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Punk Passion

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'The Exes' cheats readers with a quicky tale of rock-star love

By Jessica Feinstein

WE'LL CALL ourselves the Exes," says Lilly, one of the four voices in Pagan Kennedy's latest novel, The Exes (Simon & Schuster; $22). "And the thing is, we will be exes--everyone in the band will have gone out with someone else in the band."

Hank, Lilly's ex-boyfriend who still has indention marks on his body from sleeping in her art supply- infested bed, wonders what he ever saw in her as a lover, but realizes they have a better, purer kind of connection through music. Now all they need is another ex-couple to fill in on bass and drums.

Enter bass prodigy Shazia, a "good Muslim girl" turned bisexual rock star, and her ex, Walt, a manic- depressive scientist who spends his free time hammering on the walls and working at the post office. This prefab foursome rises to local fame in Boston's musical underground with whip-smart grungy songs about dismemberment and Band-Aids. Lilly leads the band onstage, while Hank acts as manager, evoking more and more resentment within the ranks as the Exes charm college audiences along the East Coast. Each finds love with non-bandmates, but of course there's the inevitable sexual tension on tour and plenty of nasty in-fighting.

Kennedy has separated the story in The Exes into four parts--each character gets a long chapter to move the tale along. At some point in the chapter, its respective character gives the reason for staying close to a former lover: "At this point, we're like family." Unfortunately, while each voice is well crafted with details and background, they all sound relatively the same.

Hank and Lilly come first, but by the time Shazia and Walt have a go at the action, ex-couple No. 1 become less sympathetic rather than more developed. The novel leaves off without truly resolving anything about the band's future, and for its expensive price tag, the reader doesn't get much more than a few hours' worth of story.

That's not to say The Exes isn't entertaining. Kennedy knows her subject--after all, she first rocketed to Gen-X glory by publishing her quirky but deeply hip personal 'zine, Pagan. In Exes, she deftly captures the feel of the punk rock scene with allusions to great bands gone bad and the sights and smells of it all (the heady odor of a freshly unwrapped CD is compared to "sugar dissolved in brake fluid" and "an acid trip coming on"). Lilly's hyperactive megalomania is amusing, and the descriptions of her dreadlocks and striped stockings summon images of every Haight Street wannabe this side of the Mississippi. Shazia proves to be by far the most interesting Ex, as she works to conceal her religious origins from the rest of the band and obscure her own intriguing reasons for not wanting to be famous. Walt gets the short shrift by having to finish up the Exes' story; Kennedy saddles her weakest character with this task while revealing his thoughts last.

The hardest part of succeeding with a multiple-voiced book is not invalidating each version of "reality" with every new character (Russell Banks pulls this off masterfully in The Sweet Hereafter.) The Exes is certainly sexy, with all the pseudo-incestuous affairs designed to titillate cynical 20-something minds. And, c'mon, we all wish we were hip enough to be in an indie band on the brink of stardom. But while Kennedy deftly captures that mood, in the end she leaves a reader wishing she had gotten more for her money.

Book Bits

CHECK OUT the Aug. 2 interview with English playwright Tom Stoppard at 8 p.m. on "A Novel Idea," the on-air book club at KRCB 91.1FM. Host Janine Sternlieb will also host a discussion of Stoppard's play Arcadia. Those who find the playwright's work challenging (or even impenetrable) can call the station at 585-6284 to obtain a reader's guide.

Cooperfield's Books is still booking authors for its fall events schedule, but a sneak peak at the rough draft reveals some exciting names: Gualala writer J. California Cooper will appear Sept. 29 to promote a soon-to-be released novel; former Santa Rosa resident Greg Sarris (author of Watermelon Nights) will appear Oct. 17; and farmer/poet David Mas Masumoto will appear Oct. 19. No word yet about which Copperfield's location will host which authors. This is by no means a complete list: Copperfield's expects the full fall schedule to be available in late August.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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