The members of a music band in 1967 London navigate the era's parties, drugs and politics as well as their own egos and tragedies while exploring transformative perspectives about youth, art and fame. By the award-winning author of Cloud Atlas.
David Mitchell is the author of the novels Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House. Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 2018 he won the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence.
*Starred Review* Metafiction master Mitchell's readers can be excused if they greet a new novel by this unalloyed genius with both goose-pimply anticipation and trepidation over meeting the challenge. Not to worry. Utopia Avenue, while leaving behind neither the complexity nor the genre-bending pyrotechnics of The Bone Clocks (2014), is by far the most accessible of Mitchell's broad-canvas novels. This addictive Big Gulp of a narrative not only delivers a compelling and multitextured look at the 1960s, but it also could be the best novel about a rock band since Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). Mitchell evokes the psychedelic age with a bravura mix of telling details and richly composed portraits of iconic figures (Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and more). At the heart of the story, though, is the British band itself, Utopia Avenue: singer and guitarist Elf Holloway, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet (descended from the titular character in Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), bassist Dean Moss, and drummer Griff Griffin. Mitchell masterfully builds each of the four into top-of-the-marquee characters, subtly mixing coming-of-age portraits (including one particularly moving long walk out of the closet) with revealing glimpses of inner lives-notably the demons inside Jasper's head, which must be exorcised by Marinus from The Bone Clocks. Reality, Mitchell reminds us, is a nuanced, paradoxical, shifting. So, too, is Utopia Avenue. It's a foot-tapping ode to rock music, but, like the band in full cry-smashing the end of a song into drummed, pounded, twanged molecules-Mitchell continues to use the rhythms of surface reality to dig much deeper, but without ever losing the beat. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.
Noted novelist Mitchell returns with a gritty, richly detailed fable from rock's golden age. There's no time-hopping, apart from a brief epilogue set in the present, or elegant experiments in genre-busting in Mitchell's latest novel, his first since Slade House (2015). Oh, there are a couple of winking references to Cloud Atlas (2004), which here takes the form of "overlapping solos for piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin," and ace rock 'n' roll guitarist Jasper de Zoet is eventually revealed to descend from the eponymous hero of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). Mostly, though, we're on realistic ground not seen since Black Swan Green (2006), and Mitchell digs deep in his saga of how two top-of-their-form players—de Zoet and ill-fated bassist Dean Moss—recruit an unlikely keyboardist and singer in the form of an ethereal folkie named Elf Holloway, who goes electric and joins them in a band that Jasper deems "Pavonine....Magpie-minded. Subterranean." The usual stuff of rock dramas—the ego clashes, the drugs, the hangers-on, an d record-company parasites—is all there, but Mitchell, who wasn't born when Utopia Avenue's putative first album was released, knows exactly which real-life musicians to seed into the story: There's Gene Clark of The Byrds, for example, who admires a guitar figure of Jasper's ("So that's an F major seventh?...I call it 'F Demented' "). Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Jackson Browne, and Jerry Garcia turn up (as does, decades later, the brilliant band Talk Talk, acknowledging a debt to the Utopians). There's even a highly learned if tossed-aside reference to how the Stones' album Let It Bleed earned its name. Bone spurs and all, it's realistic indeed and just the thing for pop music fans of a bygone era that's still very much with us. Those whose musical tastes end in the early 1970s—and literary tastes are up to the minute—will especially enjoy Mitchell's yarn. Copyright Kirkus 2020 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Dean hurries past the phoenix theatre, dodges a blind man in dark glasses, steps onto Charing Cross Road to overtake a slow-­moving woman and pram, leaps a grimy puddle, and swerves into Denmark Street where he skids on a sheet of black ice. His feet fly up. He&;s in the air long enough to see the gutter and sky swap places and to think, This&;ll bloody hurt, before the pavement slams his ribs, kneecap, and ankle. It bloody hurts. Nobody stops to help him up. Bloody London. A bewhiskered stockbroker type in a bowler hat smirks at the long-­haired lout&;s misfortune and is gone. Dean gets to his feet, gingerly, ignoring the throbs of pain, praying that nothing&;s broken. Mr. Craxi doesn&;t do sick pay. His wrists and hands are working, at least. The money. He checks that his bankbook with its precious cargo of ten five-­pound notes is safe in his coat pocket. All&;s well. He hobbles along. He recognizes Rick &;One Take&; Wakeman in the window of the Gioconda café across the street. Dean wishes he could join Rick for a cuppa, a smoke, and a chat about session work, but Friday morning is rent-­paying morning, and Mrs. Nevitt is waiting in her parlor like a giant spider. Dean&;s cutting it fine this week, even by his standards. Ray&;s bank order only arrived yesterday, and the queue to cash it just now took forty minutes, so he pushes on, past Lynch & Lupton&;s Music Publishers, where Mr. Lynch told Dean all his songs were shit, except the few that were drivel. Past Alf Cummings Music Management, where Alf Cummings put his podgy hand on Dean&;s inner thigh and murmured, &;We both know what I can do for you, you beautiful bastard; the question is, What will you do for me?,&; and past Fungus Hut Studios, where Dean was due to record a demo with Battleship Potemkin before the band booted him out.
