by Marshall Boswell
January 2005, 336 pages, $22.00
“Hey, you know the two most long-lasting bands that actually stayed vital?” Marshall Boswell asks, apropos of his new novel, Alternative Atlanta, a story of music criticism and romantic turmoil set during the 1996 Olympics. “The Stones and U2. Why? Because they kept their drummers. That’s it: you lose your drummer and it’s over. Just ask the Who and R.E.M.”
Expounding on this theory with a fan’s obsessiveness and a slight Southern twang in his voice, Boswell sounds a little like Gerald Brinkman, his novel’s hapless protagonist. Gerald works as a music critic for an Atlanta alt-weekly newspaper and, over the course of the novel, he must confront a volley of professional, romantic, and family issues all while holding down a job that involves reviewing bands named Sewer Pipe and writing pithy obituaries for people like Jerry Garcia: “Good riddance. Now the rest of you can go get a life.”
Boswell himself is not a music critic, but an accomplished academic. He currently teaches 20th century literature and fiction writing at Rhodes College in Memphis. In addition to a “bildungsroman in stories” called Trouble With Girls, he has published two well-received volumes of literary criticism: John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion (2001) and Understanding David Foster Wallace, part of the University of South Carolina’s “Understanding Contemporary Literature” series (2003).
The Updike book grew out of his dissertation, and, in a different way, so did Alternative Atlanta. Studying at Emory University, Boswell watched the Olympics and, like Gerald, even covered it for a webcast. But even as he was working on his dissertation, “what I really wanted to be doing was write music reviews for Creative Loafing. That’s where Gerald was born,” he explains. “I thought if I was going to sit with a character for the next two or three years, why not do make believe? What kind of character would I want to be?” Just as Boswell himself wanted to be a rock critic, Gerald longs vaguely to return to his graduate-school days, when life seemed to have a set course.
Alternative Atlanta is not strictly autobiographical, but it does parallel Boswell’s life in many ways. He fills in Gerald’s past—his childhood, his budding music obsession, his failed scholarship—in details drawn from his own life. “What else does Gerald remember?” Boswell writes early in the novel, with no trace of irony in his nostalgia. “He remembers his toys—dolls mostly, action figures like G.I. Joe and Big Jim and Action Jackson, each figurine equipped with a full array of action outfits and all-terrain vehicles and headquarters and kung fu studios He remembers eating this scalding pot pie in front of Hee Haw as his glamorous parents march past him on their way to a neighborhood party, Dad in maroon flares and white shoes and purple scarf, Mom in a long skirt and rubber boots and one of her very own macramé-bead necklaces.”
“When you’re first starting to write a novel, your first one, there’s so much to think about, so much to learn,” Boswell explains. “Early novelists—and, if you think about it, even many great novelists, like Roth and Updike—will situate the protagonist alongside their own chronology. I wanted Gerald to be a generational marker, and I hope a lot of readers can identify with him. That period right before you grow up is pretty universal.”
Because Trouble with Girls and Alternative Atlanta both involve young men with romantic crises and maturity issues, some reviews have pejoratively categorized the novels as “lad lit,” but Boswell takes the label in stride. “When I started the book, there was no Bridget Jones’ Diary, no Sex and the City. There wasn’t even a Nick Hornby yet,” he says. “I remember when High Fidelity came out. I remember being really panicked because I was already two hundred pages into this manuscript about a rock critic. One of my hooks was doing top ten lists of Gerald’s favorite albums and things like that. But I had to cut it all because Hornby got to it first.” If the lad lit comments draw readers, Boswell hopes that they will “come away from it thinking the book was surprisingly more in-depth than they thought it would have been.”
And they should. As befits an author whose inspiration came while studying Rabbit Angstrom, Alternative Atlanta has intellectual underpinnings that belie Boswell’s academic experience. Of course, the influence of Updike is apparent throughout the novel, from the use of present tense to the incorporation of current events like the Olympics and the Whitewater controversy into the narrative. He also found inspiration in Walker Percy, Richard Ford, and David Gates—writers who undertake, in Boswell’s words, the “spiritual questings of schleppy males.”
In fact, as a former grad student (ostensibly at Boswell’s alma mater Emory), Gerald sees the world through a scholarly lens and nurses a tendency to analyze everything as if it were text. For example, he recalls his deteriorating relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Nora, as a series of oral exams: “They had been speaking,” Gerald realizes, “not directly but in the elusive, gendered code of adult relationships, a multivoiced discourse of signs and double meanings that required constant, on-the-spot interpretation and light-speed, simultaneous translation.”
This academic tenor, however, does not extend to the novel’s setting, at least not in the predictable ways: Boswell’s Atlanta is not the Southern metropolis of Margaret Mitchell or even Flannery O’Connor, but a city whose regional identity has been unseated by the globalized Olympic Village. Asked if he is a Southern writer, Boswell replies, “I consider myself a Southerner and writer.” That label is just as misleading as lad lit. “I don’t really cotton too much to what goes for Southern writing these days. There’s a kind of contemporary Southern novel that has the same status in some ways that many of the pre-Faulkner Southern novels did. It still celebrates a kind of quaint vision of the South. In the new Southern novel racial problems are dealt with, but always from the vantage point of enlightened liberal voice that is still incredibly Southern. And there’s always racial reconciliation.
“Very few Southern novels—not enough of them—treat the South as part of the larger urban sprawl of the United States. That’s the South I know. I’m more interested in writing about the contemporary South without paying attention to the conventions of the Southern novel. There’s the quote.”