Tuesday, August 16, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 3rd Review - Whale Music

I've managed to read  Paul Quarrington's Whale Music in only two days.  It's a short novel (just over 200 pages) and a fairly compelling one.  I will say that for a novel by a Canadian author (winner of the Governor General's Award no less) it has only a very tenuous connection with Canada in the form of a young groupie from Toronto who becomes a bit of a muse to the narrator, Desmond Howell, but otherwise this is a story about American-style rock and roll and particularly its excesses.

The book starts off well with this bloated, former rock god finding the groupie, Claire, in his house.  He has a fairly tenuous grip on reality due to the epic amount of drugs and booze that he has consumed over his career, with the intake increasing to dangerous proportions after his brother Danny died in an auto accident.  (The running joke is that while Des is a hermit living in a L.A. compound, all these people keep turning up at his door and getting inside the house.  It must be said, however, that Quarrington does have a shaky grasp of L.A. geography, since he claims that Des lives across from Henry Mancini, and it is only a short walk to some scuzzy neighbourhood, whereas Mancini lived in Bel-Air, which is part of Beverly Hills, which is quite isolated from the rougher parts of L.A.  Even more importantly, Bel-Air doesn't overlook the ocean, so perhaps he really meant a neighbourhood more like Pacific Palisades.)  While the narrator has a slightly more frazzled and sometimes bewildered tone, the narrator does remind me a fair bit of Ignatius J. Reilly from A Conspiracy of Dunces at the start of this novel.  The main difference is rather than railing against the modern world, Desmond has decided to retreat from it and spends his time working on an experimental record called Whale Music.

I have to admit, I would have preferred if Quarrington had left it all set in the present, since it was already a strange enough story.  However, the novel takes many flashbacks to go into the back story of the Howl Brothers (Dan and Des Howell and the rest of the band).  It wasn't enough that the Howl Brothers had a story a lot like the Beach Boys, Quarrington has generated a parallel universe where the Howl Brothers have replaced the Beach Boys, so it is the Howl Brothers and the Beatles that are duking it out for top position on the charts (and even both going to India at the same time and dropping acid at about the same time, etc.), although the Howl Brothers seemed a bit more open to collaborating with Sun Studio artists than the real world Beach Boys did.  I think this alternative history got to be a bit much for me on two occasions.  First, when the Beatles and the Howl Brothers get into an actual brawl over who gets the larger dressing room during a concert where they shared the bill.  (This might have been vaguely believable in their Berlin days but not by 1964-65 when they were extremely polished.)  Second, by naming one of Des's albums Grin, it is just a bit too close to Smile (the fabled album that sort of broke up the Beach Boys when Brian Wilson sort of went off the deep edge).  How was Quarrington to know (in 1989) that Brian Wilson would finally emerge from seclusion and record a new version of Smile (released in 2004).  Anyway, I guess my feeling is that if Quarrington wanted to write about Brian Wilson, he should have had the guts to do so, rather than create a fictional boy band that operates in exactly the same space as the Beach Boys did.  Also, I thought he want to an awful lot of trouble for a bad pun when he revealed that Des's ex-wife still called herself Fay Ginzburg-Howl (not even Ginzburg-Howell).

I could have done with a lot less tripping down memory lane and more watching Desmond slowly reconnecting with the world and all his crazy family members, former band mates and other hangers on.  Certainly, the most memorable sections of the book are when Quarrington tries to describe the creative process and we see Des struggling to create a new kind of music, music aimed more at whales than at the dance charts.  I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if Des ultimately succeeds on his own terms and whether he will remain out of his shell more or less permanently or retreat.  The real world Brian Wilson seems to have survived and is fully functioning these days, so it is not out of the question for the surviving Howl Brother to do the same.

1 comment:

  1. The only one of his novels I've read is King Leary, but I can see where his style could read very quickly. I made King Leary last because it was quite entertaining and I enjoyed having little bursts of his voice in different reading sessions. This one sounds rather different in tone, but with some similar qualities. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!