Chinaski – Frances Vick

Carl Howell died at a quarter to two on a sunny afternoon three days before the plumber broke down the door. He wore jeans and a t-shirt with future tour dates printed on the back. He had one Converse trainer on and the other was lying at the foot of the bed.

Carl Howell is the lead singer of Chinaski, a band with a loyal following on the verge of being huge. There’s no suicide note or clear reason for his death. At the beginning of the novel news of his death is conveyed to a number of people – his band mate, Peter; the journalist who was instrumental in their success, Chris Harris, and his ex-girlfriend, Lydia. It’s Lydia we follow first as she deals with news of Carl’s death and we begin to discover who Carl was.

Five years since they met; three since they broke up; eighteen months since they slept together; a year since that terrible time she saw him with the girl; the same since they last spoke. But times, dates, meant nothing, it was all arbitrary, because they were connected in a way that no-one could possibly understand…Was it something she relied on? Oh Christ, more than anything! Years ago she had shifted all her ideas about her future, her sense of identity, onto Project Carl. It became her role to overcome his past, whip up his confidence, promote his ambitions, shape his future.

Lydia tells of the German tour where Chris Harris arrived and forced her out. Of Carl ’phoning her every day and then the calls stopping abruptly. Of getting to know Carl’s family and coaxing this young, shy man out of his shell.

But when the viewpoint switches to Peter, Carl’s school friend and band mate, we get a different picture of Carl. Now he’s a young man with a troubled past, a violent father and an interesting array of older friends who tires of Lydia fairly quickly.

And then there’s the journalist, Chris Harris. He appears to care for the band but really only cares about his own career. It’s his four-page spread headlined ‘Chinaski Syndrome’ that propels them to a major label contract:

Live pictures of Carl, his backlit hair fanning out like a halo, hands from the crowd grabbing and plucking at him; strobed shots of stagedivers; a few phrases in bold print, ‘…golden fissures of pure sound…a landmark in brutal beauty…rapturous meltdown of rock…squeezing your heart like a loved up boa constrictor…’

 Vick examines the myths that surround bands. She looks particularly at those tortured young men that front ‘indie’ bands and are worshipped and revered by male and female fans alike. She considers what anyone can ever know about another person, the role the media play in the success of a band and what a band might owe their fans. Although Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are mentioned as a band on the circuit at the same time as Chinaski, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between the two bands and lead singers.

The novel’s bookended by scenes at Carl’s grandmother flat. He’s lived with her on-and-off during his teenage years and it’s where his body’s found. Unfortunately, these are the weakest scenes in the book. The first is a confusion of temporal markers which takes several readings to make sense of and the final one is unnecessary; I don’t think anything is added to the story by us knowing how Carl died.

However, what’s most interesting about Chinaski is the way to explores how a lead singer is created; the mythology which surrounds them and pervades their relationships with others. If you’re a music fan, particularly if you’re old enough to have queued outside a record shop to buy an album on the day of release or spent hours on the ‘phone repeatedly redialling to buy tickets for a gig, then this is an interesting and enjoyable read.


Thanks to Cillian Press for the review copy.


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