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Anything Goes: A novel [Hardcover]

Madison Smartt Bell
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 25 2002
The only taste of life Jesse has known in his twenty years is bitter: his mother disappeared before he could talk, his father never got over being left, and Jesse’s presence seems only to kindle his father’s anger. Jesse’s talent is for music, which has given him a livelihood and a home as a bass player in a bar band called Anything Goes. Band life offers the opportunity for the dregs of experience (hangovers, mildewed hotel rooms), and the antics of his band mates (all of them older than he is; some of them wiser, some not) offer more schooling in hard knocks.

Anything Goes tells Jesse’s story over the course of a year, during which he finds his life slowly being tempered by the unexpected: by a dad who wants to make up and be part of Jesse’s life; by a female lead singer who suddenly makes the band sound a lot better than they have any right to be; and by the confidence Jesse begins to feel in his own musical talent.

A complete departure from the sweeping historical vision of Madison Smartt Bell’s Haitian novels and the gritty cynicism of his intense urban dramas, Anything Goes confirms Bell as one of the most versatile, most gifted, most surprising novelists of his generation.

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Product Description

From Amazon

In Anything Goes, Madison Smartt Bell's 13th work of fiction, the author follows a Tennessee country/rock cover band as it plays dives up and down the Eastern seaboard. The main character, Jesse Melungeon, capitalizes on a new lead singer's abilities and the shuffling of band personnel by slipping in his original numbers (and those of the former lead guitarist), much to the crowds' delight.

Bell provides us with a strong sense of who Jesse is: a twentysomething kid of mixed race, drinking and carousing on tour and trying to cope with a once-abusive father who reappears to attempt reconciliation. Other characters, unfortunately, drift in and out, and interesting band members are left half-developed. He does, however, capture the excitement of a band when it clicks, of the adrenaline rush stemming from the audience, and of the delight in finding music for words. After Jesse and the new lead singer, Estelle (depicted as a Dolly Partonesque rural beauty/singer), have a flirtatious encounter, Jesse thinks: "Lover was the word in my mind; I had known lots of girls, women, but hadn't called them that. Or maybe it was something else in Estelle's smile. It was like we had a pleasant secret between us--except she knew what it was and I didn't." The secret, however, is not well disguised; its revelation comes as no surprise. Even Bell's longtime readers may be disappointed by the unevenness of Anything Goes. --Michael Ferch

From Publishers Weekly

Here is clear evidence, in case there are any doubts, that Bell is an astoundingly versatile writer. A complete change in theme and tone from his dramatic sagas of Caribbean society (All Souls' Rising, etc.) and his fiction about domestic dislocation (The Year of Silence, etc.), Bell's newest novel captures the essence of inexperienced youth in the voice of Jesse Melungeon, a 20-year-old traveling with a bar band across the South. The novel rolls along meaningfully, from one misadventure to another, and the wisdom it imparts at its end is both hard-earned and easy to take. Jesse's band is verging on decline until Estelle, a salty girl with a strong voice, transforms its image. The band changes its face even more when three of its members drop out¢one in anger, two because of legal trouble. By the end of the novel, Jesse has become a more skilled musician and leader, and the band begins a slow climb toward national credibility. Jesse's Southern malapropisms roll off his tongue quite believably¢as they should, given that in the past, Bell has brought to life both urban youths and children from other centuries with ease. Bell is also skillful at the telling detail: one character's crooked smile, another character's hangdog look. At moments, the book goes a little too far in its character nuances¢after building a mystical aura around the band's leader, Bell has him tame a possibly poisonous snake. However, the book's parts meld magically into a poignant, driving love poem to music, the end of adolescence, and the road.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Realistic, subtle coming-of-age novel Jan. 20 2007
Format:Hardcover
Madison Smartt Bell is quite the amazing author who has written quite an amazing book. Not only is 'Anything Goes' smart and funny, but it has dark moments, light moments, moments of love, moments of hate, beautiful imagery, a thoroughly likeable young protagonist, great dialogue and a constantly gritty atmosphere that both explores and exposes the inner-workings of a bar band on the road, much like a beautified, detailed episode of 'Behind the Music', but commercial-free and totally not glossed over at all.

