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Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 8 comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes

April 29, 2015 11 comments

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes. (2002). Not available in English (unfortunately)

Despentes_teen_spiritThis is my second Despentes after Apocalypse Bébé. (available in English, this one) and before Vernon Subutex, her latest opus which is sitting on my shelf.

Bruno is thirty, living with his girlfriend and doing nothing. He’s unable to leave the apartment, out of agoraphobia. He watches TV, smokes pot, hopes to write something one of these days. One day, Alice, his former girlfriend from high school barges into his life and tells him she was pregnant when she left him. So Bruno has a daughter, Nancy, who’s thirteen. Nancy has always lived with her mother, thinking her father was dead and when she discovered by chance that he was actually alive, she wanted to meet him. And she made her mother’s life a living hell, so Alice caved. Bruno is rather shocked by the news but is willing enough to meet his daughter. Nancy enters his life and their budding relationship will help them both.

This sound like a nice little novel with hearts and flowers, you could almost smell roses from the loveliness of the description. Except you’re in a book by Virginie Despentes. So it doesn’t smell like roses but it Smells Like Teen Spirit. Virginie Despentes loves rock music and it permeates through her literature.

Bruno is the narrator of the story and he has a bit of a Peter Pan syndrome. He’s depressed because he doesn’t want to grow up. He has to give up some of his dreams, leave behind his self with the rock attitude to adjust to the world of adults. He’s still grieving the loss of his illusions but he needs to turn the page and move on. Before Alice and Nancy, he was hiding away. Alice made him go out of the apartment to meet her, he couldn’t tell her about his phobia, so he pushed himself. She was the catalyst he needed. Her difficulty to raise Nancy leaves some space for him in Nancy’s life; she wanted to get to know him and Alice welcomes any help she can have with her daughter.

Virginie Despentes captured very well the hesitation of adolescence, like here, in her description of Nancy:

Deux versions d’elle-même se disputaient dans un seul corps. Entre la montre Kitty et le bracelet clouté, elle n’avait pas encore choisi son camp. Two versions of herself were fighting in one body. Between the Kitty watch and the studded leather bracelet, she hadn’t picked her side yet.

Sometimes, Nancy sounds like she’s the adult. Between Bruno whose paternity make him accept to cross the bridge between adolescence and adulthood and Alice who struggles to keep sane, she seems the most grounded of the three.

Despentes also captured well the emotions brewing in Bruno. When I wrote about Apocalyse Bébé, I compared Virginie Despentes to Michel Houellebecq, saying why I thought she captured our world better than him. When I read Teen Spirit, I wondered it was a response to Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles. Indeed, in this novel written by Houellebecq in 1998 one of the main characters is also named Bruno. He’s as much as a loser as this Bruno and also someone who doesn’t want to grow up. Bruno by Despentes is less self-centered than Bruno by Houellebecq. He doesn’t know how to be a father and as he’s not totally an adult, he manages to communicate with Nancy, with slight touches, with hesitation and feeling his way along. The book was written in 2002, Bruno is 30, so he was born in 1972. Houellebecq’s Bruno belongs to the babyboom generation, like his creator. Despentes’ Bruno belongs to the Generation X. In my opinion, this is the first generation of men fully involved in raising children along women. (at least in France) This is the generation of men who change diapers, don’t think that a stroller cramps their style and get up at night when kids are sick. It makes sense that our Bruno in Teen Spirit doesn’t reject Nancy and makes effort to get to know her. This Bruno has accepted this society made of unemployment, consumerism and lives with it, even if he doesn’t approve of it.

Despentes seems to have more faith in individuals than Houellebecq even if both writers share a dark vision of our society. Alice comes from a wealthy family and Bruno is poor. Spending time with her father, Nancy goes out of her protective shell. She discovers Paris on foot and Bruno shares his concerns about money. I heard Virginie Despentes talk about her work. She said she wants her book to show how violent our society is. She doesn’t mean “violent” in a sense of riots and physical threats. She points out the violence of a society with high unemployment, sometimes pressure in the work place and too much interest in consuming.

I liked Teen Spirit a lot. It’s fairly optimistic and I’m not sure it reflects Virginie Despentes’ other books. I enjoy her punchy style, her take on the French society, her insolence, her rejection of political correctness. She rocks!

Find another short review by Marina Sofia, here

 

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