I love Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series as much as the next person who loves morally complicated and narratively complex fantasy, but I will admit that the only reason I have this book is because someone at the publisher's booth gave it to me for free at the first New York Comic Convention, which was more than a few years ago. It's been sitting in the queue ever since. My copy is actually signed too, which I had forgotten about. Extra bonus!
So in a cost-for-entertainment analysis the book wins hands down. But what about a time-for-entertainment analysis? How does it make out there?
Not bad, actually. In what wasn't a departure for him at the time, the novel is basically a very subtle horror piece, but the kind that doesn't involve wolves or vampires or mummies. Instead, it brings forth kind of an existential problem: "Did I do all of that for nothing?"
The story is basically the aftermath of a 1960s counterculture that we always knew about but is slightly skewed. Sandy Blair is a fellow who was active in the sixties protesting and trying to mess with the system, only to now be much older and finding that the system kind of won, writing hack novels and wishing that he felt more fulfilled. Leaping on a chance to do a story for a magazine he once started about the murder of a promoter for perhaps the most famous rock band you've never heard of, he embarks on a long journey across the United States, and by doing so, travels deep into the tattered soul of the country.
Sort of. The main portion of the novel consists of Sandy visiting old friends in turn, many of which he hasn't spoken to in years, and thus discovering what they've been up to since those idealistic hippie days. In most cases, they haven't quite been living the dream, which sits better with some than with others. Some have turned to other forms for peace, withdrawing from the world entirely. Some have just said the heck with it and wholeheartedly part of the system. And some are doing what they can to change the world, just on a smaller scale and at a slower pace, but getting tired in the process. Because nothing really lasts forever.
If that was all the novel was about, it would be nothing more than a trifle, because it's nothing we haven't seen dealt with in other, more prominent places, and probably with a bit more sharpness. The idea of the grand views of the people who grew up in the sixties finding their fine goals and visions crashing on the rocky shores of the seventies and gasping for air before expiring isn't exactly new. Martin gets some extra mileage with it by making all these people detailed, even if as Sandy is going about his research they tend to fall into certain categories. "Person keeping the faith." Check. "Tool of the System." Check. "Embracer of New Age Faith." Check. You get the idea.
As I said, a subtle horror does exist here, in the sense of waking up one morning and realizing that all the wonderful goals you had as a young person ultimately mean nothing in the scheme of things, that you never actually meant them and that you've been gradually caving all these years, making your life hollow and meaningless. All you've done is grow fat and old, and become the very thing you hated. Worse, because you started off with good intentions. This is good stuff, but not enough to hang the novel on alone.
Where the novel succeeds is by hanging the emotional map onto the music of the sixties. And not just in the Baby Boomer, let's all sway to the music that we remember fondly sort of way, but by making this music part of their idealogical texture, it was the lifeblood and the soundtrack of their protests and arguments and triumphs, it seethed with their anger and soared with their victories, wept with their sorrow at the implacability of the system. Each and every person has vinyl engraved onto their souls, as for one of the few times in recent history art and entertainment and protest merged into one, and these people were part of it, in the center of it, scratching out chords and blasting their miseries and hopes through speakers. That is what he captures, and does it well. You may laugh today at seeing some aged hippie types, greying long hair and Woodstock shirts hanging out over guts getting all misty eyed over seeing whatever version of the Grateful Dead still exists, but here you can get a sense of why this actually meant something to them, how music made their concerns written large, and that each performer who died was as acute a loss to them as watching a soldier fall on the battlefield.
What's amazing is how Martin constructed a whole new mythology of music, adding in one of the biggest bands you've never heard of, the Nazgul, and not only making them feel like the best band your parents never cared about, but giving them a history that resonates as closely as the events that actually happened. We meet each member in turn as rumors circulate of them getting back together (difficult, with one member dead) but when that reunion actually happens and we start to follow that tour, we get deep into the heart of rock and roll, realizing that genius isn't easy, but elusive and that nostalgia isn't so much a sword as a pillow that could smother you in its sweetness.
The stuff with the band feels so realistic, their history so messily precise (even the lyrics aren't terrible) that it makes the horror stuff feel that much more grafted on. Those parts of the book feel half-hearted, as Martin only included them because he felt he had to, and the book never seems completely comfortable with getting involved in the supernatural, preferring to focus on Sandy's journey through a path he never paid much attention to the first time around. And when the novel's lens turns to the music, and its effect on the people at the time, it becomes especially incisive, making the Nazgul out to be a real band without slavishly turning them into another cliched "Behind the Music" special. They were the most famous band in the world, and their breakup wasn't their choice. How do you deal with that?
So what could have been thin and shallow winds up being impressively gripping due to Martin's hand with characters (his depiction of Slum, a man who found himself in the sixties and was subsequently broken by them, is amazingly poignant) and the incredible amount of thought that was put into the Nazgul's backstory. It's an uncomfortable nostalgia trip that doesn't look back on a world that was better, just a time when conflicts were more open, and suggests that if one wants to fight the same battles today, no matter how slow or tired or disillusioned one feels, it's still possible. You may just have to dig your fingernails in and tear away at the surface in order to reach the corruption.