Indie rock singer/songwriter Joe Pernice can be added to the list of musicians who have turned to penning books. Just recently, we’ve seen a memoir from Dean Wareham, ex of Luna and Galaxie 500, and there’s an autobiography of Bob Mould, ex of Hüsker Dü and Sugar, in the pipeline.
Pernice’s new book up for review here, while a work of fiction, could almost be considered a bit of a memoir. It’s set in October 1996, the same year that Pernice graduated from university, and is largely set in Massachusetts, Pernice’s home state.
It concerns an unnamed narrator, who is 20-something and is down on his luck after his marriage to his flame lasts only one day. He drinks too much, is unemployed, rides around on a kid’s bicycle as a means of transportation, and is living in the house of his soon-to-be-divorced sister, while generally stewing in past remembrances of his ex-wife by flashing back constantly to this relationship gone wrong. One has to wonder how much of this book is drawn from personal experience.
Pernice channels his inner Charles Bukowski by offering a tome that is totally dirty realism intact. It’s a ribald and often scatological work that is sometimes set in bars, featuring characters that talk about nothing but getting laid. And for any guy out there who has harbored a secret fantasy of taking a dump in a urinal, well, Pernice has a bit of a vignette in that vein. Nothing is sacred in this book.
Pernice, as some may know, was a member of the Scud Mountain Boys in the ‘90s and has been most recently associated with The Pernice Brothers, who have released six albums over the past decade – one of them on the influential Sub Pop Records. What sets him apart from the rest of the pack of musicians putting their pen to the page, though, is that he holds a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts, and is the author of a poetry collection, Two Blind Pigeons, and a novella, Meat Is Murder, which was part of the 33 1/3 series from Continuum Books.
Being a musician, pop music naturally permeates throughout this debut novel. He references everyone from Peter Frampton to Mel Tormé and most points in-between. There’s a nice passage where our narrator’s former high school sweetheart hands him a mix tape containing just one song: Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends”. This sets our narrator off against anything to do with Todd Rundgren, including listening to anyone that Rundgren produced, like The Psychedelic Furs and XTC. It’s a funny bit, and the novel is full of such knowing winks and nods to the world of pop (and underground) culture.
However, It Feels So Good When I Stop doesn’t have much going for it beyond such passages, or the frank explicit nature of the work. In fact, for a guy who holds a Creative Writing degree, Pernice makes a lot of ‘amateur night at the open mic’ kind of mistakes in his writing. First of all, he has a protagonist who doesn’t protag very much. All sorts of things happen to him, but he never changes at all throughout the course of the book.
Once the reader begins to realize this, about halfway through the book, one begins to note the deficiency in the plot, which has about as much depth as a puddle of water spilled onto a kitchen countertop. Pernice’s unnamed narrator, which is also a bit of a writing no-no, meets all sorts of characters – a cop who stops him from bicycling on a freeway, a young woman in his neighbourhood with a difficult past, a crazy old man at a go-kart facility – and not much happens when he does.
It Feels So Good When I Stop even takes an incredulous turn when Lou Barlow – yes, the Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh fame – pops into the narrative as an honest-to-God minor character. The book has the feel of a listless indie movie that moves along smug in its own hipster-ness.
The most annoying thing about this novel, though, is that it keeps on flashing back to the relationship the main character had with his ex-wife. Constantly. Throughout the entire book. The character even makes unanswered phone calls to this old lover about once every forty pages or so. About halfway through, one wants to pen a letter to Pernice to tell him to stop it: we get it. It was a dysfunctional relationship, but our hero is too stupid to realize it. Once one starts to feel this level of contempt for the main character, reading the book starts to become a bit of a chore. Which is a bit too bad, because the book is a bit of a compelling read for its first half or so.
It should be noted that the book has spawned a soundtrack CD, mostly of covers and novel excerpts, also performed by Pernice. It has been fairly warmly reviewed, perhaps moreso than the book, and you can read a PopMatters review of it here. It’s unfortunate that the CD does not accompany the book, as it might have made a fine counterweight to the sad sack prose that is on display.
It Feels So Good When I Stop isn’t a horrible book—it’s a fairly quick and engaging read in the early going, at least. However, it just doesn’t congeal as a novel – which is odd considering that Pernice admits in the publicity material that came along with the review copy that he threw out 12,000 words of text, making one wonder if it was at least carefully edited. One could do worse than pick up this book. But its utter lack of character motivation makes this reader wonder if Pernice should really stick to his day job: penning craftman-like three-minute indie rock songs.