Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2018
- Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements—Bob Mehr
- To Throw Away Unopened—Viv Albertine
- Who Is Rich—Matthew Klam
- The Adulterants—Joe Dunthorne
- The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice and a Mystery about Words in 1920s England— Christopher Hilliard.
- Janesville—Amy Goldstein
- Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams—Matthew Walker
Fathers: can’t live with them, can’t exist without them. The father of Bob Stinson, guitarist of the Replacements, was a boozer who lost touch with his kids when he split up with their mother. Bob’s younger halfbrother, Tommy’s father was also a boozer who sexually, physically, and verbally abused his stepchildren. Bob’s second stepfather was merely a mean drunk. Bob was in and out of care homes and dead at thirty-five. Viv Albertine’s father was a jealous, violent bully who made his wife give up her child from a previous marriage. The Stinsons and Albertine both went on to make glorious, significant, provocative rock music.
The title of Bob Mehr’s sympathetic, gripping, exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting book about the history of the Replacements, Trouble Boys, is missing a d from the end of the first word of its title: these boys were troubled long before they formed a band, and carried on being troubled long after it had split up. Drugs and especially drink were both the symptom and the cause of it all, but this was not the glamorous, Keith Richards version of dependency, the sort that makes rock critics swoon, nor was it the Faces’ laddish determination to bring their local pub onstage with them every night. This was the nasty, mean, inexplicably self-destructive version, with blackouts and puking and broken marriages.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of the Replacements, it’s probably too late now, but they meant a lot to me and people like me in the 1980s, when punk rock was dead and guitars were hard to hear among all the Syndrums and keyboards. Songwriter Paul Westerberg’s best songs have an ache to them that couldn’t be smothered by volume or self-destruction. The band competed with REM and lost, and were then swept away by Nirvana’s tide. I loved them, but I didn’t think I wanted to read four hundred pages about them; however, Mehr’s book is so clear-eyed, and the stories are so extraordinary, that it was gone in a flash.
Tommy Stinson was thirteen when the Replacements formed. His brother had bullied and cajoled him into picking up the bass a couple of years before, partly because Bob needed a bassist, and partly because Tommy was already well down the road to delinquency that Bob had already walked. When the band started to tour and record, Tommy left school and never went back. Thirteen! I am still not old enough to live the life that Tommy Stinson embarked upon, but my thirteenyear-old self would have been dead within the first twelve hours—killed by fear and shock, probably, rather than vodka, which would have gotten me a couple of hours later. Tommy was drinking heavily by his mid-teens, and groupies regarded him as an underage prize. By the time he joined Guns n’ Roses in 1998, at age 32, long after the Replacements were no more, he had been living a Guns n’ Roses lifestyle for nearly two decades.
This isn’t a story about how the music industry destroyed a band. The music industry loved them, mostly, and they had friends and supporters in high places. The Replacements took every opportunity that was offered to them, spat on it, and chucked it straight through the window. Record company execs who turned up at a prestigious CBGB’s gig were treated to drunken covers of “Jolene,” and “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch,” an obscene version of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” a whistled version of the theme song to the Andy Griffith Show, and one of Elvis Presley’s less celebrated songs, “Do the Clam,” sung by a roadie. The audience was mostly gone before the end of the set.
They were banned forever from Saturday Night Live for shouting an obscenity during their performance. Always broke, Westerberg and Tommy Stinson repeatedly set fire to their per diems—in the literal sense of the phrase, with matches. Invited to open for Tom Petty, they insulted the audience, played interminable covers of “Walk on the Wild Side” and insulted the headliner in front of his fans. It is fair to say that they weren’t cute drunks.
When a fan made Tommy Stinson a bass guitar and presented it to him before the show, Tommy played the first song of the set with it, and then smashed it to pieces before the guy’s eyes, sending a message to everyone who had any time for them: You may think you love us, but you can’t. You may think that you’re on our side, but you’re not. We’re the only people who are on our side. Perhaps that explains the ache in Westerberg’s songs: there was a loneliness that could never be reached, and a blazing talent that could never be truly fulfilled. But Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson are still around, still making music, still heard; that didn’t seem to be the way their lives were going back when they were young.
