Every Time I Die frontman Keith Buckley has garnered a reputation as one of the best lyricists in heavy music not named Neil Fallon. His use of evocative, and slightly left-of-center, imagery and penchant for finely-executed, well-placed couplets rendered his words far more essential and distinctive than all but a few punk and metal frontmen. That Buckley, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in English, would one day try his hand at writing a novel seemed, if not inevitable, then certainly not unexpected. Yet, although his first foray into the world of literature, Scale (2015), was greeted with considerable murmuring and respectable praise, it also quickly subsided into obscurity. Now, with his second novel, Watch, hitting shelves, it’s perhaps worth looking back at what proves to be a perfectly competent, though inescapably flawed, debut.
Scale is the story of Ray Goldman, an aging rock star struggling to rectify the life he has with the one he imagined. If it sounds like cliche rock star story fare, it’s because it is. Despite his privileged position of observation and the many personal experience that surely leak onto his pages, Buckley adds little insight to the standard struggling musician narrative that hasn’t been covered in countless biographies and biopics, or fictionalized schlock like Stephen Herek‘s Rock Star (2001). Ray’s relationships fall apart at home and on the road, drugs get involved, and as time goes on, he begins to loose both perspective and his sense of boundaries. That Scale came out in the lead-up to Every Time I Die’s most recent record, Low Teens (2016)—a troubling time for Buckley, who pursued sobriety following a serious health scare that threatened his wife and then-unborn child—suggests a therapeutic edge to the novel. That the novel itself begins with Goldman seeking out a hypnotherapist, after having experienced “a droplet of illumination” (1), only adds to the sense. Yet, rarely does the narrative that follows provide any substantial insight into Buckley or Goldman.
Although its plot is fairly formulaic, the exact details of Scale‘s narrative can sometimes be difficult to decipher. For one thing, it’s hard to pin down exactly what genre of music Ray Goldman plays. The book’s blurb refers to him as “struggling indie rock musician”, while the story itself finds him playing Warped Tour (198) and hanging out with members of Alkaline Trio and The Bronx (170), but also opening for Ryan Adams (150) and coveting the audience of The Killers (217). Rigid genre boundaries themselves are unimportant. Hell, Every Time I Die themselves have never fitted particularly neatly into any given category. Even so, the blurring of genre lines here makes it hard to get a grasp of exactly what corner of the musical realm Goldman actually inhabits. The reader also never gets to experience Goldman’s success’s first hand. We’re frequently told about all his achievements—from growing open mic audiences to sold out club shows and thousands of dollars of merch sales a night—but we never get to witness them firsthand. The focus of the novel is, of course, Goldman’s personal life and his self-reflection, so shying away from his on-stage antics is likely a deliberate choice on Buckley’s part. Yet it remains hard to identify with a character whose supposedly magnetic personality is only ever shown to us secondhand.
Likewise, Goldman does not so much participate in self-destructive behavior as he is surrounded by it. Most of the novel’s debauchery is carried out, not by Goldman, but by his two closest associates: his tour manager Cube, who once punched a man so hard he “exploded out of the back of his own shirt like he had been spring-loaded inside of it”; and his sound engineer, Chet, who is “not the kind of person that you can imagine … doing things that normal children do in their early development like … not putting their dicks in anthills” (38). Similarly, Goldman’s hosemate-come-guitar-tech, Frank—from whom most of the novel’s central conflict stems—comes across as a far more interesting character than Goldman himself. An amazing visual artist, Frank is responsible for many of Goldman’s successes—secretly motivating him to learn guitar, forcing him to play his first shows and actively helping Goldman grow his profile by setting up a MySpace page for him. Yet Frank is painted by the other characters as a self-interested manipulator and, once his popularity as a YouTube personality eclipses Golman’s own acclaim, he graduates to being the narrative’s open antagonist and is quickly expunged, without much ambiguity. Each of these characters represents an aspect of Goldman himself, and their actions drive his self-reflection. Nevertheless, they are never properly fleshed-out and ultimately come across as plot devices or compensation for Goldman’s own inaction, rather than fully-fledged personalities.
