Review by Lela Michael
As an art critic says to an artist in the 1850 Charles Reade novel Christie Johnstone, “Art is not imitation, but illusion.” In fiction, it’s challenging to tell a story using archetypal themes and characters without descending into cliché. When you tell a story involving rock and roll, this feat becomes even trickier.
William Westhoven, who has covered the performing arts as a journalist since 1989, makes the leap to fiction successfully with his debut novel. He accomplishes this by using a compassionate, humorous narrative voice, interspersing his journalistic observations about the music business with a light enough touch to let the story continue moving.
One-Hit Willie: A Classic Rock Novel opens as a musician consents to an interview on television prior to a reunion tour with his former band. Westhoven hooks us with a mystery: Who is this Willie, what is Aaron hiding, and why should we care about him? To begin answering the latter question, we soon learn Aaron’s previous successes haven’t gone to his head. Amid the chaos created by this on-the-air interview, the Prologue stops as abruptly as it started. From Pearl Harbor through the New Millenium, from Las Vegas to San Francisco by way of Atlantic City and Oceanside, California, the story of this musician’s epic career is then told in chronological order–fifty years and coast-to-coast.
As the plot winds its way through time and place, our protagonist is beset with triumphs and tragedies befitting any guitar hero. In spite of his popularity in Las Vegas, he is forced by circumstances to leave town and change his identity. He lands in San Francisco during the Summer of Love and eventually starts another band, selling millions of records. But as he grows older, he’s more and more the reluctant hero.
Westhoven gives us characters that are types and yet individuals. Aaron’s mother is Winnie Quinn, and while we’ve all met someone like Winnie, we’ve never met this Winnie. There’s a tavern owner named Pappy, a studio engineer called Flash, and a casino named The Full House. The aptly-named characters and places are introduced with lyrical descriptions, such as Las Vegas mobster Pasquale “Patsy” Bucco:
“Patsy was built like a coal furnace. Five-foot-seven, nearly as wide, with a cast-iron stomach inside and out. Shoulders wider than the alley that cut from Division to Elm in his native Chicago. Round biceps the size of coconuts. Knuckles hard as lug nuts.
The characters also come to life through believable dialogue, whether the conversations are long or short. Even more impressive is Westhoven’s use of place to reflect a character’s level of comfort (or discomfort) with their environment, be it New Jersey, or Las Vegas, or San Francisco (my favorite paragraph in the book):
“The recording sessions for the first album by the Victorian Manner were the stuff of legend. Arguments that escalated into fistfights. Clashes of ego that threatened to compromise the San Andreas Fault. Attacks of anxiety, panic and hysteria. Walkouts and tearful reunions that ate up days of studio time.”
Westhoven also knows when to wear his wistful storyteller hat and when to wear his observant journalist hat. The Author’s Note in the back of the book goes into the process Westhoven went through in creating his narrative voice and the personal meaning of the themes arising throughout his carefully woven story.
It bears repeating to say the author takes us to the edge of the stage without falling into a mosh pit of cliché. That I think so much of this novel is the reason I rate the book 4 stars instead of 5. I’d like to see the cover without the blurbs added (front and back); I couldn’t find credits for the front photo or the cover design (both are superb). Additionally, the text needs a quick copy edit to clean up numerous yet easy-to-fix typos.
But don’t let that stop you from getting this book. For a self-published first novel, this is something to be proud of. I’ve known famous musicians and am fairly well-versed in the history of rock and roll, yet found myself chuckling at times, gasping at others, and misting up at the end. Well done, Willie!
I wrote this review for the online magazine Self-Publishing Review. Links to the author’s website and to preview/purchase the book are available there (click on the book cover).
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