As with most fictional depictions of professions, writing about the life of a musician without a sense of veracity can go awry in a host of ways. If you’re writing about a pop star whose supposed hits come off like authorial conceits, the narrative will stumble. Novels and stories about smaller-scale artists can feel lived-in or artificial; that can go a long way towards whether or not the work as a whole works.
The life of a touring musician is one of condensed thrills and long stretches of monotony. Evoking this in prose isn’t always easy. Some writers come to literature through time spent in bands; to cite one example, Leni Zumas’s The Listeners is a novel whose descriptions of musical life were likely influenced by its author’s time in bands. Keith Buckley also falls into that category: he’s best known for his work with the long-running band Every Time I Die, who emerged from the Buffalo hardcore scene in the late 1990s and went on to achieve a solid level of success. Scale is Buckley’s first novel, and in it, Buckley evokes a particular musical moment in time with grit and realism, while deviating from his own history in punk in interesting ways. (Full disclosure: Buckley and I share a publisher.)
As the novel begins, narrator Ray Goldman is recuperating from a touring accident. It’s a way for him to take stock of his life, to ponder the runs of ambition and excess that got him to that point. Throughout, he writes about his circumstances with a world-weary tone and a knowing use of music industry lingo. To wit: I was supposed to have two shorter runs in secondary markets in the time in between the end of my scheduled Australian run…“
This is juxtaposed with the tale of his coming of age: his attempts at higher education, his development as a songwriter, and the ways in which his relationships with the people closest to him evolve as he becomes more and more enveloped by making music and touring behind it. Buckley neatly evokes small-town life in Upstate New York, and also acknowledges how one person’s milestone is another’s mediocrity.
Southern California served as the crest of an exalted hill. Its position on a map meant that I had geographically traveled as far as one could, which was commendable but far too common in the music business.
There’s a whole lot of hard living and misanthropic behavior here, and more than a few moments of bad decisions involving cocaine. That the artwork looks like something that could have been released on Black Sparrow is a hat-tip to the aesthetics at work here: a work of psychological realism and a life lived to excess that plumbs the psychological depths of a self-destructive figure.
Buckley makes Ray a relatively compelling character without losing sight of his numerous flaws. If some of the arc of the book feels archetypal–artist finds success, but treats the people closest to him terribly–the sense of a scene and a particular musical moment in time are carried off with a tangible sense of veracity. Buckley conveys the period in the early 2000s when punk rock and acoustic guitars intermingled abundantly; he also gives a sense of what it’s like to be a member of, as Okkervil River phrased it in “Unless It’s Kicks,” “some midlevel band.” And, in a larger sense, it gives a great sense of what distance and art and time can do to a mind that’s already carrying its share of burdens.
by Keith Buckley
Rare Bird Books; 248 p.