Anything Goes

Anything Goes

5.0 2
by Madison Smartt Bell

The only taste of life Jesse has known in his twenty years is bitter: his mother disappeared before he could talk, his father never got over being left, and Jesse’s presence seems only to kindle his father’s anger. Jesse’s talent is for music, which has given him a livelihood and a home as a bass player in a bar band called Anything Goes. Band


The only taste of life Jesse has known in his twenty years is bitter: his mother disappeared before he could talk, his father never got over being left, and Jesse’s presence seems only to kindle his father’s anger. Jesse’s talent is for music, which has given him a livelihood and a home as a bass player in a bar band called Anything Goes. Band life offers the opportunity for the dregs of experience (hangovers, mildewed hotel rooms), and the antics of his band mates (all of them older than he is; some of them wiser, some not) offer more schooling in hard knocks.

Anything Goes tells Jesse’s story over the course of a year, during which he finds his life slowly being tempered by the unexpected: by a dad who wants to make up and be part of Jesse’s life; by a female lead singer who suddenly makes the band sound a lot better than they have any right to be; and by the confidence Jesse begins to feel in his own musical talent.

A complete departure from the sweeping historical vision of Madison Smartt Bell’s Haitian novels and the gritty cynicism of his intense urban dramas, Anything Goes confirms Bell as one of the most versatile, most gifted, most surprising novelists of his generation.

Editorial Reviews

James Sullivan
Plenty of novels have been written about the rock & roll lifestyle. Precious few have worked well. Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street is an example of one that did. Camden Joy's outlandish Boy Island is another. But Bell's Anything Goes is not. An exceptional writer on race relations and a National Book Award finalist for the novel All Souls' Rising, Bell has written a dismayingly pedestrian account of a twenty-one-year-old musician and his unlikely band mates. Jesse is falling in and out of trouble with young women at every tour stop, trying to repair a shattered relationship with a once-abusive father and secretly hoping to slip some of his original songs into his band's typical repertoire of covers. As with most workaday bar bands, there is little here that will get the audience out of its seat. Written in the methodically twangy voice of the main character, the book reads like a long-forgotten draft that Bell dragged down from the attic in search of his own youth.
Publishers Weekly
Here is clear evidence, in case there are any doubts, that Bell is an astoundingly versatile writer. A complete change in theme and tone from his dramatic sagas of Caribbean society (All Souls' Rising, etc.) and his fiction about domestic dislocation (The Year of Silence, etc.), Bell's newest novel captures the essence of inexperienced youth in the voice of Jesse Melungeon, a 20-year-old traveling with a bar band across the South. The novel rolls along meaningfully, from one misadventure to another, and the wisdom it imparts at its end is both hard-earned and easy to take. Jesse's band is verging on decline until Estelle, a salty girl with a strong voice, transforms its image. The band changes its face even more when three of its members drop out"one in anger, two because of legal trouble. By the end of the novel, Jesse has become a more skilled musician and leader, and the band begins a slow climb toward national credibility. Jesse's Southern malapropisms roll off his tongue quite believably"as they should, given that in the past, Bell has brought to life both urban youths and children from other centuries with ease. Bell is also skillful at the telling detail: one character's crooked smile, another character's hangdog look. At moments, the book goes a little too far in its character nuances"after building a mystical aura around the band's leader, Bell has him tame a possibly poisonous snake. However, the book's parts meld magically into a poignant, driving love poem to music, the end of adolescence, and the road. (July 1) FYI: Many of the lyrics credited to fictional characters in this book were written by Wyn Cooper to music by Bell himself. They can be heard on the latter's Web site, listed in the acknowledgments. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When the first two words in Granta-celebrated author Bell's book are "Kurt Cobain," you know you're in uncharted territory. Bell's new work has neither the sweep of his historical narratives (e.g., Master of the Crossroads) nor the inner-city grit of his Baltimore books (Ten Indians), but it has something better - a truly raucous and celebratory spirit. In the opening pages, Cobain's not dead yet - he's offering guitar advice to Jesse, the uneducated but ultraverbal bassist (and sometimes singer) for a band that plays Black Dogs (that is, bars, pubs, clubs, and honky-tonks) throughout the South. Band boss Perry is a control-freak snake handler, the lead singer is a preliterate, sexy single mother, and when the prefeminist lead player exits in an explosive huff, he's replaced by a truly virtuoso and even more prefeminist "dog." Oh, yeah, and then there's Sweet Lorraine (the look-back to Country Joe McDonald truly ain't accidental, folks!). All this adds up to one of the best rock road books of all times. Buy it. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/02.] - Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 8.53(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Kurt Cobain was teaching me how to play "Lithium." One of two songs off that record I ever liked well enough to care to learn it. How the changes were just so brutally stupid, like they went out of their way to pick the exact wrong chords. The funny thing was I was playing guitar. Kurt was explaining to me–you got to keep it rough. Which it seems like rough was built into the chord progression anyway but maybe it wasn't quite so simple as I thought. So he was reaching for the guitar to show me what he meant but somehow the guitar sort of went tilting away from both of us and that's how I woke up.

