Book of the week : The Thrill Of It All - Joseph O’Connor

This is a book for anyone who has ever dreamt of being a rock star. It is the eighth novel from Dublin-born author Joseph O’Connor, whose previous work includes the critically acclaimed Star Of the Sea, Redemption Falls and Ghost Light

The book takes the form of a fictional autobiography, that of Robbie Goulding, a Luton-born second-generation Irish guitarist with Ships in the Night. They are the kind of mongrel arty rock band who could only have hit big in the 1980s, a cultural interzone where punk had fragmented and cheesecloth “rockist” stalwarts still rubbed shoulders with new romantics and pop theorists. It was also a time when pop stars had attitude and political teeth, when musicians aspired to something more than a career in the leisure industry, and when music had a function other than as an advertising jingle or ringtone loop

While the band do achieve moderate success along the way, they never quite reach the lofty heights they desire. Whenever they rise they are pulled back down to earth by niggling rifts and differing priorities

At its heart The Thrill Of It All is a classic rock and roll novel with age-old themes of hopes and dreams, friendship and loyalty

Except The Thrill Of It All is a darker tale than it first appears. This is apostolic fiction, Robbie’s testimony for his teenage glimmer twin and songwriting pal Fran Mulvey, a Vietnamese refugee raised in Thatcher’s Britain. You’ll recognise Fran immediately: gifted, self-destructive, eloquent, androgynous, outrageous, a Velvet Goldmine urchin with Richey Manic’s IQ, Morrissey’s gob and Peter Perrett’s poise:

“He was beautiful even then, before he’d grown into his beauty, scrawny and kissable, like some teenagers are, a ragged organza scarf around his throat on a wintry morning, a Judy Garland bonnet on his head. In all my life I never encountered a thinner individual. You’d have seen more fat on a chip . . . On his long slim fingers were profusions of rings, scavengings from the junk shops of the town. He turned the pages of a book as though someone was watching, which most of the time someone was. There was an oldness about him. His eyes were cold lakes”

Throughout, the Ships are the architects of their own setbacks: they botch crucial opportunities and lose their way in downtown New York sleaze before a five-star New York Times review provides a long-overdue catalyst (a wistful nod to the times when print press could break a band). But even as they are about to go global their spirits are corroded by the kind of on-the-road institutionalisation - travel, hotel, soundcheck, gig, booze, drugs - that ruins musicians. These are all standard tropes of the rock biog, but such cliches are true: the workmanlike guitarist will always butt heads with the charismatic pain-in-the-arse lead singer, and the troubled Byronic bohemian seems fated to transform himself into a litigious capitalist. And, in the end, bands always seem to row over the oldest one in the book: publishing money

The book shows its true soul in the last act. By 2012 Fran has become a Prince-like recluse and professional philanthropist. The other three Ships plot a reunion show. Here the story reveals itself as a tribute to the enduring comradeship of musicians. All families are dysfunctional, the book seems to say, and musicians are more dysfunctional than most, but they still forge fellowships that last a lifetime, and mean something

Nostalgic in its portrayal of the raw passion of rock and roll band, this will certainly make you hark back to a time before the charts were filled with manufactured bands

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