September 8, 2002

“Anything Goes” by Madison Smartt Bell

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Elvis Costello once said that writing about music is like “dancing about architecture, it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

With “Anything Goes,” Madison Smartt Bell joins the ranks of Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo — accomplished authors who’ve written rock ‘n’ roll novels that seem like a really stupid thing to want to do.

Bell is best known for his successful trilogy of historical novels set in Haiti, but he started his career in the 1980s with pop-culture-saturated fiction about lost young men. This is his 13th book, and he’s returned to the sweet confusion of youth.

Jesse Melungeon, the narrator, is a 20-year-old bass guitarist with a bar band that covers the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. His bandmates are stock characters: the rogue lead guitarist, the stoic black guy, the worldly older woman and the wizened leader who holds it all together.

Oh, and there’s the dark stranger who appears when a Guitar God is needed.

As a coming-of-age story the book develops engagingly and starts to pick up pace, only to be jarringly derailed by Jesse’s original songs. “Seven songs inside your head, seven sets of words you know, I know, you know, anything goes, you know, you know, you know.” Lyrics without music usually suck, even Elvis Costello’s, sometimes.

Bell is much better with physical details, such as the look and smell of dive bars and their denizens, and he understands the fetishistic affection musicians have for their instruments. If you want to know what it’s like to be young and on the road with a group of dysfunctional musicians, this book will take you there, even if it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.


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