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Saturday, December 26, 2009

At last, a rock novel you can believe

At some point during the last week - it may have been at a party - somebody said I had to read a novel called The Last Mad Surge of Youth. A couple of days later, while clearing out the office pre-Christmas, I found a copy. I began reading it on Christmas Eve and finished it before lunch on Christmas Day. It's the best fictional account of young men forming rock bands I've ever read. It's not perfect. Nobody seems to be able to write endings any more but that's a small quibble. Nobody has done a better job than Mark Hodkinson of describing the grubby milieu of bands struggling to make it in indie rock, the vainglorious posturing of those who find themselves at the top and the inevitably tragic effect their success has on the people around them. There is nothing in it that doesn't ring true, which is probably a first for novels set in the world of the music business.

It's set in an unspecified northern town in the early 80s and in the comfortable Home Counties at the present time. Punk rock has made it possible for teenage boys with a modicum of talent and an excess of self-belief to stage their own mad, heroic assault on everyday life simply by getting a Peel session and getting on the cover of the NME. It hinges on the relationship between the leader of the band - who turns into a drunk and megalomaniac - and the mild-mannered old school friend who left the band because he didn't have the level of demented certainty the trade demands. It understands that what drives people to make it is the urge for recognition that nothing else in their often drab backgrounds could provide.

The author has a great ear for the ridiculous claims routinely made for new performers in the febrile world of indie: in one passage he "quotes" from the feature that accompanies the star's first appearance on the cover of the NME:
"The sun shines into the eyes of John Barrett. They narrow to filter the light. A smile forms at his lips. He is handsome and scruffy-dangerous like the kid at the fairground spinning the Waltzers, born hip and burning red-hot. The T-shirt he wears has been pulled at the neck and falls twisted on his shoulders. He doesn't care. I ask whether he can believe it: the US of A, the world - all his."
I've read that kind of thing thousands of times. I may even written that kind of thing from time to time. This book makes you consider the consequences.