The girl was up. That's what it was. She was so pretty. Getting her clothes. Kind of a sack dress with some discreet little flower print on it, she was just now diving into. When her arms came out of the sleeves, I touched her on the elbow, to slow her down–I didn't necessarily want her to come back to me but she didn't need to feel so rushed. She shied away from my hand, eyes spinning white like the eyes of a spooked horse, and I wanted to call her name, like you might with a horse to quieten it, bring it back to itself, only I couldn't just then think what it was. She'd turned her face away from me, toward the other bed, and when she saw the smear of snarled hair and snoring across the pillows there she snapped her head back in the other direction, dropping it so her hair swung in her face. Straight black hair as glossy as a grackle's wing, just long enough to graze her collarbones where they showed out of the V of that thin cotton dress. Long enough it hid her face. She turned around toward the door, stuffing something in her purse, her bra. I saw our faces swimming together in the mirror for a second, in the dim green water light that came through the curtain from outside.

What time was it? Daylight slapped my head when she snatched the door open, a red hot hammer opening my headache up a little wider. I was still hearing the "Lithium" run in my head, that awkward shift over G-flat, D-flat to A. And at some point I must have jumped into my jeans because there I was blinking in the motel parking lot, barefoot and bare-chested but at least with my pants on. What motel was it, anyway? This bright daylight was just messing me up even more.

"Hey," I said to her, "hold up–" And she did stop to face me for a second, barefoot too, holding her Doc Martens in the other hand from the purse. The clunky shoes looked cute because they were so little.

"Let me take you to breakfast anyway," I said. Smile felt dry and cracking on my face. "Something . . ."

"I gotta go." She dropped her head again so the black hair swung, such a sweet movement, but I knew I shouldn't touch her. She would be thinking that people might be watching us from behind the curtains on all three sides of the motel courtyard. I was looking down on the part in her hair, which was kind of unusual because I'm pretty small myself. Then following her as she stalked across the asphalt, which was soft and hot already–must be pretty late.

"Let me give you a ride somewhere?" The name, Karen, Sharon . . . Damn it. She glanced back.

"I got my car I gotta go." Without a pause. Now she was in it too, red VW Rabbit, shying away from her own face in the rearview mirror and then adjusting it to drive. I was moving up to tap on the window but she just flashed me a quick unhappy smile through the glass and almost ran my bare toes over, peeling out of there.

I waved at her tailpipe, kind of limp. Oh well.

Ocean City, that's where we were. Been there for a three-week run so it ought not to been such a trick to remember. Older motel of the type Perry favored. They got more character, he would say, then Chris would go, sarcastic, Yeah, and a whole lot cheaper too.

In a way they both were right. Somebody'd planted roses around to pretty it up and there was a fresh-painted metal spring rocker by the door of every room. But when you got inside, the bathroom was mildewed and the beds all sagged in the middle–matter of fact, we had kept rolling together in the swag of my bed, which I really thought was kind of nice, and we even woke up and did it once again before morning. So what was her hurry? Unless that had been a dream too.

