Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 400 pages, 2009

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: The whole ‘fallen rock stars’ thing seemed like it would make a great story.

Synopsis: The Blood Orphans had it all: a contract that paid them lots of money to play their songs all over the world, and all the sex and drugs that they could handle (and then some)…but now their manager is in Amsterdam to tell them that it’s all over, and they’ve entered the land of ‘has-beens’ before they even hit thirty years of age. The troubled guys all face their own set of problems, but each must decide if he’s going to try to dig himself out, or just burn out at rock bottom.

Why you should read this book: Funny, outrageous, tragic, miserable…and that’s just the band’s manager, a woman named Joey who had dreams of glory for her boys when they started out. The band that started out with everything has fallen into a parody of themselves – one of the members has discovered a self-serving version of religion, one has a father who was a porn king and is miserable to discover he’s a full-fledged sex addict, one was only ever along for the ride out of sheer luck, and one is insanely talented but lacking either the ambition or confidence to do anything with it. The characters are gritty and brutally honest about the way they’re living, repelling you even as they draw you in. Shilling starts more on the surface – die-hard rockers living a wild, party-filled existence – and slowly lets you in to what makes each character tick, especially as they start to realize it’s all over. Sometimes it’s flat-out gross and it’s usually morally questionable, but that’s the joy of fiction – you’ll feel like you’re spying on a real band but you get to keep the comfort in knowing that, hopefully, your favourite musicians aren’t quite this bad. Rock Bottom is dark, dark comedy that might make you glad your band never made it big, but it will make you equally grateful this fictionalized band got to hit the highs before the lows.

Why you should avoid this book: This novel is bursting at the seams with all the rudeness and crudeness you’d expect from a young bunch of rockers – it’s not for the faint of heart. But that’s why you’re reading it, isn’t it? The story is also very character-focused, and while a lot is going on with each individual over a few days, there isn’t a big traditional plot line happening (though it wouldn’t be accurate to say there isn’t a lot going on!).

Opening paragraph:

Bobby had been awake for about ten seconds when his hands started to itch. His poor fucking hands, cracked and raw with eczema, stuck out of the blanket like rotting snails.

Fabulous quotes:

His friends treated Darlo like the luckiest guy alive. But they didn’t see what had happened on the inside. They didn’t see his brain rewired. They didn’t see how his life resembled that of a lab rat, overloaded with sensation, glutted with pleasure, fattened up with ecstasy until the taste went bland and only one feeling was left.

‘Excuse me,’ Adam said, because he suddenly wanted to make sure he didn’t still have blood on his face. ‘Be right back.’
In the bathroom, he washed up and looked in the mirror. His faraway eyes brought to mind those pictures from Life magazine’s book of photographs that he had had as a kid, of war veterans. He stared at his beat-up face and thought of the picture of a GI from the Korean War, wrapped in blankets out in the rain, head shrouded in wet flannel, looking to the sky, hopeless.

Also recommended: Money by Martin Amis; The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson with Neil Strauss; The Learners by Chip Kidd.

Also by this author: Rock Bottom is Shilling’s first novel.

Fun tidbit: Shilling is a recovering rock ‘n’ roller himself – he was the drummer for The Long Winters and Western State Hurricanes.

Would I read more by this author? A novel set two hundred years ago (the book Shilling is working on now) seems like a big leap in genre, but I’d likely give it a try.

&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2009

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