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Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way is Charles' debut novel, and though it centers itself on a scenario common enough still exhibits avenues for a potentially great story. The scenario - middle-class white kid who grows up listening to punk rock is feeling burdened by girl troubles, exploitation of the underground music scene, and his parents' divorce - has been revisited in various styles for decades and, in the hands of a Dave Eggers or Chuck Palahniuk, or maybe even a Zach Braff, can still yield wonderfully poignant and comic stories. Charles dances around with the plot's potential but never falls into a comfortable rhythm.
One of the most interesting things about the story is its topicality now, when relating the events of more than a decade ago. The book's protagonist, Vim Sweeney, has graduated high school, is flirting with unemployment after becoming disillusioned with his dishwashing career, and has fallen in love just when things are about to click with his band, the Judy Lumpers. That band name is so 1992, but Vim's situation could easily be echoed today - a recession is gripping the economy, there's a war in Iraq, and the outlook is generally pretty bleak. On top of all that, Vim's love interest happens to be a vamp attached to one of his band mates. The pieces are all there, but Charles doesn't really run with them. The girl, Trudy, seems to come around to Vim quickly, albeit with the requisite gritty and embarrassing wee-hour standoffs in a trailer park. The banter about specific bands and who was where when Nirvana came to town seems a bit pandering to the book's target audience (check the excellent cover art by Jay Ryan [LAS feature]) and the father figure dilemma split between a caring/absentee dad and a benign/live-in step dad is too obvious and even then stretched thin as a foil for Vim's ethical musings.
Even as things play out, Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way is most frustrating because its not terribly original story could have easily been saved with some taught writing. But rather than stitch everything together Charles seems to hesitate in his writing, his words snagged on the fence strung by Kerouac. Things jump around too much and the dialogue isn't so much playful as it is unrefined. Even when trying to settle his cadence to deliver more intimate details, the prose is awkward: "I awaken in the dark with hands on my head, fingers in my hair, and my heart grabs. The windows and blinds are open. A broad patch of moonlight falls across the bed."
Trying as hard as it does for a direct hit on so many fronts, Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way lands somewhere in the hinterlands between the classical American autobiography of youth - it wants to be blue-collar poetics - and edgy new-wave niche fiction. Some passages are revealing but are generally rushed to their disclosures by clunky dialog, and although not all teens converse like those on Dawson's Creek there's something to be said for imbuing characters with a sense of intelligence. Charles paints Vim, Trudy, and everyone else as dim simpletons that might be full of feelings but seem to lack any real emotional core. The book's lightness isn't helped by the printed structure, which follows a chapter of a few thousand words with a dozen chapters lasting no more than a few lines each, and is designed to project a fast read. Though not a text to be avoided at all costs, the result is a book that is too fluffy to be worth explicitly seeking out for anyone not considering getting the band back together. SEE ALSO: www.noslander.com
SEE ALSO: www.harpercollins.com
SEE ALSO: www.thebirdmachine.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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