Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
TYLER MCMAHON HAS TAPPED the history of underground rock music and its most tragic players to craft a moving tale of art, fame, passion, love, and the blind drive to leave a legacy no matter the cost to the artist during his or her lifetime. Centering on the rise of the fictional “The Mistakes,” a two-man, one-woman grunge band at the forefront of the early ’90’s Pacific Northwest music revolution, How The Mistakes Were Made’s double entendre title perfectly describes what the novel is about: the rise of the band from obscurity to worldwide fame, but also the literal mistakes made by the band members as they explore love with one another. Ultimately, the life-mistakes they make as they ride the unimaginable rocket of fame literally and figuratively destroy them all.
As a back story woven all through the text, the band’s drummer, story’s narrator, and feminine element of the love triangle, Laura Loss, recalls in second-person flashback a similar tragedy that befell her first band, the Second Class Citizens, ten years before during the hardcore era, and which left her charismatic brother, Anthony, a lasting hero to the new grunge generation, brain dead. McMahon deserves accolades for providing details on the mundane nuts and bolts of touring and record contracts that humanize these rock gods and make the story intimate, believable, and real. There’s a wonderful moment in the book when the band — essentially kids (though Loss is older) — is backstage at the beginning of their unexpected fame, and can hear the sound of the massive audience waiting to see them perform. It’s a sound they know and find unfamiliar at the same time. They look at each other in fearful recognition of the sheer force of what is happening around them.
In putting his The Mistakes and their trajectory together, McMahon draws from the pure musicality of Soundgarden, the stadium success of Pearl Jam, the violent reverb and guitar smashing of Sonic Youth, and more than anything else, the tragic mythology of Nirvana, especially of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Beginning when Laura meets two rock wannabes, Sean and Nathan, after another lackluster show in a nowhere bar while on tour with an uninspired band in Montana, she reluctantly gives them her phone number. The boys, best friends and talented musicians both, soon show up and crash at her place in Seattle, where she is moonlighting as a café barista. Few around her have any real idea of Laura’s past with the Second Class Citizens, but to Nathan and Sean, she is a living legend. An alcoholic, manic -depressive with an unquenchable thirst for musical fame despite all the pain it has brought her in the past, Laura soon find herself jamming with the boys.
In one of the novel’s only failings-and this can’t really be considered a failing by anyone other than this reviewer for purely personal reasons-McMahon invests Sean as the Cobain of this troupe: he is the genius behind the music, and McMahon explains his genius by giving him ’synesthesia’, an ability to see his music as a variegated panoply of living colors. We’d all like to know where genius comes from, why Cobain had it more than any of the others, and by attributing Sean’s musical gifts to a savant-like medical condition, I for one believe McMahon takes an easy way out. It simply doesn’t matter to the success of the novel, and reads almost like a repetitive footnote. What I don’t like about the synesthesia angle is that it turns the people who make great art into deviants, superheroes with magical abilities who do not live in the world as the rest of us do, are not human like we are. That may or may not be true, but I have the suspicion that great artists are as simple to understand as any of us. A shot to the head was all it took to kill Cobain. To say he was anything but mortal detracts from the wonder of his achievement.
I enjoyed this book; it handled the great artistic movement of my American generation with respect, care, faithfulness, and verve. It captured the energy of that time, and brought back emotions I experienced firsthand as a teen witnessing this music being created, fighting for recognition, and conquering the world. In a tribute to that fateful night when the Chili Peppers literally seized the stage at the MTV Music Awards and announced to everyone that the musical status quo had changed, McMahon does a wonderful set piece when The Mistakes shoot a music video. Utter chaos ensues, just as it had at the MTV Music Awards, the players throwing stage props at one another, a man in a bear suit adding to the surreal qualities of everything going on around them, and for one moment, the three band mates have simple fun. Then the alcoholism, drug abuse, cavalier sex, and unquenchable drive to succeed begin to take their tolls. The ending, of course, is Shakespearean.
Courtney Love was recently profiled in Vanity Fair, and for someone whom most of my peers simply detest, and for others, is the consummate definition of evil, the regrettable Ms. Love came across as even more wretched and self-centered than has been her longtime par for the course. She’s clearly beyond the pale now, mired in conspiracy theories that exist only in her diseased brain, living like a caged bird-cum-heroin wastrel on the dime of British gentry she aspires to, and who keep her around for laughs. Could Cobain have made his music without this insane person driving him crazy? No, even though it killed him. Laura, Sean, and Nathan, in the end, are no different. McMahon does a fine job, in this fine book, of offering us an anatomy of how and why art is made, and how the creative process often tears those who attempt it to shreds.
Tyler McMahon (El Salvador 1999-02) received his MFA in fiction from Boise State, where he also taught a course on the history of rock and roll. His stories have appeared in Threepenny Review, Sycamore Review, and Surfer’s Journal, among others, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a professor of fiction at Hawaii Pacific University.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) third novel, Mule, has been optioned for film. His website is: http://TonyDSouza.com .