Rock and Roll novels aren’t exactly a dime a dozen in Canadian literature, but after inhaling Ray Robertson’s Moody Food over the last week or so I’m beginning to wonder why. In fact, after finishing the last page of this roller-coaster ride of a book, I was struck by a rather odd conundrum: how on Earth could a novel like Whale Music by Paul Quarrington, a rock and roll novel that I found daft and obvious and missing a core sense of seriousness, go on to win a Governor General’s Award, while Moody Food, which is richer, funnier, more profound and better written, just sort of slipped off the charts without much notice? Call me crazy, but I think the critics really dropped the ball on that one.
Moody Food is set in the 1960s and tells the story of Bill Hansen, an earnest young man living in Toronto’s (at the time) hippy-infested Yorkville neighbourhood, who finds himself roped into the rock and roll lifestyle by the mysterious and alluring Thomas Graham (loosely based on musician Gram Parsons). Together with Bill’s girlfriend Christine, another girl named Heather, and a witless on-again-off-again alcoholic named Slippery Bannister, Bill and Thomas form the alt-country musical group The Duckhead Secret Society. The novel details the band’s rise and fall – from playing in a sketchy dive in east-end Toronto and signing on with an excitable record producer from the United States to their maniacal tour of bars and taverns in heartland U.S.A. and their ultimate meltdown during a show in Los Angeles. Along the way, we see all of the tropes of a quintessential rock and roll story: Bill and Thomas unbraiding over their dependence on increasingly stronger narcotics (a real rainbow spectrum, actually – from the groovy green of marijuana to the soul-graying shoot-ups of heroin); the band squabbling over their creative direction; and more than a couple of free-love infidelities.
This really should be the kind of novel a guy like me poo-poos, a novel ready to fall victim to cardboard characters, predictable plot twists and mewling nostalgia. But oh man, Robertson would have absolutely none of it. This guy writes within an insane sort of zest, a deep love for the freedom of a blank page, and with a dedicated attempt to renounce dullness with every sentence. The whole believability and forward momentum of Moody Food hinges on Bill’s voice and character, our sense of who he is both morally and personality-wise – and Robertson absolutely nails it. He is relentless in getting this story out and pointing to both the humour and the sadness contained within.
One of this book’s great strengths is that Robertson, who was born in 1966, is able to write about the sixties without sentimentalizing it, without succumbing to a sort of Baby Boomer exceptionalism in the mind of his protagonist. He gives us Bill and Bill’s era, warts and all. He captures the unwashed energy of Yorkville at the time, but also alludes to the impenetrably posh neighbourhood it would become. He weaves in the hits of the day as a kind of background music in the novel without making them feel exploitative or tacked on. And he places The Duckhead Secret Society in context with the greater rock milieu of the time; there is even a wholly believable run-in at one point with Jim Morrison and The Doors.
I shutter to think how much research and effort it would have taken Robertson to build this novel from the ground up and make it feel like a part of rock and roll history, but he has done so admirably. The moments of comedy in Moody Food are well-balanced with the moments of seriousness. And I don’t say this about many novels, but this one truly did linger with me long after I finished the last page. Bravo.