Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Estranged New World

In her second novel, Pagan Kennedy dives into Boston's incestuous music scene

By Chris Wright

JULY 6, 1998: 

THE EXES, by Pagan Kennedy. Simon and Schuster, 203 pages, $23.

At first glance, Pagan Kennedy's latest novel looks like your quintessential teenage rock-and-roll fantasy -- and in many respects it is. The Exes revolves around four Boston rock musicians -- Hank, Lilly, Shaz, and Walt -- who find themselves on the verge of hitting the big time. But as befits our image-crazed age, their band's ascendancy is due less to musicianship than to natty self-promotion, a good line in on-stage patter, and a refined sense of gimmickry.

The chief gimmick is that the group is called the Exes, and each member of the band has had a sexual relationship with at least one other member. It's Lilly -- the hyperactive, hypersensitive, hypertrendy self-described "Promo Girl" -- who comes up with the idea after her breakup with Hank. If the two can't get along as lovers, she'd like to give it a try as bandmates, and she's thought of a way to distinguish the band from the droves of indie rockers on the market. All they need to do is find another suitable candidate or two -- not difficult in Boston's incestuous music circles -- and they're off. So begins a sexy, witty, giddy romp through the local alternative-music scene.

Kennedy -- who admits to having once been in a cheesy rock band herself -- is clearly familiar with her material. Indeed, a major perk of The Exes -- for local readers at least -- is the intrigue of being taken on a guided tour of the local music scene, of having someone in the know lead us through the clubs and record shops of this vibrant subculture. Kennedy introduces us to the throng of shaggy bangs and piercings and tattooed forearms lurking in the shadows. It's a bit like being put on the guest list, albeit without the free beer.

What elevates Kennedy's book above puerile wishful thinking -- what makes it worth reading for anybody over the age of 22 -- is the way it immerses us in the scene even as it allows us to stand back and examine the proceedings. Kennedy gives us more than just a voyeuristic gander at the drives and desires of twenty-something pop-star wanna-bes. In unearthing the complex and often painful psychic effects these dreams of stardom have on each of her well-formed characters, she offers us some real insight into human nature, at least as it manifests itself in the young and the restless.

If we're not too lost in our own heady thoughts of standing with a guitar before an adoring crowd, we become increasingly engaged by the inner lives of the players as the book progresses: Walt, the guitarist and self-styled guru of the band, who seeks to compensate for his own artistic shortcomings by discovering talent in others; Lilly, the attention-seeking, reassurance-craving front woman who just wants to be a star at any cost; Shaz, the bisexual Pakistani bass player who is terrified that fame will compromise her independence; and Walt, the drummer, a brainy, slightly disturbed Harvard dropout who doesn't really know what he wants.

The swirl of personalities contributes to a sense of energy-bordering-on-chaos that's heightened by the book's structure. Kennedy weaves all the clashing and cavorting into a four-part narrative in which each band member gets an opportunity to present things from his or her perspective -- a solo, as it were. Meanwhile, like a master record producer, she mixes the four distinct voices into a kind of skewed harmony.

On top of all this there is, of course, the sexual and emotional confusion that arises when four ex-lovers work so closely together. Kennedy handles this web of conflict with skill and subtlety, clarifying things for the readers while leaving her characters fumbling in the dark. And so the perfect teenage fantasy becomes increasingly muddied by passion, ambition, loyalty, dishonesty, and downright dementedness. Welcome to the real world, kids.


Chris Wright is the assistant editor of Stuff@Night.


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