The bad behavior described in Viv Albertine’s To Throw Away Unopened cannot be blamed only on drink and drugs. But the crimes of useless fathers, it seems, have to be paid for by the next generation, in some currency or other. Some of the memoir takes place on the night Albertine’s mother died, which happened to be the night that her previous book – also a memoir, also worth your time and attention, and also written about in these pages – was launched. The astonishing events of that evening form the spine of the book; the flesh is provided by an account of her parents’ marriage, and by wry, occasionally baffling tales of Albertine’s attempts to fill a gap in her own life with a partner of some description.
Certainly, it is difficult to describe Eryk, who goes to bed with Albertine fully clothed, socks and all, and will let her undo only the top button of his shirt. The relationship proceeds slowly and, it has to be said, somewhat eccentrically: “Eryk and I went on quite a few dates, but as he avoided intimate encounters I still hadn’t undone all the buttons on his shirt or seen his penis after knowing him for six months.” One promising night, after long, long kisses, he grabs a copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and starts reading it out loud. If I had known the author, I feel I might have been able to tell her that Eryk might well turn out to be a dud, sexually speaking, and that she should at least lower her expectations. But he pops up again toward the end of the book, with Albertine hopeful about a romantic weekend in a seaside hotel. It turns out to be a disappointment. Sex, said Johnny Rotten, is “two minutes and fifty-two seconds of squelching”; Albertine, a contemporary of Rotten’s when she was in the Slits, seems to feel much the same way.
Such is the richness of the material Albertine has at her disposal that To Throw Away Unopened is not even about Eryk, even though I would have been happy to read several hundred more pages about him. It is about the brutal nature of her parents’ marriage, in the light of not one but two diaries, his and hers, that Albertine finds after their deaths. These diaries were kept during the last two years of their disintegrating marriage, at the suggestion of their lawyers. There was no such thing as a “no-fault” divorce during the 1960s. Our sympathies sway from mother to father and back again, but in the end it’s Albertine’s indomitable, unhappy mother, Kathleen, whose truth rings the loudest.
And yet—stop me if you’ve heard this before—such is the richness of the material Albertine has at her disposal that To Throw Away Unopened is not even about et cetera, et cetera. Or rather, it’s not the story that you will think of first when you press this book into a friend’s hands, as you undoubtedly will. On the night of her mother’s death – in the hospital room in which her mother is dying—Viv and her sister Pascale have an altercation so violent that blood is spilled, by both warring parties, and spilled onto the woman to whom they have come to say goodbye. It’s so serious that a couple of weeks later the police call, asking Viv if she wants to press charges. You can tell that a deathbed scene is not going according to plan when the most useful piece of advice you can remember is “To get a pit bull to unclamp its jaws, insert two fingers into its nostrils and pull upwards.”
I don’t think I have ever read a memoir like this. Albertine’s tone is cool, occasionally quizzical, without either self-pity or blame, so to read it is to enter a parallel universe where its narrative incidents are somehow rendered comprehensible and almost routine. It also manages to be about things we might connect to—men and women, marriages, parenthood, the follies and tragedies of the generation before mine—when it could be excused for being only about things we can scarcely believe. I think you may have to read it.
Last month, I was despairing about my relationship with fiction, and even though Trouble Boys and To Throw Away Unopened contain such gripping real-life tales that they might have dulled my appetite for novels even further, I read two excellent ones, Joe Dunthorne’s The Adulterants and Matt Klam’s Who Is Rich. Both are about errant husbands, although Dunthorne’s is too hapless to err very far; both are funny; both are fresh; both seem effortlessly pertinent. They have different strengths and no discernible weaknesses. And strikingly, given the inadequacy of the dads in the two nonfiction books, the commitment of these otherwise hapless men to their children is not in doubt. Maybe that’s what we have learned from our predecessors: when it comes to parenting, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. I grew up with an absent father, and as a consequence my own children will be able only to complain about my presence. I am sure they will do this long and loudly—He was always there! He never left the house!—and probably to therapists, but at least I will have bucked the trend.