Daylight changes your mind about it all, maybe. I don't know.

The motel was a couple blocks off the beach, but you could smell the salt from there, and I even thought I could hear the ocean except maybe it was just traffic. I went shambling over toward the restaurant, concrete cracked and stubbled with weeds under my bare feet, till I remembered they wouldn't want to serve me without a shirt, maybe not without shoes either. There was quarters enough in my jeans pocket to buy a Coke out of the machine so I did that. Thought I might carry it over to the beach, but when I got to the roadside of the motel the traffic started slicing into my head like a saw blade and I knew on the boardwalk, Saturday morning, it would be like I was trapped in a pinball machine.

So I went back in the motel courtyard and sat on the back bumper of the van, drinking my Coke and partly wishing for a cigarette, partly knowing it would just make me feel worse if I had one. I did wish I had my sunglasses, for sure. And "Lithium" still slamming in time to my hangover. Cobain was right, I thought then, I'd been trying to pretty it up, soften it and sweeten up a melody, when what it really needed to do was just pound.

I crumpled up the empty can and headed back toward the room, thinking I'd like to actually try playing the song. Trick was I didn't have a guitar along this whole trip, because I joined Perry's band as a bass player, but I figured I could borrow one of Chris's. I didn't have my key when I felt my pocket but as it happened the door wasn't locked. I might have been in there as long as a minute before it registered that Chris and his girl had woke up and were going at it again. Maybe they didn't know I was in there or maybe they did and didn't care or maybe they did and they liked the idea. I felt a kind of weight drop down from under the waist button of my jeans, and that sick anticipation in the back of my throat, and in one way I wanted to sit down and watch or join in or whatever–do the absolute worst that was in me. Then I caught sight of myself in the mirror again so I just grabbed my sunglasses and a shirt and went back out.

Chris had snagged his usual big-blond-hair babe, looked like she had just stepped out of a Playboy centerfold or at least would be willing to step into one. Last night I remembered her in this tiny white leather miniskirt and a fringy top that showed off her belly button and at the same time more or less jammed her tits in your face. The fringe had colored beads that whipped around while she danced. My girl, meanwhile, her little friend, had been a good deal more subdued. The granny dress with the Docs clashing against it–and socks with a little pom-pom if I remembered right. Not so much makeup. She wore black lipstick and black nail polish–on her toes too. But that was all. And she danced the Deadhead way, like something swinging from a hook. Eyes mostly closed in that slow dreamy sway like she was high on something or more likely wanted you to think so. Definitely she was dancing by herself, not like Big Blondie, whose dance routine was just as plainly meant to catch the eye of everybody in the room. They'd been coming in every couple nights for about ten days, with a gang of some other women and a few guys too, but nobody really paired off or anything.

Sunglasses helped, but I wished I'd took the time to hook some aspirins out of the bottle in the bathroom back there. I crossed the soft asphalt of the parking lot again, still barefoot, buttoning up my shirt and letting the tails swing loose. Ought to be enough to get me into the motel restaurant, where I could charge, because I still hadn't picked up any money either.

I caught sight of my face again in the glass of the door as I pulled it toward me, heavy on its pressure hinge. That was the face she would have seen, without the sunglasses obviously. Black hair like hers with a little wave, slicked back with the natural oil to frame big long-lashed eyes, Bambi eyes, like the girls would say. Small gold circle through the right ear and the eyes molten in my olive face. The dark skin would have made her take me for some kind of Latino like a lot of people did. It was the soft eyes and long lashes that made the face too pretty for a man. Pretty boy, like my father used to say, leading up to another beat-down or coming off of one or maybe sometimes in the middle. I known it without him telling me, since my first teens. Same for me as for a good-looking woman, I thought sometimes–it would get you attention all right only half the time it was attention you didn't want. And the Big Blondie types always wanted to mother me, press me into the space between their Playmate breasts, but I didn't want that. Fact of it was, I never met my mother.

