins. From now on, I would get what I wanted.
For the amount of rock culture present in these pages, you wouldn’t expect other, more emotional aspects of the novel to ring true, but the strongest part of Mistakes might be the love triangle that emerges between the three band members, like when Laura guides Nathan through their first round of lovemaking and betrayal of Sean: “The sex itself wasn’t that important to me. But what I wanted badly was to consummate the night. I wanted for us to be unable to ignore it later. What I wanted was something new.”
Mistakes is at its funnest when re-exploring the punk and grunge worlds of the eighties and nineties. We hear plenty about seven-inch vinyl, Ford Econoline vans, and the curse of double-tracking vocals in the studio. Moreover, McMahon has crafted many of his characters with one eye on punk heroes of the past, like Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins and (I’m pretty sure) the Screaming Trees. There’s also a retelling of a famous Kurt versus Axl confrontation through the antics of Laura and Sean. For anyone looking for fiction with doses of real-life punk culture, you’ve found your novel.
As enjoyable as Mistakes is, it feels something less than completely realized in its portrayal of band life. For me, the band’s road from sleeping in hallways to stadium tours unravels a little too easily. Never does much get in the way of their ascension, outside of their own inter-band drama. I felt they could’ve used a setback or two that wasn’t borne from within. Sure, that might be how success came to Nirvana–and no doubt McMahon had Nirvana in mind when imagining the Mistakes–but more outward struggles for validity could’ve made for a more conflicted and fulfilling rags-to-riches story.
If rock music conjures anything, it conjures the desire for the besotted listener to become one with the music. The closest anyone can get to that is being the person onstage, summoning the music with your instrument, accepting the cheers from the packed house and keeping the vibe going with your playing. Anything that expects to be remembered as rock lit needs to touch on this sentiment. How the Mistakes were Made has the fever dream of rock and roll in spades.