Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad + Me + David Byrne

Have you read A Visit From the Goon Squad? I just did, in roughly three sittings, the last one soaking up the second half of the book. Jennifer Egan is new to me, despite the fact that this looks to be her fifth book. Goon Squad is the winner of untold prizes, including the Pulitzer. Having finished it twenty minutes ago, I'm still processing why I loved this book so. I hate to do that Film Treatment thing where you smash together two authors to give people an idea of what something is supposed to be like, "Poltergeist 2 is basically like Cape Fear meets The Night of the Hunter." This book could have been the baby of Mary Gaitskill and Italo Calvino. Hard to imagine, but rings true to me.

The time markers threw me off from time to time. Goon Squad winds its way back and forth through the decades, intertwining lives together, like in some warped rock and roll time machine. You meet characters, and then their children and their children's technology, and then jump back in time to regain a foothold on why it all mattered so much in the first place. Egan's language is so poetic, and each chapter stands alone as a short story. It didn't surprise me to read the acknowledgements and see that many chapters first appeared in Granta, the New Yorker, and other magazines of fictional record.

I know nothing about the music industry. My greatest claim to fame is dating a couple of guys who were in bands that would play at the QE2 bar in Albany in the early 1990s. We wore a lot of black, but I leaned more toward the vintage dress with combat boots combination; a fashion era aptly covered in Goon Squad. That said, I was relatively squeaky clean compared to Egan's characters who smoked pot and downed ecstasy pills like they were Tic-Tacs. I could drink a few watered down rum and cokes at the Palais Royale, but it was generally with my nearest and dearest restaurant pals after a long shift, with Patsy Cline crooning in the background. Not sordid, in other words.

My real musical Brush With History crashed into me one day in 1995 or so due to an acquaintance's out of town emergency. Heather, who worked at Rykodisc (or was it Rhino?), a label David Byrne was affiliated with at the time, was supposed to show up at his home in Chelsea to help him get his equipment to the Supper Club for that evenings' show. I was an Editorial Assistant at American Heritage, which was in the neighborhood at the Forbes Building on 5th Avenue and 12th Street, and since she couldn't be in town she called on me to pinch hit and act as if I was someone who worked for her label. My boss Richard Snow gave me the afternoon off so I could go and be an imposter (yet another reason he was my best boss, hands down, ever). I showed up at Byrne's doorstep on, I believe it was 21st street between 8th and 9th Avenue, rang the doorbell, and he promptly answered. I told him I was sent by Rykodisc to help him get settled at the Supper Club. He asked me to follow him downstairs to his studio, and then he picked up a guitar and played a few chords. "How does that sound to you?" he asked me. ME! I can't remember if/ how I came up with words to answer him. "It sounds great!"? "Wow!"? I'm sure I said something brilliantly articulate like that. I helped him plop some guitars in the trunk of a yellow taxi cab, but he'd inadvertently locked us out of his house before we'd packed everything he needed, and so we had to make our way to his office on 12th street so he could pick up an extra set of his house keys. The whole time we were in the cab, he would say these random things that sounded like Talking Heads lyrics: "Look at that bicycle hanging on that pole!"

Only when he began to ask me about people connected to Rykodisc did I dissolve into a puddle of transparent awkwardness. I'm a terrible liar, and I couldn't figure out how on earth to answer his question, "So, how is John doing?" What if John had been in the hospital? What if he'd moved to Africa? Who the hell was John? In that panic, I told him I had to confess something; I don't work for Rykodisc, but was actually an Editorial Assistant at American Heritage magazine and I'm helping out a friend who was in a bind.... It probably wasn't even a big deal to him. It's not like I was threatening in any way, probably wearing some heinously garish red lipstick and some prairie dress; scary in one way, but not in an I'm Going to Murder You in a Taxi Cab On the Way to the Supper Club Way. Once we got there, I helped him carry a few pieces of light equipment, and he invited me to come back later to hear his rehearsal and see the show for free.

For a few years, I'd see Byrne in small clubs when I'd go out to hear music, like at the Mercury Lounge. When I stopped going out so much I'd still see him, but he'd be riding his bicycle; still handsome, but older, with a beautiful crop of silver hair.

The other night, when we were holed up in Upstate during the hurricane, I showed "True Stories" to Jamie . It held up for me, and got most interesting for Jamie when the laziest woman in the world got to be fed by a robotic fork while she watched infomercials from bed.

This Jennifer Egan book has sent me on quite the nostalgic spin-out; I'm sure it will do the same for you. Going back to the book, I'd like to add that there is one experimental chapter involving a sister and her brother who has autism that was one of the most moving and spiritual, though sparse, pieces of writing I've come across, ever. I was thinking to myself that the Pulitzer committee must have been taken by the sheer modernity of this novel until I got to that chapter, and at that point for me brilliance settled in and didn't leave. Reading it threw me back in time to yet another place and sensation, predating my David Byrne encounter. I was in college, and I'd read something (what?), when suddenly, everything that I'd been studying came together like a thousand crystals forming into some beautiful lucid object. Everything made sense, and was exciting, and clear; the way moments leading up to poems feel.

1 comment:

  1. I'll use this one at our book club that will be discussing GOON SQUAD. Never knew about the David Byrne imposter story...or at least, not all of the details...such an interesting blog, NYL&F!