Bell has a great way of weaving music into this novel and the novel moves at a pace that's perfect for its episodic plot. If you're looking for an action-packed, fast-paced thrill-ride this isn't the book for you, but its characters are honest, real and loveable even through their flaws and exploits. The characters travel from city to city, town to town, seedy bar to seedy bar and the background for the novel is a perfect canvas for these lonely characters who seem unsure of their place, and do not know what their futures hold.

After finishing this book, I felt at ease yet inspired. I felt more connected with music than ever. I felt like taking chances. It slowly became one of my favorite novels of all-time. It's simple and gorgeous and rich.
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Format:Hardcover
A mildly engaging story about a Southern bar band called Anything Goes told from the point of view of Jesse, the bands' 20-something guitar player. We follow the band as they travel from dive to dive, losing members, gaining members and finding their groove.
Since Jesse is the narrator, the focus is mainly on him: his relationship with his formerly abusive, alcoholic father, his crush on Estelle, the band's new lead singer and his attempts to sort out his post-adolescent angst regarding family, women and music. The other band members don't feature too prominently and aren't very well-developed, although the book would have been more interesting if they were. Nor did Bell delve too deeply in Jesse's past relationship with his dad. There's also a little "surprise" relationship involving Estelle and Jesse's dad, but unless you're really thick, it won't come as much of a shock.
It seemed to me that something was missing from this story. Maybe it was the shallowness of the characters, maybe it was the meandering nature of the novel; there was no real plot, just a succession of gigs at roadhouses up and down the East coast. It was, however, a convincing depiction of life with a bar band, and that managed to hold my interest enough until the rather lackluster ending.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and poignant Sept. 14 2002
Format:Hardcover
"Anything Goes" drifts along, raveling out the thread of its story in a leisurely style that's at once engaging and attractive. Taking place over a year and in many locales, "Anything Goes" introduces us to Jesse, a disaffected and somewhat bitter young man traveling through his life as a member of a band called...you guessed it...Anything Goes. As a band name, the title [is bad].... But as a theme for the novel it works quite well.
Jesse, abandoned as a child by his mother and physically abused by his father, has become a man who doesn't expect good things from the world. As he matures throughout the pages of this book, he discovers himself in ways that are both subtle and poignant. This is a quiet story that stays with you long after you've read it...and I recommend giving it a read!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Growing Up. Aug. 26 2002
By A. Ross
Format:Hardcover
Filled with themes of identity, family, and maturity, Bell's thirteen book takes place over a year, following a Nashville-based cover band as they travel down the eastern seaboard and up into Vermont, playing roadhouses a few weeks at a time. Jesse is their bassist, and for him, the ritual of being on the road creates a sense of security and family, since his mother abandoned him soon after birth, and his alcoholic father beat him all through childhood. Jesse is happy to follow the warm weather around, playing music, scoring occasional women, and then hanging out at band leader (and surrogate father figure) Perry's farm during the off-season.
This steady existence is skewed somewhat when Jesse's father shows up clean and sober, and looking for reconciliation. Part of this involves introducing him to a neighbor whose singing knocks his socks off. Soon enough, she's in the band, and they have great and greater success, all while Jesse struggles to identify his feelings for her and hers for him. Nothing earth-shattering happens in the book, but the relationships and issues are all captivating and feel true to life. Jesse 's mother was a Melungeon (a dark mysterious Appalachian people whose origins are unknown) and the band's drummer is black, allowing Bell to touch on racial identity issues here and there as the band drifts though white-trash venues all through the South. The towns, bars, and motels all spring from the page as real places, with history and grit to them.
Over the course of the year's cycle, Jesse comes to terms with his past, his heritage, and his future in a very non-soap opera way. This book could have easily drifted into sappiness (think Oprahish) and never quite does. The last portions get a touch heavy-handed, but never so much as to spoil the easygoing tone of the book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and poignant Sept. 14 2002
By Christian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Anything Goes" drifts along, raveling out the thread of its story in a leisurely style that's at once engaging and attractive. Taking place over a year and in many locales, "Anything Goes" introduces us to Jesse, a disaffected and somewhat bitter young man traveling through his life as a member of a band called...you guessed it...Anything Goes. As a band name, the title [is bad].... But as a theme for the novel it works quite well.
Jesse, abandoned as a child by his mother and physically abused by his father, has become a man who doesn't expect good things from the world. As he matures throughout the pages of this book, he discovers himself in ways that are both subtle and poignant. This is a quiet story that stays with you long after you've read it...and I recommend giving it a read!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Growing Up. Aug. 26 2002
By A. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Filled with themes of identity, family, and maturity, Bell's thirteen book takes place over a year, following a Nashville-based cover band as they travel down the eastern seaboard and up into Vermont, playing roadhouses a few weeks at a time. Jesse is their bassist, and for him, the ritual of being on the road creates a sense of security and family, since his mother abandoned him soon after birth, and his alcoholic father beat him all through childhood. Jesse is happy to follow the warm weather around, playing music, scoring occasional women, and then hanging out at band leader (and surrogate father figure) Perry's farm during the off-season.
This steady existence is skewed somewhat when Jesse's father shows up clean and sober, and looking for reconciliation. Part of this involves introducing him to a neighbor whose singing knocks his socks off. Soon enough, she's in the band, and they have great and greater success, all while Jesse struggles to identify his feelings for her and hers for him. Nothing earth-shattering happens in the book, but the relationships and issues are all captivating and feel true to life. Jesse 's mother was a Melungeon (a dark mysterious Appalachian people whose origins are unknown) and the band's drummer is black, allowing Bell to touch on racial identity issues here and there as the band drifts though white-trash venues all through the South. The towns, bars, and motels all spring from the page as real places, with history and grit to them.
Over the course of the year's cycle, Jesse comes to terms with his past, his heritage, and his future in a very non-soap opera way. This book could have easily drifted into sappiness (think Oprahish) and never quite does. The last portions get a touch heavy-handed, but never so much as to spoil the easygoing tone of the book. Musicians may especially enjoy this book as there is a great deal of language attempting to describe how Jesse feels about hearing and playing music, and how it infects his whole being. One last note, the first chapter originally appeared as a short story in the "It's Only Rock And Roll" anthology.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good portrait of abuse Nov. 12 2005
By Fred Zappa - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I found this one very readable--the prose flowed right along. The handling here and there of racial issues was interesting, though I was disappointed to see another kind, decent, one-dimensional "magical black friend" helping out a white character at the center, such a typical American literary and cinematic device. But the protagonist isn't fully white, which is an interesting twist, but not one that really ends up going anywhere. Still, those quibbles aside, the movement of Jesse away from his father's abuse toward autonomy, and apparently toward forgiveness of his father, was very effective and honest. Nearly everything in this novel felt very real, and it taught me some things about making music too.
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep in the Mind of a Rock N' Roller Jan. 2 2008
By Avid Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is my first exposure to Madison Smartt Bell, and I'm impressed. The book begins with a debauched scene that, frankly, was too much for me, but I persevered. And as I persevered, so did the main character, a 20-year-old who's playing bass guitar with a cover band. That character (Jesse) tells about the ups and downs of a musical life on the road, while he's also searching for a higher beauty in his life and a deeper understanding of his past.