The background plot of new technologies and social media altering the landscape of the music industry is an interesting thread that is never capitalized on. Similarly, Goldman’s simultaneous treatment of online critics and bloggers [hi!] as both “unsolicited … overprivileged, uninformed, and generally nasty” (51) and the only “real”, “honest” people he “truly love[s] and actually worke[s] for” (68), raises an interesting, though all-too-quickly abandoned dichotomy. However, Scale is the story of Ray Goldman the man, not Ray Goldman the musician, so it’s understandable that such broader details would be left out in order to focus instead on introspection. In fact, Buckley’s refusal to get drawn into musical mugging is one of the novel’s early strengths. By refusing to capitalize on his own celebrity and that of his acquaintances, Buckley effectively focuses the narrative on the human experience of Goldman, rather than exploiting him for mere candid titillation. The complete neglect of any direct musical references during the novel’s first section renders the description of discovering Bad Religion‘s Suffer (1988) as a transcendental experience all the more potent, once it arrives. The bulk of Buckley’s audience will be reading his novel because of who he is, he doesn’t need to keep reminding us where he comes from.
Oh boy, but once the music references start they come thick and fast—as in almost one every other page. Kanye West (124), Modest Mouse (127), Chamberlain and Lucero (129), Frank Turner and Dallas Green (130) Dimebag Darrell (131), Anthony Kiedis (141), Kurt Cobain (144), Ryan Adams (150) and Metallica (152) are all given lip service within the space of about twenty-five or so pages (although who “that shithead with the furry hat that fucks troubled women” (124) is alludes me). If the sudden influx of celebrity references is a structural choice, meant to evoke the fast-paced, oppressive nature of Goldman’s new-found fame, then it’s an effective one. However, few of the references go beyond a simple name-drop, and when they do the engagement is disappointingly simplistic—Kiedis, for example, is critiscised for singing about California too much (141). The one real-world musician who plays an active roll in the narrative is Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba, although it’s hard to tell whether his portrayal as a “batshit crazy”, drug-addled label scout, who receives personal, spiritual advice from “David fucking Lynch” [sic.] (116–17, 170–71) is intended as a loving tribute or a scathing caricature (extraneous research suggests the former, although that Lynch thing checks out…).
Still, as with the social media angle, the book is its most interesting (at least, I suspect, for its likely audience) when engaging with and commenting on the music industry itself. One memorable scene set at a house party, hosted by Tad Sweaty, a member of fictional boy band Happy Trailz (which, in real life, appears to be some kind of weird, cowboy emoji browser game). Here, the characters are privy to the kind of depraved antics you’d expect from salacious rock n’ roll tell-alls like The Dirt (2001) or The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (1998)—including a “wonderful young lady” attempting to “fit an entire bottle of beer in her asshole” (152). The sudden, surprising shift in tone is commented upon by Goldman, who is shocked that the kind of deviant behavior he might expect from the likes of Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger or a “notorious animal” like Nikki Sixx, should arise from someone who “dance[s] with other guys onstage in front of thirteen-year-old girls” (154). Yet, maybe that’s Scale‘s entire point, and why it perhaps also ultimately feels so derivative: at the end of the day, stories of fallen pop and rock n’ roll heroes are all just the same.
Scale is also subject to some obvious stylistic reference points. Perennial counterculture favourites Jack Kerouac (83) and Hunter S. Thompson (40) are referenced-early on, and the novel’s narrative style and subject falls in line with their milieu. The book also has an air of Chuck Palahniuk about it—perhaps due as much to its minimalist modern cover design and single-word moniker, as it’s edgy marketing blurb. Its protagonist engages in distinctly Palahniuk-ian behavior; such as subscribing to ideological programs that remind him “You are worthy of your life” (160), getting off by having Hegel quoted to him as a pick-up line (105) and dialing a dying man late at night in order to carry out a metaphysical debate (181). Though a far cry in quality from Palahniuk’s early work, Scale thankfully steers equally clear of his later drivel—resulting in a work that would perhaps fit comfortably somewhere in-between Diary (2003) and Haunted (2005); although it avoids and real attempt at genuine social commentary.
