Sunday, February 13, 2022

Loudmouth by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan's Loudmouth was published in October of 2020, and I've had my copy for just over a year. Various things have delayed my reading, and thus this late review, for which I offer Rob an apology. You should know that I consider Rob a friend, more than just of the Facebook variety (although that's been our sole means of communication in recent years) and I'm confident that he returns the favor.

I got to know Rob near the tail end of the 1970s when we were both regulars at the Bells of Hell. We shared a love of rock music, and enjoyed the company of some of the other regulars, two of whom, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and "The Village Legend" to whom Rob gives the pseudonym Eddie Neil, appear as important characters in Loudmouth. I was invited to Rob's birthday party, held in a Village apartment much spiffier than the Gum Joy Tower flat occupied by Thomas Ransom, protagonist of Loudmouth. When I got there, I saw a long black limo, its engine idling, parked in front. At the party a woman with black hair, wearing a black dress, broke into an upward mezzo soprano glissando. Someone standing next to me said, "That's Liza Minnelli." He then said he understood she and Rob had been in high school together. 

But enough about me; what did I think of the book? First, it's bracketed by rivers. The brief "Chapter 0" at the beginning has the title "Cuyahoga," that being the river that flows through Cleveland and is notorious for having once caught fire. It concerns a tour arranged by Tom Ransom for "Bruce," identified only as such but obviously The Boss, and guided by Charlie, a Cleveland native and friend of Tom's. Charlie shows them a series of dive bars, a record store, and the radio studio where Allen Freed held forth back in the day. At this point I can't resist another personal anecdote. One afternoon in 1970 I was in a law school friend's room when he tried to return a call from his brother, a writer for Cleveland After Dark. When there was no answer at home he called information for Cleveland (remember those days?) and got an operator who, asked for the number of Cleveland After Dark, said something like, "You've got to be kidding." Anyway, at the end of the tour, Charlie takes three 45 caliber bullets, gives one each to Bruce and Tom, then holding his says, "This is how we'll remember."

At the book's end comes "Chapter 00," even shorter than "0," with the title "Hudson." In it, Tom removes the bullet from his Rolodex, in which it's rested for some time. He worries that the gunpowder might be deteriorating in a way that will cause it to discharge spontaneously, with possible fatal consequences. He takes it to a nearby pier and throws it into the Hudson.

Why rivers? One of my teachers, probably my late, beloved twelfth grade English teacher Eleanor Blalock, asserted that rivers, in literature, always signify Life. Loudmouth is a "life," in the sense in which the British use that word where Americans use "biography." Consider W.H. Auden's "A Shilling Life Will Give You All the Facts." in which the poet observes that "all the facts" don't tell the reader what was really important to its subject. Loudmouth is biography. It is a fictional autobiography of Thomas Ransom. Unlike the book mentioned in Auden's "Shilling Life" it lays bare Tom's secret longings, failures, and disappointments, along with his accomplishments.

After I had gotten into Loudmouth, I began to wonder how much of it is fictional. I was led to compare Loudmouth's description of Tom Ransom's life with Rob's, as given in the brief "About the Author" squib at the back of the book. Southern mother; check. Writer for Creem magazine; check. Author of a book about Kiss; check. Singer and songwriter; check. And, as I've mentioned above, hanger out at the Bells; friend of Lester and of The Village Legend. So, is Loudmouth just disguised autobiography? Rob answered that question when he was interviewed by Deborah Kalb:
"Like most debut novels, there's a lot of non- in Loudmouth's fiction. But it's still not an autobiography or memoir. And if only a part of it is fact, all of it is the truth -- perhaps the deeper truth, arrived at by reimagining a life at slightly different times and places, in a slightly different order, with slightly different characters, blurring the physical reality to bring the metaphysical into slightly sharper focus."
I know that when I contemplated writing a novel, I started with my present situation, then tried to imagine how things might be if, at certain junctures, I had - taking a cue from Robert Frost - chosen a different path, or if I were to set off on a different one. Unlike Frost, I took what was, I'm sure, the path more travelled, seeking success in a conventional, bourgeois way. Still, there was that part of me that wanted to be a writer, as well as a corporate lawyer. This had a bad effect on my career in two ways. First, I got into a pattern of missing deadlines because I wanted my memos not only to be legally airtight but also stylistically worthy of consideration for a Pulitzer. Second, as I noted here, the amount of time I was spending in the "Village demimonde," meaning the Bells, and after it closed, the Lion's Head,  contributed to my work woes. The Head had a reputation as a writers' hangout. A woman once came in and said to those assembled at the bar, "I hear this is a place for writers with drinking problems." Village Voice scribe Ace Gillen replied, "No, it's for drinkers with writing problems."

My writing problem was that I never got started, except for a few short pieces in professional journals, at least until I started this blog. Loudmouth gave me a view of what life was like for a music writer in the 1970s. More than that, it gave me a sense of what my life might have been like had I decided to jettison my desire for conventional respectability and indulge that for artistic renown. It wouldn't necessarily have turned out badly; things didn't turn out badly for Rob.

Returning to Rob's interview, Ms. Kalb asked him, "What do you want readers to take away from the novel?" His answer:
"I hope that readers think it's funny, sad, surprising and maybe, in parts, lovely. I hope they enjoy the words, sentences, and paragraphs, the rhythms and music, as much as the characters and scenes. I hope they pick up on what's going on between the lines and among the lines, the wordplay, inside jokes, compulsive allusions to songs, bands and pop culture."

I found it funny, sad, surprising, and, yes, lovely.  I can't say I caught all the inside jokes and allusions, but did get enough to give myself a figurative pat on the back. Then there's this:

"Ultimately, I hope it gives the reader a fresh glimpse of the wonderous/disastrous complexity of life."

That it gave to this reader. I commend Loudmouth without reservation.