After 17 albums, the Black Watch’s singer-songwriter-guitarist steps aside from his Los Angeles gigs and, in what must be at least semi-autobiographical, narrates the indie-rock predicaments of a certain John, who falls for musical prodigy Jenny. It’s a brisk, bittersweet novel. Propelled by the wry, overly clever, self-mocking, playfully second-person address John adopts for his picaresque tale of The King of Good Intentions (also an album title by the author’s band), his energetic patter revives the early ’90s.
Record stores still held trash and treasure: if you, too, can account for not only the Verlaines but Look Blue Go Purple or the Able Tasmans, you’re matched with this novel’s milieu. College rock still beckoned literate slackers in gentrifying, faux-boho Hollywood. On trendy Melrose Avenue, “shop girls” posed, “endlessly puffing accessory cigarettes and wearing looks that dared you, just dared you to enter and browse without buying”.
Meanwhile, John settles (where on his ungarnished pasta budget he stays mum that it’s all but impossible to find a room) in rent-controlled Santa Monica. There — departing Santa Barbara’s lotus-land surfer environs, after stints exhaustively detailed in near-David Foster Wallace recall at a sports-mad prep school, but barely mentioned at an English university — John settles down near the beach. Ennui appears to account for why he left his privileged upbringing, as he chooses to hunker down beside the strung-out and bong-bemused natives, even if nobody’s truly from L.A., naturally.
As a native, I’ve heard before John’s jaundiced takes on our speech, snobs, smog, sprawl. Not bad, but familiar. What’s fresh: his vocabulary. A Ph.D. in English from U.C. Santa Barbara, John Andrew Fredrick combines the rhetorical reach and tragicomic smarts of Alexander Theroux with the published-but-perished plights of James Hynes’ erudite if long-matriculated protagonists. In John’s first two-dozen pages we find “glabrous”, “hispid”, “viscid”, and “anosmic”. He observes with a gentler tone his bedroom, with “crumpled up pages like inscribed paper flowers”.
At a party full of star-struck wannabees, pursuing a comely lass, he reflects: “Tonight I am lost and have eyes like a spirograph in the hands of a child on methamphetamine and utterly out of my head on good drugs and bad alcohol”. Poetic or introspective registers carom off John’s R-rated vernacular, the usual Angeleno’s articulation, or its lack. Infusing this spirited or spiteful melange of mundane rants and muttering satire, the novel celebrates an egghead’s low-life lived at the margins of celebrity.
Fredrick sharpens as he hones his literate and pop-cultural dissections. L.A.’s full of inked and pierced, fringe, self-titled scribblers. Yet, as one signature writer betrays by John’s reaction, Charles Bukowski’s “precious, hipster-hallowed novels are like literature for people who don’t really read“.
Unsurprisingly, neither do students. John’s day job as a L.A. public-school substitute rang too true. (Old Volvos trundled John and me to concrete classrooms. As I studied for a master’s, I supported myself in this same occupation, and as and after I finished my doctorate in English during this same span, I dealt daily with urban “at-risk youth” in this very district. I think I know the real “William Westmoreland H.S.” campus where John’s violent showdown with an teenaged upstart occurs.)
When you find this indie-press title in an indie bookstore, flip to page 110 to seal the deal. Fredrick’s pitch-(im)perfect rendering of an instructional note left by the regular teacher John replaces sums up this novel’s sass. John offers advice if you’re caught in this hapless vocation: “Usually the more violent the film, the more tractable the class.”
The “faux 18th century-chocolate house way” favored twice by John, first to relate his run-in with a teacher’s lounge “Beldam” rather than alas “nubile Hoydens in hot pink Hot Pants” and later to his courting of a “a quite fetching neo-goth Temptress, Wench, and Strumpet” shifts the mood and livens the prose. This sub takes his spare copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson for downtime. Not that I expected another “Oxen of the Sun” rhetorical imitation as in Joyce’s Ulysses, but the antiquated stylistic homage broadened the verbal range chosen by Fredrick, as a lateral side-step from the sneers of record store clerk Scather or lecherous scientist Psycho, as two of John’s oft-present and quite rambling interlocutors.
Parts of the novel, especially after John and Jenny find delight, slow down as happiness glows. “When she came out and came in to her room, all hot and red, I pulled her to me by the robe’s lapels and kissed her on presented cheek, tonguing aside wet strands of resplendent hair.” Fredrick conveys intimacy’s warmth through the couple convincingly.
However, a long detour down memory lane to “Junior” on the mound at prep school, while it will lead in time-tested fictional coincidence to a sudden reunion later, slows the frenetic pace in the sunnier second half. This episode rises to a splendidly ribald “singular cheer” for John-as-Junior as he pitches, so a raunchy pay-off proves rewarding even if you lack patience for adolescent athletics. Tonal irregularities and digressing recollections may be true to an extremely intelligent John as told by an equally smart Fredrick. However, along with some typos for proper nouns in the copy I was provided, they needed a red pencil.
All the same, these add up as minor flaws. Each section comes titled with a well-chosen lyrical snippet from a rock song. (At least two other albums by The Black Watch nestle into the chapters as words or phrases.) The novel as a whole thrives on accurate observations from L.A.’s post-riot clouded yet college rock-cheered milieu, which Fredrick channels through John’s grumpy good nature. The King of Good Intentions depicts scenes that have not yet vanished, although most of its record stores have, on shady blocks off Melrose or Wilshire. A paramour lives in a ’20s-era apartment flat. “Cherry hardwood floors. A dwarf sort of balcony.” See-through curtains, a cat, or a cat smell, while the fragrance of incense lingers. “Posters of Patti Smith, Robert Smith, The Smiths.”
In such moments, and as the novel flows to its elegant, fittingly ambiguous conclusion, The King of Good Intentions fulfills its aims. John and Jenny’s band, the Weird Sisters, cut an album. John’s ambitions stay modest, but sincere. From such a plastic artifact, beauty might emerge: “Someone like me might be consoled by music and lyrics that evoked concerns that people had every day. They might be reminded for two sides of an LP that someone else thought like they did — or differently.”
The last scene’s dialogue will be drowned out by music, a too-loud horn blast added to a band bashing out “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Appropriately, both narrating John “as an ideal listener” and Fredrick as a singer and a lyricist know when to let the song take over. The performer steps back from center stage, while words give way to sound.