This novel comes complete with a fearsome assemblage of endorsements from luminaries and would-be luminaries; clearly its publisher is extremely confident of its importance. Most of the blurbs touch on the author's intimate understanding of the milieu of rock 'n' roll, and on his profound musical perceptions. As far as this goes, it is true.
All too often a beautifully written novel about musicians, full of exquisite detail and rich characterization, is marred by blissful auctorial ignorance. You'll coast through such a book, impressed by the characters' depth and ravished by the prose style, and then you'll come to the music: the concert, the composer jotting down the notes, whatever . . . and then you'll suddenly be subjected to a barrage of wishy-washy emotive phrases that say nothing about what the music is actually like. One just can't fake all those technical details, and most don't even try. But Eric K. Goodman is clearly not faking, and he has written a novel diametrically opposed to this pattern. Instead of an insightful novel blighted by musical illiteracy, he has produced an illiterate novel redeemed by its musical insights. This in itself makes "Jenny Hall" something of an oddity, and therefore perhaps worthy of attention.
The narrator, a young songwriter named Potts, has yet to get his big break and is getting worried about already becoming obsolete when he runs across Jenny Hall, a brilliant singer, in a bar. The plot, such as it is, chronicles their tempestuous love story and their eventual emergence into the limelight after the cruel vicissitudes of nasty recording contracts, infighting among the band, sibling rivalry (Jenny's brother is a performer rendered dinosaurian by the passing of the '60s), the constant consumption of cocaine, and various sexual conflicts. The action escalates in a series of increasingly implausible coincidences and ever more torrid soap opera emotions to its predictable climax and denouement.
Yet the author's musical expertise is admirable. When the hero sits down to play or describes Jenny Hall's singing, the narrative suddenly acquires credibility. Potts plays an eight-bar break, "a little schlocky, you know, first generation," and you can hear the very notes. When they talk of music, or when they express that romantic yearning for the '60s that many of us share, the cardboard seems to peel away from the characters a bit. But then they're shunted right back into the mechanical plot line.
If the plot were the only thing wrong, it would be a more or less acceptable novel. Alas, there is a far worse problem: the author's seeming inability to harness the English language for more than a few sentences at a time. Oh, it starts harmlessly enough. But on the third page, I encountered the sentence "Her lips ignited in a smile," and this telling imprecision was the beginning of the end. By page 100, I was coming across such wonders as: "Or continue to sit, teeth knitted, breath ragged, fingers clenched so tightly the car was filled with vaporized steering wheel?"
After a few experiments in the driver's seat with a pair of knitting needles, I came to the conclusion that the protagonists of the novel must be extraterrestrials. Only this could explain these curious anatomical contortions, not to mention how the heroine manages to undergo, let alone survive, her spontaneous combustion on the third page. Perhaps it is the author's contention that these egregious metaphors constitute colorful, punchy writing; if so, it should be pointed out that the purpose of such imagery is to prod the reader into visualizing things more clearly, not to confuse him.
Most annoying of all, this is a novel that appears to promise a gritty, harsh, earthy look at the realities of the recording industry, yet finally comes across as a riches-to-more-riches tale of cloyingly bourgeois sensibilities. In the end, the reader finds himself victim of a bait-and-switch scam. After the author's dire blandishments about the perils and evils of the industry, commercialism and bittersweet love all triumph in a stunningly bathetic climax.
Between the insulin shock of its plot line and the unintentional surrealisms of its prose, there is little here to justify Morrow's fancy packaging. But if skeptical about the book, I remain impressed by the author's handling of its musical themes, and can only wish that he had concentrated his energies on a work of nonfiction about rock in the '70s rather than this awkward novel.