Book Review

NBT_4blueNEXT BIG THING. 

A novel by Terry Kitchen. 

Urban Campfire Press. 256 pages. Paperback.

Review by Francis DiMenno

I am tempted to make a travesty of this book by pointing out how very much it resembles an identikit of a standard “conflicted rock star” story. It occurs to me, however, that simply making a dignified list of what I do not like about the book could very well serve the same purpose in a somewhat more professional fashion.

I suppose I should start with what I find ingenious about the book, just so the whole enterprise of reviewing isn’t merely an excuse to wallow in negativity – which would make me sound merely bitter, instead of prescient. Okay, so the fast forward/reward format of the chronology—shuffling the action from the early 1980s to the mid 1980s—is, indeed, effective. Okay, so there are a lot of specific details about the Boston scene during that particular era, which evoke a Pavlovian nostalgic response. Okay, so it’s nice to name-check the thinly disguised pseudonyms for well-known bands and locales of that era.

But I am still faced with a dilemma. I take no joy in critiquing a book into which obviously a great deal of hard work has been poured. If this were some merely shoddy first draft exercise issued as a vanity publication, it would be a good deal easier–and less paralyzingly guilt-inducing—to slough off. On the other hand, I despise people who avoid giving bad reviews—not out of compassion (although that’s bad enough) but for ignoble purposes. For example, that it wouldn’t be judicious to double cross a local celebrity. Or that an honest review might draw down a shit storm of dispraise upon one’s own pretensions from the creator’s legions of influential friends and allies. Or that one’s own reputation as a grouch and a cynic would be encased in amber by publishing such a review.

And so, in spite of the caveats listed above, here, in no specific order, are the problems I have with this novel. 1) The narrator, Mark Zodiac, is not particularly likable. In fact, I have hardly any real sense of him as an individual at all – just a vague impression of him as a person of definite likes and dislikes; of joys and gripes. But these do not add up to a well-rounded portrayal. Nor is there, it seems, any real development of the character over time, unless jaded cynicism as a default mode is a viable personality trait rather than a over-used fictive trope. 2) The narrator’s girlfriends do not seem to be well-rounded characters in their own right or even to exist as anything other than an opportunity for the narrator to indulge his libido or moon around complaining about his sad and broken heart. 3) I have read many thinly-disguised memoirs in the form of a novel in which the narrator and the author are clearly one and the same person. In nearly every case, this begs the question of why one bothered to write the book as fiction at all. 4) The concerns of the narrator seem narrow and petty, and the narrative itself seems to be little more than the intimate diary of an incurable rock star-cum-Solipsist. There is craft in the delineation, but I am hard-pressed to find very much at all in the way of art. 5) Now we turn to the question of milieu. The author leans far too heavily upon name-checking certain local institutions and thinly disguising others without bothering to explain to the non-insider anything at all regarding the significance of, say, The Rat, or In Your Ear. Name-checking with hardly any concrete description whatsoever is a rather lazy way to go about the business of establishing a sense of locale. 6) The most devastating question of all: what is this novel ultimately about? The plot trajectory concerns the splendors and miseries of the rock star manque. Is there any aspect of this story, as it is related, which gives the reader any fresh insight into concerns such as the star making machinery, the clash of egos between performers, the travails of a touring entertainer’s life–or anything at all? I failed to find any.

The 10-song CD, Songs from Next Big Thing features various tracks of what you might call pastiche pop-rock, with elements of balladry, New Romantics-style percussive tumescence, and country rock; followed soon after by more balladry, an introspective love song, low-key white boy funk, a piano ballad, a catchy but faintly ludicrous semi-psychedelic jam called “Get Out of My Novel,” and the soppy but elegiac and resonant “Ghosts of Kenmore Square.” Various Loose Ties and solo Kitchen tracks comprise the songs, which do not add to the ambiance of the story in any significant way, and which therefore come across as an afterthought rather than an integral companion piece to the novel.

I was glad to have read the book. Parts of it were instructive in ways which I believe I have already explicated. But I believe that, as a novel, it is, at best, mediocre.

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