The vibrance of A Million Miles is hindered by the unnecessary facade of fiction.
A Million MilesPublisher: Animal Manufacturing Co.
Author: Amy Flesicher Madden
Publication date: 2014-11
Amy Fleischer Madden knows more about the daily routines of touring bands than most writers, and she draws deeply from her well of knowledge to craft the story of A Million Miles. Madden is the founder of Fiddler Records, an independent record label she founded at 16. She released early efforts by some of today’s still-well-known pop/punk/emo bands such as Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory, and her story is built upon the crux of the DIY movement; Madden passed out copies of her homemade zine in the parking lot of a Miami punk venue, eventually saving up enough money from show promotion to release a few records. Those records opened the door for the start of Fiddler Records and aided in the early onslaught of emo and pop punk.
A Million Miles is Madden’s first foray into fiction, and it’s obvious much of her story is based upon her own experiences. In her novel, Madison “Maddy” Traeger is on the road as tour manager for the band Crimson + Clover as the play a round of shows opening for pop/punk icons Jimmy Eat World. (The band's name, Crimson + Clover, is cribbed from the Tommy James and the Shondells tune, but was also appropriated by Jimmy Eat World in their song, “A Praise Chorus”.) Life on tour is tough and desperate at times, and the band faces all the typical “touring life” conflicts that crop up: long journeys in cramped quarters, strained relationships both in and outside the tour, infighting among bandmates, too much alcohol and the occasional drug use.
Maddy is out on tour against the will of her parents, of course, and has left her best friend and possible love interest, Kieran, behind in Florida. Additionally, she has put her college career on hold to “get in the van”, as Henry Rollins would say. By the novel’s end everyone comes away changed, with dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled. But there’s still a lingering doubt that comes from this lifestyle choice; a doubt Madden tries hard to pin down in her prose.
Madden’s story is unique for several reasons. In addition to her age, Madden was (and still is) one of the few females to thrive in a male-dominated industry. That fact isn’t lost on young Maddy Trager who notes in the first chapter, “In more ways than one, I’m learning that a vagina will always be an occupational hazard in the music business.” Maddy's observation is proven repeatedly as she’s hit on, kissed by multiple band members, and forced to assert herself to promoters and venue owners with more authority than her male counterparts just to be treated with equality.
It’s a subject that Madden could have explored deftly with precision and firsthand knowledge; instead, she allows her femininity to act as a plot device when its opportune. Her pseudo-love triangle is readily apparent from the start, her male counterparts speak in overgeneralized statements about her when she’s around, and Maddy is subject to some juvenile, eyerolling observations about her own sexual experiences. (“Asher takes my hand and moves it down the front of his jeans… This is no over-the-underwear kind of thing. This is the real deal, and everything is indeed bigger in Texas.”) Her experiences are meant to evoke the vibrancy of youth, but mostly just end up extolling the crudeness of sexuality on tour.
Maddy is, after all, only 19. And the conflict between her age and her occupation plays a central role in A Million Miles, but not as much as it could. Madden sticks to the day-to-day conflicts of tour life without tackling any of the broader implications of the industry. Every conflict is resolved either by alcohol or just a good night’s rest. And her dialogue falls more than a little flat from time to time. Conversations border on the mundane and rely heavily on slang (e.g.,“dude”)—a characteristic that is no doubt accurate to the touring life, but doesn’t necessarily make for engaging reading. All of these missteps, however, can be chalked up to first-time author syndrome and, for the most part, they don’t detract from the overall narrative. But one can’t help but feel Madden missed a golden opportunity to do more than just draw a fictional playground from her personal experiences.
There is a vibrance and quickness to Madden’s novel, however, that’s always welcome. A Million Miles takes place in 1999, when record labels and radio play were still viable paths to stardom. And her novel is laden with cultural references that are both sentimental and nostalgic. At one junction the band stops for a viewing of the coming-of-age comedy, American Pie. Later, at one of Crimson + Clover’s headlining shows, the opening bands are Thrice and Engine Down—two bands that were active and engaging in the pre-millennium, but have since moved on or out of the business entirely. And the venues where Crimson + Clover play are real places that still comprise the cultural landscape of indie music in 2015—The Troubadour in Los Angeles, Emo’s in Austin, Texas.
For anyone who’s been saved by emo and indie rock in their early teens and also charted the indie music scene through present day, these cultural markers bring the novel closer to the heart. Madden’s novel isn’t as impressive as it could be, but it’s a sweet, accurate account of the touring life that so many bands have traversed in search of the elusive and the ephemeral. Next time, however, Madden should just write a memoir and skip the facade of fiction.