Rock mask replica

Boy Island: A Novel
by Camden Joy
Quill-Harper Collins, $12, 232 pp.

So let’s get this straight: Guerrilla rock crit Camden Joy has inked a novel following the on-the-road exploits of an indie band touring into the heart of the South? The man who brought the world the most lucid, multiheaded rock crit rant (The Last Rock Star or Liz Phair: A Rant) since Lester Bangs last plinked a keyboard has endeavored to capture something in this journey besides the near-monastic monotony of life in a van with three other dudes?

Yup. And you know what? He succeeds in making Boy Island smell as funky as an empty bar at soundcheck, feel as truly languid and claustrophobic as life on tour and taste like next-day-beer-and-smoke breath – all while managing the neat trick of inhabiting his story with characters whose life, despair, momentum and absurdity won’t let you out of the van before you care deeply about their trials.

In the process, Joy blurs the line between creative nonfiction and invention. The band in question would, in the real world, eventually become the indie band Cracker. Joy tweaks the script first by placing a character named (hold on now) Camden Joy at the center of the narrative.

Joy-the-Character is a young man and drummer on the verge of giving in to utter despair when he’s plucked up and given the opportunity to join David Lowery ("The Post-Ironic Rebel Rock Star"), Johnny Hickman ("The In-It-for-the-Chicks, Guitar-Slinging Hunk") and Pete Sosdring ("The Been-There-and-Back-Too-Many-Times Session Bassist") on the road. Against the backdrop of the escalating Gulf War, these lost boys are left to their own devices to find their way out of their own personal trappings.

Joy-the-Writer lets the reader live inside the head of each of these men by making none of them the hero and each of them potentially redeemable. Lowery, the egotist, is given a chance to outlive the legend of his former band, Camper Van Beethoven, through his own rambunctious set of actions chafing against the rock star cliché. Sosdring is able to reconcile his stable family life with his itinerant tomcat rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and Hickman, well, he’s as sympathetic as a lead guitarist is allowed to be in any rock yarn. But the center of the meditation is Joy-the-Drummer, a young man who, in the context of the rock life’s machismo, must slowly contend with and, eventually, accept his homosexuality.

While the Gulf War metaphor is initially cloying and obvious, Joy-the-Writer manages, by novel’s end, to let it infect the narrative by slowly but surely weaning it from the story. Boy Island is a strangely quiet novel for a tale of rock ‘n’ rambunctiousness. Absent is Joy’s hands-on, hyperactive, in-the-muck rock-crit voice. In its place is a measured voice, weaving together tales of quiet interior struggle with the kind of requisite detail necessary to tell of four very different human beings, who spend waaay too much time together, coming to terms with both one another and themselves.

So, sure, it’s improbable. But in a pop culture climate where an English novel about record store geeks in love can become a major Hollywood motion picture, all bets are off. With Boy Island, Camden Joy has raised the stakes.

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