Rock music has always had a kinship with violence, from Jerry Lee Lewis’s flaming piano to the pantomimed gun deaths in Childish Gambino’s recent “This Is America” video. Many a concert has turned bloody, and many a player suffered an untimely death.
The earliest victim might be Johnny Ace (“Pledging My Love”), cut down on Christmas 1954 by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The disturbing yet deeply involving new novel by Jeff Jackson, “Destroy All Monsters,” is dedicated, in part, to Ace, and he’s described as “the ghost that haunts rock and roll” — though he gets more and more company as Jackson’s apocalyptic vision unfolds.
As “the epidemic” begins, “bands were being shot in the middle of their performances all across the country.” The carnage erupts on the opening pages and threatens to continue throughout. Yet Jackson keeps us wondering how the horror will go down. Once or twice the ugly business feels a tad familiar, but far more often the author delivers canny surprises. One suspicious package, for instance, turns out to hold 45s, rather than a .45.
Importantly, the violence isn’t political. The novel isn’t cautionary like “The Handmaid’s Tale”; rather, its rampages could be punk-rock. The killers weasel around security the same way anyone else would, and, if they survive the melee, they linger on the crime scene “with serene and unshifting eyes.” Authorities can’t discern any clear motive, though the perpetrators all seem to be “obeying the same subconscious marching orders.”
If anyone achieves deeper understanding, it’s a handful of youngsters in one of the small cities visited by the killing. Despite the paradisiacal name, Arcadia is another scrap of discarded America, the shops downtown “little more than darkened shells.” Still, the place claims a music scene. The main characters are part of a fledgling band: Shaun and Florian (whose real name provides another element of intrigue), plus the ethereal Xenie.
Then there’s the band’s manager, Eddie — or is it Edie? This fourth figure provides crucial support after two murders and does so in two genders, thanks to the text’s most radical gambit. “Monsters” includes its own alternative version, a novella featuring the same widespread massacres and bereaved young Arcadians, but with the latter playing different roles. This “B Side” reads in the opposite direction as the “A”; it requires you turn the book over as you would a record. Both titles are gloomy — “My Dark Ages” and “Kill City” — yet the whole has a playful quality. Each story upends the other.
A mere gimmick in lesser hands, Jackson’s twice-told tales — like his sleuthing subjects — “each absorb and expand the narrative.” In particular, a recurring image of trompe-l’oeil deer, their painted heads seeming to emerge from a wall, comes to suggest both the slaughtered innocents and the power of art — keeping the dead before us, challenging us to live better. Questions concerning art hang over everything no matter which direction you’re reading, including a veiled reference to Vladimir Nabokov, who was always fascinated with aesthetics. The most thoughtful explanation of what spurred the epidemic has to do with artistic quality.
“These bands are poisoning something that used to be meaningful,” Xenie says. “Nobody wants to talk about any connection between the bands that have been targeted . . . but most of them have been terrible. I’m not so sure that’s a coincidence.”
Still, I don’t mean to suggest that this novel is a blood-soaked whimsy, Rock Critics Gone Wild! Xenie’s insight isn’t the final piece of the puzzle but rather helps reveal her depth, as she and Eddie (male version) slog through the woods on a mission for a murdered friend. Poorly equipped yet trying to do right, they generate the sympathy that imbues all these nightmares.
Jackson recognizes that Xenie and the others are themselves American scrap. In their neighborhoods, an outdoor light “secretes a gauzy malarial glow.” Their families, what remains of them, offer little better; when Florian’s estranged father attempts reconciliation, he touches the reader’s heart but not his boy’s.
As for their chosen art form, even their wildest musical ideas — at one point, they play a show nude — fail to free them from their stunted lives. Even the ecstatic promise of rock winds up another delusion, a monster that someone ought to destroy. Small wonder that the one song that matters most to both of Jackson’s flamboyant yet subtle tales is that scorched-earth anthem, “Ring of Fire.”
John Domini will publish his fourth novel, “The Color Inside a Melon,” in 2019.
By Jeff Jackson
FSG Originals. 384 pp. $16.