“Listen, if I said something to make you think I’m even vaguely interested in knowing this, I apologize.” This quote from Bill Fitzhugh’s latest novel, Radio Activity, sums up my feelings on the book. It’s not that Fitzhugh is a terrible writer (he’s not) or that the book doesn’t have any interesting parts (it does). But Fitzhugh, in all his characterization, plotting, and musical trivia, fails to give us a reason to really care about anything that happens.
The plot, such as it is, goes like this: Rick Shannon is a FM radio disc jockey who has too much love for classic rock to play the current pop-music crap and so finds himself relegated to a backwoods Mississippi town as a replacement for a DJ who has mysteriously gone missing. Desperate to find some greater purpose to his life, Shannon turns private investigator because it’s much easier to get work as a PI than as a DJ. He solves the mystery and embarks on his new career (presumably, sequels will follow).
Fitzhugh obviously knows his stuff when it comes to music. He should—he worked as a DJ for several years before he began his writing career. He presents fascinating trivia about classic rock history, gives some convincing arguments as to what classic rock really should mean, and even lists some killer song sets of the “I wish I could really find a radio station playing these” variety. He presents a strong indictment of the current state of the corporate-controlled music industry, while admitting that the past is past and the future is likely to continue to be mass-produced, mass-consumed garbage unless some radical changes take place.
The musical discussions/arguments are great, but would be better suited to a nonfiction work. Fitzhugh inserts them in a way that will only appeal to a certain audience: those who are big fans of the golden age of rock, which (as defined by Fitzhugh) is mid-1950s to late 1970s.
Rick Shannon is an interesting enough character, but the rest of the cast that he interacts with seem stereotypical with no unique characteristics. The radio station manager is a beefy misogynistic redneck who used to play football and is part of the old boy’s network that runs the town. There’s the vapid beauty pageant contestant who is desperate enough to win Miss Spam that she’ll sleep with the judges. There’s even the crusty “Flo from Mel’s Diner” type waitress who works at the local greasy spoon and engages Shannon in witty repartee from time to time.
Add to the mix the fact that the publisher marketed this book as a “whodunit,” and you’re sure to be disappointed. There is very little mystery and no suspense here. The primary suspects, as presented within the first third of the novel, are the ones who did it. I kept waiting for the twist, thinking it couldn’t be that obvious ... but it was. Despite a few vaguely threatening occurrences, Shannon never seems to be in any real danger. Somebody (we don’t know who, although the author hints at an angry ex) keeps busting Shannon’s windshield and he responds by calmly replacing the glass, never really trying to track down the culprit. An overalls-clad enforcer busts into Shannon’s trailer, where Shannon handily takes care of him with a cast-iron skillet and an old LP. Even the internal conflict, Shannon’s quest to find some purpose for his life, begins to seem watered down because it is merely repeated, almost word for word, every hundred pages or so. The tidy way that he finds that new purpose seems artificial, because the hero achieves it so easily. There’s not enough conflict.
On the positive side, Fitzhugh has a good ear for dialogue and an easy-to-read style. He manages to avoid going completely over the edge with the southern stereotypes by adding in a black female sheriff (who had to obtain an elected position in order to thwart the status quo). The college co-ed who works at the station, although perky and naïve, at least provides some reason for Shannon to preach Fitzhugh’s classic rock doctrine as the DJ tries to explain to her what the format should really be about.
Fitzhugh has five previously published novels, all of which were stand-alone and were billed as humorous southern fiction rather than mystery/suspense. His established fan base may give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, and since it is a new direction for his career the sequels (the first of which, according to his website at http://www.billfitzhugh.com, is nearly done) may improve as Fitzhugh adapts to the new genre he’s writing in.
Overall, Radio Activity is a good way to spend a plane trip or a bus ride, but not much more than that. While decrying the pop culture mass-produced state of the music industry, Fitzhugh veers dangerously close to contributing to the mass-produced made-for-the-movies state of the publishing industry.