After three excellent novels of historical fiction (Speaks the Nightbird, The Queen of Bedlam and Mr. Slaughter), Robert McCammon returns to a contemporary setting with his new novel The Five (out now from Subterranean Press). It’s a story that mixes suspense and a hint of the supernatural with McCammon’s strong character work and unabashed love of rock ‘n roll, and it may very well be the best thing he’s written since the classic Boy’s Life.
The Five is a struggling rock band grinding its way through another endless tour of the Southwest. It’s a delicate time for them. On one hand, they’re poised to rise to a new level of success – they’ve just released a new music video and they’ve got some high-profile spots lined up on the tour. On the other hand, they’re this close to falling apart – their long-time manager is contemplating a new business opportunity, and one of the band members is considering an exit of his own. It’s an interesting internal struggle that I imagine a lot of on-the-fringe bands deal with – how much do you invest in a dream before turning your back on it for a sure thing?
As if things weren’t difficult enough, there’s a man on The Five’s horizon who is about to make all of their dreams come true, although in a manner far different than anything they ever imagined or ever wanted. Jeremy Pett is a damaged man, a veteran of the Iraq war who came home physically unscathed but mentally unbalanced. As a sniper he was invaluable in the field, but the types of skills he learned in the military don’t translate to anything useful once his time of service is done. He’s a man adrift, his only purpose in life revolving around weekly visits to friend who was seriously injured in the war. It’s not long before that isn’t enough to sustain him, and Pett is on the verge of taking his own life when he happens to catch The Five’s new video, a confrontational piece which the fallen soldier perceives as a personal attack on him, his country and his fellow soldiers. With that, he’s got a new purpose in life, and it’s not long before he has the members of The Five in his crosshairs.
Pett’s attacks bring new attention to The Five, gaining them the kind of immediate fame that had continued to elude them through years of touring and playing. It’s just one of many interesting conflicts McCammon sets up – how do you enjoy the success you’ve been seeking when it’s paid for in the blood of your friends?
The answer is that they don’t, not really, although they can’t seem to stop moving forward even as Pett chips away at the group. Part of the motivation lies in helping the authorites catch Pett; part of it lies in honoring the memory of those who fall victim to Pett’s attacks; and part of it lies in the fact that they’ve worked so hard to get this far, and it’s hard to let go. It’s a credit to McCammon’s work here that, even as they continue to play gig after gig in the shadow of Pett’s actions, you never once doubt that, in the same situation, you’d do the same.
It’s also a credit to McCammon that, despite never (as far as I know) having worked as a touring musician, he seems to have tapped into that unique little world perfectly. I’ve also never been on tour, but I’ve read enough about musicians and their lives on the road to recognize that the author has hit it pretty close to home.
Musician or not, McCammon is an artist, and in The Five’s struggles you can see him venting a little of his own frustration about the way commerce and art bump heads. McCammon once walked away from publishing altogether because publishers refused to let him stretch his legs beyond the types of horror stories he first made a name with, and The Five’s interactions with the head of their record label, a man who tells them there is a line between art and commerce that they are not supposed to cross, seem to be a mirror of that exact situation. Thankfully, McCammon held true to his feelings, fought his way out of that box, and is now making art for us again.
The Five is the assured, confident work of a man who has climbed back to the top of his game. It’s tight and suspenseful, and yet manages to take long sidetrips into the histories of the characters that don’t detract from the action, but instead enhance it. This is the kind of book you get lost in; the type of story that you’ll find yourself reflecting on long after you finished it, wondering what those characters are up to now. Do yourself a favor and pick it up today.