I am the producer of a music festival, so I have a pretty good understanding of musicians, even though I'm not a performer. And I can say that the depictions in this book ring true about the love that most musicians have for what they're playing, what they're learning from others, and what they hope to create on their own. When you join those strong elements of the book with a young man's "coming of age" saga, it's a very satisfying combination.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like being in a bar band without the late nights & hangovers Feb. 27 2003
By Cville Dad - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A mildly engaging story about a Southern bar band called Anything Goes told from the point of view of Jesse, the bands' 20-something guitar player. We follow the band as they travel from dive to dive, losing members, gaining members and finding their groove.
Since Jesse is the narrator, the focus is mainly on him: his relationship with his formerly abusive, alcoholic father, his crush on Estelle, the band's new lead singer and his attempts to sort out his post-adolescent angst regarding family, women and music. The other band members don't feature too prominently and aren't very well-developed, although the book would have been more interesting if they were. Nor did Bell delve too deeply in Jesse's past relationship with his dad. There's also a little "surprise" relationship involving Estelle and Jesse's dad, but unless you're really thick, it won't come as much of a shock.
It seemed to me that something was missing from this story. Maybe it was the shallowness of the characters, maybe it was the meandering nature of the novel; there was no real plot, just a succession of gigs at roadhouses up and down the East coast. It was, however, a convincing depiction of life with a bar band, and that managed to hold my interest enough until the rather lackluster ending.
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