Although Scale‘s point of view is well-defined, the writing itself is fairly uneven. It’s easy to imagine Buckley screaming lines such as “Anything that wasn’t now wasn’t at all and all that was could not be otherwise” (47), or ““I slept lightly out of fear of being caught with hope in my possession” (205), atop Every Time I Die’s chaotic backdrop; and the novel littered with the kind of off-kilter analogies and metaphors that have become his trademark. Some are successfully striking, such as when Goldman describes the hypnotherapist’s pamphlet as “a welcomed rope dropped by unfamiliar hands from the top of my empty well” (1); or secrets being held like “arms full of wet dirt held close to my chest” (193). Others, not so much: “my desire to be accepted lurched forward aggressively like a manual car started up by someone only practiced in an automatic” (78); “I had discovered her the same way a cartoon thief discovers an apple pie in an open windowsill” (199).
Buckley’s prose is also frequently rendered more difficult than it should be, via oddly placed commas, such as in the sentence fragment “she had unfolded according to the same schedule, all blooming things abide” (186); or else made unnecessarily obtuse due to a complete lack of punctuation. Words are also frequently repeated within the same sentences, which themselves could often be broken up into at least two or three distinct clauses. A particularly egregious early example follows: “The receptionist looked up at me as I entered in disbelief that someone had entered, I told her that i was there to get an assessment like the one I had read about in the ad” (8). Then there’s the gigantic run-on sentence that opens chapter four:
“If I hadn’t failed to notice that the application I sent lo Syracuse University referred to Virginia Tech in the final paragraph—or if I had written an altogether separate essay rather than just lazily interchanging names despite the two presenting the same exact quest ion on the application form—it would make sense to assume that events in my life would be drastically altered, possibly steered down a path of such less internal resistance, one walked with a more natural stride rather than this one that began by jumping nervously between only apparently reliable patches of ground shaped by circumstances of harsh mental weather, emotional eruptions, and corrosion of reason.” (12)
The use of long, run-on sentences and impenetrable blocks of text can be an effective aesthetic choice, when attempting to convey a sense of confusion or oppressive disorientation. However, being forced to decipher repetitive passive double negatives in order to uncover a sentence’s meaning does not necessarily make it profound, and the the transition—around about chapter six or seven—by which such a verbose style is dropped entirely, in favor of more straightforward, workman-like prose, is just one of many jarring aspects of the novel.
Buckley also seems to be making a conscious show of literary force during Scale‘s early stages. Within the first few chapters, Goldman compares one of his orgasms to quantum superposition (19), and makes confounding statements as:
“When I arrived, I parked outside of the building and tried to collect any remaining familiar pieces of myself in order to better understand which ones no longer fit and must be either altered or eradicated completely.” (7)
The expression, thankfully, becomes more obliging as the book goes on. Again, the line of demarcation comes at about chapter six, which itself serves as a nice, almost self-contained, short narrative, whose emphasis on routine details and viciously self-righteous final turn almost brings to mind the work of David Foster Wallace. A later indictment of Goldman’s writing as being full of “distractions” and having the effect of being trapped in a maze (122), suggests some self-awareness on Buckley’s part, and his early barrage (again, very Wallace-like) may, again, serve some kind of conscious structural purpose. Yet, these early overcrowded sections may prove too overwhelming for less-dedicated readers to stomach.
While Scale is perhaps not not an outstanding novel, it undeniably succeeds as a proof of concept. That Buckley was able to produce and publish the book is a monumental achievement in itself and, for all its flaws, it’s a more than adequate debut. So far, Buckley’s greatest weakness as a writer seems to be his reluctance to branch outside of the expected. Hopefully, the more original premise of Watch allows him to better flex his literary muscles and elevate his writing career beyond the realm of mere curiosity.
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Scale and Watch are both out now, through Rare Bird Books. All page references are taken from the 2015 paperback edition.