Inside, I went toward where Perry was sitting at a table by himself, hearing the door puff shut on the pressure hinge behind me. I was at that point on the hangover curve where everything was just too loud, that door hinge and crockery banging and the waitress hollering to the cook and people clanging their knives and forks together–even though it really was quiet enough in there, midmorning lull and only a couple tables full besides the one where Perry was at.

He looked up at me as I pulled back a chair, his eyes pale green under the faded yellow brows. Perry had started out as a redhead, they say, but now all his hair was that washed-out yellow, yellow sprigs of hair covering the freckles on his arms. He had the local paper folded to the funnies beside his plate and he was eating sausage and eggs and grits. Breakfast was Perry's favorite meal, he always said–he'd hunt the places where you can get it twenty-four hours a day. I sat down and pushed back the sunglasses to rub my eyes a minute.

"Having too much fun," Perry said.

"Shut up and give me some aspirin." I pulled the shades back down like a visor–can't say I really liked the light. All of a sudden the waitress was at my elbow.

"Just coffee," I said. "And a large orange juice." She wrote on her pad and went off.

"Didn't work up no appetite last night?" Perry said. Grumbling because he went home by himself, I guess. I waved him off like you would a fly, but Perry wasn't flyweight. He was a solid ten years older than the rest of us and he'd always been the leader of the band.

Coffee hot on my mouth and burning in my throat. I was looking over Perry's shoulder at the traffic going silent on the street beyond the plate-glass window . . . whatever. And when I blinked, I'd see flashes of Chris and Big Blondie working, half under the sheet and half coming out. Was that just now, this morning, or last night? I remembered the time with my girl in the middle of the night when it was quiet and dark but the rest was foggy and I couldn't recall anything at all about when we first had got back to the room.

A click against my saucer and I saw Perry had flipped me his little plastic box of Bayer. He wasn't looking at me now, just folded his paper a new way and started studying Ann Landers. I took three and chased it with the orange juice. Then flicked the box back over to him, pinwheeling over the red flecks in the formica.

"Thanks," I said.

"Anything else?" Perry goes, mock-servile.

"I'd take a cigarette if you got one," I said. Perry shot me over his pack of Camel straights. But it was too early for a smoke, and I was too slung. Almost gagged on the thing when I lit it. Perry forked a link sausage into his mouth and then pushed it partway back out and gave the end a greasy wiggle of his lips.

"Now what does that remind you of?"

I closed my eyes behind the sunglasses, sucking on my cotton mouth, and here came the eyelid movies again, Blondie with Chris and flashes of my girl too. Didn't quite know how to put it all together, if it had been anything weirder or nastier than just the four of us using the same room. I'd always draw the one that didn't usually do that sort of thing, maybe because I didn't either . . . not usually, I mean.

Chris was working on Big Blondie every time we took a break, laying out the flash pickup lines he of course had to go with the loud bright lead lines he laid out on guitar. But you'd be surprised how often Big Blondie turns out to have this little-bit-mousier friend. And some pause in the conversation where she'll turn to me and go, Oh, so you must be the quiet one . . . that's where it usually starts. Karen, Sharon . . . Susan, that was it. There'd been a point, some time at the after-hours place we went with them after our last set, when I started calling her Brown-Eyed Sue. Then she smiled and ducked and swung her hair and maybe even blushed a little. That ice-white skin, not dark like mine. But our eyes were the same color.

Meet the Author

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve previous works of fiction, including Master of the Crossroads; All Souls’ Rising (a National Book Award finalist); Save Me, Joe Louis; Dr. Sleep; and Soldier’s Joy. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Brief Biography

Baltimore, Maryland
Date of Birth:
August 1, 1957
Place of Birth:
Nashville, Tennessee
A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981

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Anything Goes 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a very good interpretation of what it is like to be working in a travelling bar band. Great characters. The main character Jesse is a great guy, I loved him! Really good read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago