BORN IN LONDON in 1945, songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend was, from 1964 to 1983, the leader of The Who, one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful rock 'n' roll bands in the history of the form. Throughout that time, though, he was also exceptionally lucid in prose: in interviews, and in occasional articles on music and religion (he was a follower of Meher Baba), he was clearly drawn to the page. Dave Marsh and Kevin Stein's Book of Rock Lists named Townshend one of the 10 best rock critics; there was no irony in the accolade.
Townshend's great subject has always been adolescence -- to put it another way, the impossibility of growing up. His most famous line remains "Hope I die before I get old" ("My Generation," 1965). But Horse's Neck, Townshend's first book, is not about adolescence, and it's not about rock 'n' roll. This is a set of autobiographical fragments about a life Townshend did not exactly live; that is, it's fiction, an imagined reconstruction of lives he might have lived. As an attempt to make sense, it avoids the gimps of the roman fiction, and the rock novel (pinned like the boxing novel to its one plot, rise-and-fall). Not quite a real book, it is real writing. It's only serious weakness, I think, is Townshend's intimidation before the form he has now chosen to work in. As a writer, he doesn't believe he's as good as he is.
The external structure of the book is corny: short pieces about an innocent, confused childhood framing unresolved tales from a guilty, confused adulthood. The internal structure is not corny. Those snatches set in adolescence are, as narratives, set up as retreats from adulthood; as tales, they point toward betrayals to come. The authority of adolescence -- the postwar adolescent autonomy Townshend explored in the song-cycles Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973) -- is dissolved. It's no facile inversion, wisdom at $12.95: "Hope I get old before I die."
THROUGHOUT Horse's Neck the dialogue is convincing; when it doesn't sound like something one would speak, it sounds like something one would think -- the dialogue one would make up after the fact, mulling it over, fantasizing getting out of a situation without too many losses, l'esprit de l'escalier. Scenes of perversion and degradation are as ugly as they're meant to be, and never too long. Episodes of alcoholism -- a lot of them -- sometimes almost smell, and they seem fished out of an alcoholic's memory hole, details at once preternaturally clear and dubious. Moments of sex are sometimes cold, sometimes untouchable: floating. A teenage musician goes to see a local girl he can't get out of his mind:
"The next day he bought some flowers and went to visit Fiona at her home. She sat down in her front room, but as he tried to get his guitar from its case she closed the lid. Then she stood up and slipped out of her dress."
That's it. That's the whole scene, and it has more charge, more lift, more grace, and more lust in it than all the clumsily detailed, hopefully outrageous sex scenes in the half-dozen novels I've read in the last few weeks.
The narrator in this particular story, "Fish Shop," is a rock journalist, an old friend, present to see "Pete" play and to gather material for a book. Sometimes the rock star in the pages of Horse's Neck speaks in the first person, but it isn't slways necessarily the same rock star -- though he seems consistently to be somewhere in his thirties, a drunk whose ability to think mostly adds to his inability to understand anything. Music is barely mentioned, as if it's irrelevant, just what he does. The action isn't spectacular. In "Tonight's the Night," a musician spends the night with a groupie; she tells him her story, and it's so gruesome that while he believes it, no one else does. As the years go by her tale opens up like a rotting flower; every new petal is more diseased. It's the man's music that has brought the girl to him, that has forged an identity between them, but his music is meaningless before the facts of her life. There's no rise in the rock star's career, and no fall; he gets to where there is to go, that's all.
The longest piece in Horse's Neck is "The Plate," about a detective who becomes so obsessed with the victim of a case he rearranges the facts to fit the story the victim has told, even though she no longer believes the story herself. It may fit into the other tales as a sort of power-fantasy, but before long it takes leave of the book. It becomes a literary xercise in the British black-comedy wasteland currently ruled by the awful Ian McEwan. All it proves is that Townshend can indeed get out of the maze he's built for himself with the mandated ironic twist, the necessary dead fall. It's nicely thrown away, if such a sledge-hammer effect can be thrown away. It's empty, it calls attention to itself in every line -- and makes clear how modestly strong the rest of the book actually is.
For years, now, as a singer making his own solo albums, Townshend has been choking on his own voice; you could hear tension, pressure, but he coudn't do anything with those sounds, couldn't make them into music. That clogged, helpless quality is altogether missing here. Instead Townshend is making up and then getting across new stories, the interest of which does not at all depend on one's previous interest in his work in rock 'n' roll. He's escaped that career, and he's escaped the impervious clich,es of rock fiction as well -- stared them down. Now he can find out what it is he really wants to do, and then, Horse's Neck suggests, he'll do it.