Klam’s book is set over a long weekend at an arts conference. Rich Fischer, the eponymous and impoverished antihero, is a cartoonist who had a hit with his first autobiographical graphic novel and now has nothing much to say, but is desperate to say it. In the meantime, he illustrates for a prestigious magazine and watches while other, younger rivals are showered with devotion and advances. He had taught at this particular New England retreat the previous summer, and met a woman named Amy. Amy is not his wife; his wife is at home, earning the money that he isn’t, and looking after their young children. She is tired, and he is tired; his sad annual affair with Amy, who is married to a boorish and unloving multimillionaire, is the product of everybody’s exhaustion. Before you hate Rich too much, he doesn’t get an enormous amount of pleasure from cheating on his wife. In the words of Commander Cody’s great song “Too Much Fun”: “There must be a whole lotta things that I never done / but I ain’t never had too much fun.”
The genius of Klam’s book is in its details. The author has imagined every millimeter of Rich’s terrain, emotional and physical—his bitter, anxious colleagues at the conference, the hospital room where Amy and Rich have sex after Amy has broken her arm, both of them bombed out of their heads on painkillers, the seaside town where the conference takes place: “Two men ate ice-cream in booty shorts under a sign advertising a drag show, beside a store selling taffy, a store selling kitchen gadgets. A guy in tight teal jeans drank coffee with a woman with jingly gypsy sandals outside a bar smelling of fried oysters. An elderly woman with gray deadlocks buzzed by in an electric wheelchair led by dogs in rainbow collars. In this town even dogs could be gay.” Klam didn’t need to write any of that, but he can see it, and we see better for it. There’s something about the dark energy that powers this book which reminds me of David Gates, whose two novels Jernigan and Preston Falls are forgotten classics of the very late twentieth century. In fact, I know we’re only at the beginning of a siècle, but Who Is Rich feels very fin de siècle, as the entire bohemian middle-class world, which used to be able to make some kind of living and look the outside world in the eye, falls to pieces.
Joe Dunthorne’s third novel is, I think, better than his first two, and his first two—Submarine (adapted for a very charming indie movie) and Wild Abandon—were really good. He’s the sort of writer I’m always looking for and can rarely find: his work is funny, truthful, has depth and soul, and he can’t write a long book to save his life. He’s a fine poet, too, but those skills are used for the precision and pin-sharp dry tone here, and some very funny aphorisms, rather than pages of waffle about trees, which is what one always fears about poets’ novels.
The Adulterants begins with the narrative incident that sends tech journalist Ray’s life spiraling out of control: he gets punched, hard, by a friend, after an incident with said friend’s partner. His wife, Garthene, is pregnant, and he loves her: “Garthene’s head, at a guess, had the dimensions of a child’s shoebox. I adored this about her and looked forward to our retirement when her hair’s thinning would reveal further nuances. The fact that I would never guess the exact shape was one of the ways in which our marriage would stay fresh.” This, surely, is a definition of love, and yet without spoiling things too much, it still isn’t enough. Single heterosexual women: if you think that finding a man who looks forward to seeing the shape of your head when you have no hair is the answer, think again.
The long and the short of it is that, because of Matthew Klam and Joe Dunthorne, I love fiction again, and will read some more. (And next month I won’t be writing about authors with names like Joe and Matt, either. This column will be full of Jennifers and Elizabeths and, and…Georges, if I read any George Eliot, which is looking unlikely.) But I also love nonfiction, and will read some more. Conclusion: all kinds of good books are good. It took me a couple of thousand words to get there, but I hope I’ve left you something to think about.