Desert Isle Keeper
Utopia Avenue is one part Backbeat, two more of the bracing whimsical wit of A Hard Day’s Night, several parts Head-like support of social upheaval and psychedelics, with maybe a skosh of That Thing You Do! thrown in. The rest is the story – detailing the struggles and joys of the titular psych-rock band that David Mitchell’s latest novel concerns itself with – is entirely itself, kitchen-sink real and fanciful in alternating measures.
The members of Utopia Avenue could not be more different from one another. It’s 1966 and the book’s main narrator, Dean Moss, is a sleep-around bassist obsessed with the blues whose day gig at a coffee shop leads to him meeting Levon Frankland, a man looking to put together a band. It’s Levon who brings together Dean and sad-souled Elf Holloway, a refugee of the folk circuit and a keyboard player and lead singer dealing both with period-typical sexism and a break-up with her ex-bandmate-and-romantic-partner. She soon becomes Utopia Avenue’s leader and steers its musical direction. They’re joined by guitar wiz Jasper de Zoet (descendent of the hero of a previous Mitchell novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), who struggles with schizophrenia and suicidal ideation which he hides from the band (his mental illness is portrayed in a harrowingly realistic way), and Griff Griffin, the jocular, confident drummer.
Together, the band struggles its way through creating several albums and several hits, one of which propels them to international stardom. But soon the band pulls itself apart thanks to unjust drug charges and further personal tragedy. In the end, who will be left standing?
The best and worst parts of Utopia Avenue can be explained by simply gesturing to Mitchell’s previous books and saying ‘well’. If you don’t like his long-at-the-pen, cheeky, mind-bending and yet out-there musings, you won’t enjoy this book. But I found the entire package pretty enchanting, a good portrait of the sixties rock scene as viewed by a group of struggling working-class musicians who make it modestly big.
All of the characters are likable. Elf was the center of the book for me, but Dean was also incredibly amusing, if a little bit selfish. Griff was the only character who felt underwritten, and indeed ended up in the background for most of the novel’s long (quite long – the book approaches 600 pages, and I wasn’t kidding about Mitchell’s longherrea) journey. Jasper’s chapters felt as if I’d been let into Keith Moon’s mind and asked to sit a spell. Together, they clash and fall in love and make messy connections. They’re endearing, in a not-quite-Jefferson-Airplane way
There’s a lot of wonderfully well-detailed technique work here; Mitchell takes you into the songwriting process and helps you to understand what it takes to make beautiful music.
The end of the book sort of falls apart as we’re treated to a few pages of an acid trip gone very wrong, but that doesn’t really detract from the grade. Utopia Avenue’s endearing characters and wonderful storyline will be transportive and hopefully transformative for the reader.