Sometimes we readers find greatness where we least expect it. While I admired and very much enjoyed Toronto writer Ray Robertson's previous novel Heroes (a coming of age novel, set against the backdrop of minor-league hockey in the American mid-West, that is far better than it seems to have any right to be), and made a mental note to keep my eyes open for his future books, I was not prepared for his latest novel, Moody Food. Simply put, it is one of the finest novels I have chanced across this year.
Moody Food is the story of Bill Hansen, a second-year University of Toronto drop-out working in the Making Waves used bookstore in Yorkville (Toronto's version of Haight-Ashbury) in the late summer of 1965. The air of the 'city within a city' is heavy with marijuana smoke and insurgent counter cultural rebellion. His girlfriend Christine is a folk singer, making the rounds of the open mikes and poetry readings, their time together a languorous, stony haze of sex and music.
That stuporous, drifting existence is catalyzed when Bill meets Thomas Graham, an American expatriate dressed in 'white cowboy boots and a red silk shirt... all topped off with a white jacket covered with a sequined pot plant, a couple of sparkling acid cubes, and a pair of woman's breasts.' Graham quickly takes Christine and the non-musical Bill under his wing, enlisting them in his quest to create an 'Interstellar North American Music,' a melange of folk, country, blues, r&b and rock and roll. By the next summer the Duckhead Secret Society (with Bill on drums) is on the road in the United States, headed for the fabled Sunset Strip and an unavoidable collision with pop culture destiny.
Graham is modelled largely on cult icon Gram Parsons, who almost single-handedly created country rock through his involvement with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and his solo work, before his tragic early death and its mysterious aftermath. While Robertson is obviously working within the parameters of the Parsons mythos (he disingenuously notes in the acknowledgements that 'the music of Gram Parsons was an inspiration in the writing of this book'), he is not bound by it, and he fills in the broad outlines with a richness of detail and originality that is staggeringly impressive.
There is much to admire in Moody Food. The novel is filled with a keen wit and emotional robustness, coloured with a gradually building sense of dread (and inevitability, for those familiar with Parsons' story). Robertson has a sure touch with characterization, subtle and unobtrusive. Bill in particular is allowed to unfold and develop in a naturalistic manner. Robertson also manages to vividly evoke times and places -- from Yorkville to the Sunset Strip, from street rallies to southern roadhouses -- he is far too young to remember. It's an impressive achievement.
What elevates Moody Food from the merely good, however, is Robertson's skill at writing about the music. The pat line (attributed to everyone from Thelonius Monk to Frank Zappa) is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's trite but true; no matter how much music theory you have, how gifted you are with descriptive language, it's virtually impossible to recreate the experience of music, the visceral and immediate response one has to a steel guitar or a ragged harmony. Very few full-time music writers are able to do it (Lester Bangs could do it, but he wrote a lot of crap, too). Robertson doesn't merely describe the music from outside. Instead, he enters fully into the flow of the songs, recreating them for the reader with an often heartbreaking clarity and a seeming effortlessness that belies his incredible skill. There are moments in Moody Food that are, quite literally, breathtaking. It's an amazing reading experience, and one which you owe it to yourself to explore.
(This reviewer played Sweetheart of the Rodeo, GP and Grievous Angel almost non-stop while reading Moody Food and writing this review. His wife is considering legal action.)