Reviews

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes

John Davidson

In any city except Los Angeles such characters grouped together might seem ridiculous, yet one of the ways in which this city undermines fiction is that it defies all attempts to invent the improbable.


This Book Will Save Your Life

Publisher: Viking
Length: 384
Price: $24.95
Author: A.M. Homes
US publication date: 2006-04
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More than any other modern city, Los Angeles is a character in its own fictions. How could it be otherwise, this city so unique, so alien as to be almost a world all its own? While 'only in LA' has long-since become a slur of cultural identification, for the writer of fiction, a city where the atypical is instantly recognizable as typical presents its own peculiar hazards. How does one represent the fantastic, the absurd, the unbelievable nature of such a place without settling into cliché?

As a starting point in her new novel of Los Angeles, This Book Will Save Your Life, A.M. Homes takes as her protagonist a character whose life is in no way, shape or form related to the film industry (the 'Industry' only appears in the book tangentially via a movie star cameo and later, through the appearance of a successful screenwriter whose current trade is not his most interesting claim to fame). And, unlike many LA story protagonists, Richard Novak is not on the make, seeking wealth, fame, power, glamour -- he is already made. As it turns out, he is also already broken.

Comfortably wealthy, Richard is a juggler of stocks, who trades online each day without ever leaving home, until one morning he finds himself gazing out from his lofty Hollywood Hills home, doubled over in pain, wondering whether this isn't 'IT' -- his mortal end. What 'IT' turns out to be isn't Richard's physical demise, but his own recognition of his disconnect from life. Richard hasn't left the house in months (why would he have to?), he hasn't had sex in years, and his only physical contact each day is with a housekeeper he blocks out, wearing headphones while stepping on the treadmill and watching the fluctuations of the stock market roll past on the screen. Meanwhile, there's an ex-wife in New York equally removed from the world, and a 17-year-old son unable to latch onto anyone or anything, never having been held close enough or long enough to do so.

This theme of dislocation -- how people become disconnected from one another in an impersonal modern world -- is one that Homes has been exploring for some time. Her early novel The End of Alice featured a jailed pedophilic murderer in correspondence with a 19-year-old girl who finds herself gravitating towards young boys. Music For Torching, a brilliant suburban subversive etched in acid, told the story of a married couple coming apart, seeking out extremes of sensation as a way to feel something. In a more recent short story, Please Remain Calm, a husband discusses his perennially impending suicide with his dismissive wife, and only when they face death together in a late-night car accident does he admit "I want to live, but I don't know how."

Los Angeles, then, a city populated by people sitting isolated in metal boxes strung out back-to-back along its roads and freeways, a place which embraces the future with greater alacrity than just about any other American city, would seem to offer fertile territory for Homes. Her style might accurately be described as 'clinical realism,' and in this latest book she employs a narrative voice similar to that used in Music For Torching , present tense and as detached of emotion as the characters she portrays. It's also no easy task to make a sympathetic character from someone rich and overly privileged, yet this is one of the tasks Homes sets herself. Richard Novak's re-entry into the world, or at least his attempt, begins when he is forced to leave the house and is rushed to the emergency room. He asks a doctor, "Is there something wrong?" and in response is told "You're in pain." "What should I do in the meantime?" he asks. "Live," the doctor tells him.

Richard meets an unlikely range of characters as he reaches across the city, seeking ways to be good. There's Anhil, an immigrant making his way in America by way of his own donut shop; Cynthia, a beaten-down housewife he discovers crying in the produce section of the supermarket and subsequently sponsors in re-inventing her life; Nic, a screenwriter, homeopath and former "spokesman-for-a-generation;" Dr. Lusardi, a doctor of "psychological internal medicine", and a fraud; and Sydney, a Gyrotonics instructor and cancer survivor, by whom Richard is re-introduced to real, mortal physical intimacy. In any city except Los Angeles such characters grouped together might seem ridiculous, yet one of the ways in which this city undermines fiction is that it defies all attempts to invent the improbable. Fiction set here is almost inevitably satire, yet if any place on earth is beyond satire, it's probably LA. Regrettably here, characters like Anhil, who is supposed to charm and ingratiate but mostly irritates, and Sylvia, a nutritionist of fetishistic proportions, come across as types rather than as individuals, and no matter how many strange baubles of character their author hangs on them, the more clichéd they become.

This book isn't the first pass Homes has made at Los Angeles (recently she produced a work of non-fiction, Los Angeles: People, Places and the Castle on the Hill, and currently contributes to The L Word, a television show set in the city) but in This Book Will Save Your Life she takes on something bigger, more ambitious. It is a book filled with Homes' typically sharp, off-kilter dialogue, supported by bravura set pieces of black comedy. Like the city itself though it is also sprawling, without a compelling center, and even a writer of Homes' undoubted skill and intelligence can't avoid the indigenous pitfalls. No amount of wit can make certain observations new, as when a woman drives her car into Richard as he crosses the street and asks, "Why don't you just drive, like a normal person?" Later, a local government inspector has his screenplay read and optioned by Richard's movie star neighbor, and the fact that such things happen in "real" life hardly seems to matter; in fiction it's lifeless, rote.

Homes' narrative finds resolution in Richard's rapprochement with his son, who spends the majority of the novel arcing across country from New York in order to spend the summer with him. Richard begins to find life when he climbs down from the mountain, and recognizes the pain that his divorce and his failure as a father have caused him He also stops trying to live forever on micro-processed foods, and finds better living through donuts.

This Book Will Save Your Lifeis a novel whose pleasures reside in small details, rather than in its panoramic sweep. Only in a novel set in LA -- no cultural swipe intended -- might the protagonists luxury house and automobile be rendered as fully realized characters in the service of plot, yet like Richard's luxury house, this novel is full of brilliant expressed details built upon shaky ground. The story ends, as many LA stories have since the time of Nathaniel West, with a scene of natural apocalypse and an ambivalent lead character gazing into the destruction, floating but somehow "still here".

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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