I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay by Toby Litt
This mordant, ticklish and addictive novel tracks, over twenty-six stories, the Canadian rock phenomenon okay (italics, lower-case) from its garage-band beginnings to global stadium-filling behemoth. The adventures of Crab the drummer (and articulate narrator), Syph the singer, Mono the bassist and Clap the guitarist take in both mainstream and indie chapters in the life-cycle of many a U2-sized band – the deranged groupie, the loneliness of the long-distance tour, the Spinal Tap follies – but this is a sober spoof, truer than most samples of the bespoofed. Unexpected themes creep up – marriage and paternity, spiritual thirst in a secular age, the costs of experience. More so than other fictions set in the shark-pool of the music business, such as Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet or Iain Bank’s Espedair Street, Litt persuades this reader that okay and its music are non-fictional entities. (A discography and a ‘Where are they now?’ is included.) Yards of rock-star (and pop-sparkler) memoir have been ingested by way of research, but their common weaknesses are reversed: where most rock memoirs are poorly written, Litt is a seeker – and often enough, a finder – of the perfect sentence; where the real thing often grows tedious in its final third, I play drums never outstays its welcome.
In one charming late story, the narrator fails to walk up to his adored Leonard Cohen’s front door (“nerves like I was going to puke through my arse and shit out my nose”) but receives in the mail a touching letter from the great man himself; in another, the middle-aged, meditating Clap is confronted by his bolshy teenage self, and their exchange is one of the book’s – and its authors – most beautiful dialogues. Band-mates Syph, Mono and Clap begin as sketches and one-liners but become, by degrees, men graced by subtleties and shaded by plausible contradictions. The stories comprising I play drums were written over a number of years, and in the best of ways, this slow formation shows: Clap the Younger is a passive recorder of events, but as successes and failures batter him, he becomes more perceptive. Ordinarily, this could be called inconsistency of style and presents a problem, but in I play drums it is a sort of PowerPoint presentation, illustrating what is for me the narrative’s covert theme: maturity, and lifelong coming into focus of the self. The temptation to view Clap’s development as parallel to Litt’s evolution as a writer is strong: Clap writing about music often resembles a novelist of similar years writing about writing.
When describing Toby Litt’s work, I find myself fumbling with clutches of adjectives rarely useable in reference to the same writer. His novel deadkidsongs was not so much ‘compelling’ as ‘enslaving’. ReadySteadyBook might be the place to confess that one scene in Litt’s previous novel Hospital – anyone who reads it will know which one – was so visceral it actually made me vomit, which was a first. Yet Litt’s writing can also be glacial, cerebral and pointedly intimate (Ghost Story). And funny, too: I play drums was responsible for half a dozen spasms of laughter so severe that my wife had to come downstairs to check on me. The adjectives for this novel that remain with me, however, are tender and wise. Neat work, Clap. Tsk-boom.