Reviewing a novel about the music industry that is based on real life begs for a pun about the roman a clef, but I have a more pointed play to make: When writing such a novel, do as the romans do.
"The Day the Music Died" is a black singer's look back in anger at the recording industry of the late '50s and early '60s. Sonny Knight, here writing under his real name, Joseph C. Smith, has spread the fiction too thinly in some places and too thickly in others.
This is the Harold Robbins style of sociosexual, money-talks fiction: A half-dozen characters from around the country are linked, and contribute to each other's (a) enormous success; (b) deep-seated neuroses; (c) physical collapse; (d) addiction or nymphomania; (e) all of the above.
When writing about people he understands -- as opposed to those he underestimates -- Smith is fascinating. But as Hemingway pointed out about Fitzgerald, the problem with a half-real persona is that everyone is the product of his own history: You can't copy a person's background and then make him act any old way you like.
Smith falls down where he underestimates. The more ludicrous stereotypes -- the redneck country music mogul, the passing-for-while call girl, the crooked New York Jew -- detract from the convincing characters, and the good-guy-bad-guy dichotomy seems to follow racial lines. (This might be valid, given the history of the music industry, but it tends to distract the reader.)
The author has a real ax to grind: that the white recording industry stole and copied black music, underpaid black performers and musicians and otherwise cut them out of a substantial pie; and his conviction strengthens his prose -- when he sticks to the subject. But then there's the pop fiction filler, the unenticing sex scenes, the overblown description, and such pompous clunkers as this: "Within days, the complex machinery that had been set up to operate Arrow Records began to rumble beneath the foundations of the industry like the inchoateness of a giant earthquake."
Smith's memory for detail is often his saving grace: "The house was in a decaying black neighborhood on the Westside, buried between the noisy Lake Street elevated line and the old Illinois Central railroad yard. . . . lThe front had crumbled, and someone had jacked it up and stuffed flat, ill-fitting stones underneath it, to keep it from falling over completely. The yard was dirt, no grass at all, not even weeds. But neatly swept, the way black people used to do in the South to make their places look a little better for company."
There are some other good things in the book. The country music mogul leaps to the top in one marathon morning, bribing 11 of the most influential disc jockeys in the country in less than three hours (he has fur coats, women, Cadillacs, etc., each handpicked for the recipient, delivered in person while he's on the phone long-distance). The black producer-hustler, reminiscent of Motown founder Berry Gordy, pulls together a network of "brother" record buyers to break the white barrier. The slimy Paulie Schultz affords Smith two hilarious pages on mastering the basics of Hollywood.
Smith's biggest mistake may be his title. Thanks to Don McLean, that phrase is almost always linked to Buddy Holly; and if there's another possible reference, it's to Altamont, site of the disastrous Rolling Stones concert where a man was killed below the stage. What Smith apparently sees as the "death" of the rock 'n' roll industry is the explosion of the Beatles era, and that just doesn't make sense.