&;HELP, please, I&;m&;­&; A red-­faced man grabs Dean&;s collar and grunts, &;I&;m&;­&; He doubles over in agony. &;It&;s killing me . . .&;
&;All right mate, sit down on the step here. Where&;s it hurt?&;
Spit dribbles from the man&;s twisted mouth. &;Chest . . .&;
&;&;S okay, we&;ll, uh . . . get yer help.&; He looks around, but people rush by with collars up, caps down, and eyes averted.
The man whimpers and leans into Dean. &;Aaa-­aaaggh.&;
&;Mate, I think yer need an ambulance, so&;­&;
&;What seems to be the problem?&; The new arrival is Dean&;s age, has short hair and a sensible duffel coat. He loosens the collapsed man&;s tie and peers into his eyes. &;I say, my name&;s Hopkins. I&;m a doctor. Nod if you understand me, sir.&;
The man grimaces, gasps, and manages to nod, once.
&;Good.&; Hopkins turns to Dean. &;Is the gentleman your father?&;
&;Nah, I never seen him till now. His chest hurts, he said.&;
&;Chest, is it?&; Hopkins removes a glove and presses his hand against a vein in the man&;s neck. &;Highly arrhythmic. Sir? I believe you&;re having a heart attack.&;
The man&;s eyes widen; fresh pain scrunches them up.
&;The café&;s got a phone,&; says Dean. &;I&;ll call nine-­nine-­nine.&;
&;It&;ll never arrive in time,&; says Hopkins. &;The traffic&;s blue bloody murder on Charing Cross Road, do you happen to know Frith Street?&;
&;Yeah, I do&;­and there&;s a clinic, up by Soho Square.&;
&;Exactly. Run there as fast as you can, tell them a chap&;s having a heart attack outside the tobacconist on Denmark Street and that Dr. Hopkins needs a stretcher team, pronto. Got all that?&;
Hopkins, Denmark Street, stretcher. &;Got it.&;
&;Good man. I&;ll stay here to administer first aid. Now run like the bloody clappers. This poor devil&;s depending on you.&;
Dean jogs across Charing Cross Road, into Manette Street, past Foyles bookshop, and through the short alley under the Pillars of Hercules pub. His body has forgotten the pain of his fall just now. He passes dustmen tipping bins into a rubbish van on Greek Street, pounds up the middle of the road to Soho Square, where he scares a pool of pigeons into flight, nearly loses his footing a second time as he turns the corner onto Frith Street, and bounds up the steps of the clinic and into a reception area where a porter is reading the Daily Mirror. donald campbell dead, declares the front page. Dean gasps out his message: &;Dr. Hopkins sent me . . . a heart attack on Denmark Street . . . needs a stretcher team, on the double . . .&;
The porter lowers the newspaper. Flakes of pastry cling to his mustache. He looks unconcerned.
&;A man&;s dying,&; states Dean. &;Didn&;t yer hear me?&;
&;&;Course I did. You&;re shouting in my face.&;
&;Then send help! Yer a bloody hospital, aren&;t yer?&;
The porter snorts inwards, deep and hard. &;Withdraw a hefty sum of money from a bank prior to your encounter with this &;Dr. Hopkins,&; did you?&;
&;Yeah. Fifty quid. So?&;
The porter flicks crumbs off his lapel. &;Still in possession of that money, are you, son?&;
&;It&;s here.&; Dean reaches into his coat for his bankbook. It&;s not there. It must be. He tries his other pockets. A trolley squeaks by. A kid&;s bawling his eyes out. &;Shit&;­I must&;ve dropped it on the way over . . .&;
&;Sorry, son. You&;ve been hustled.&;
Dean remembers the man falling against his chest . . . &;No. No. It was a real heart attack. He could hardly stand up.&; He checks his pockets again. The money&;s still missing.
&;It&;s cold comfort,&; says the porter, &;but you&;re our fifth since November. Word&;s got round. Every hospital and clinic in central London has stopped sending stretchers for anyone called Hopkins. It&;s a wild goose chase. There&;s never anyone there.&;
&;But they . . .&; Dean feels nauseous. &;But they . . .&;
&;Are you about to say, &;They didn&;t look like pickpockets&;?&;
Dean was. &;How could he&;ve known I had money on me?&;
&;What&;d you do if you were going fishing for a nice fat wallet?&;
Dean thinks. The bank. &;They watched me make the withdrawal. Then they followed me.&;
The porter takes a bite of sausage roll. &;Hole in one, Sherlock.&;
&;But . . . most o&; that money was to pay for my guitar, and&;­&; Dean remembers Mrs. Nevitt. &;Oh shit. The rest was my rent. How do I pay my rent?&;
&;You could file a report at the cop shop, but don&;t hold your breath. For the Old Bill, Soho&;s surrounded by signs saying, &;Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.&;&;&;
&;My landlady&;s a bloody Nazi. She&;ll turf me out.&;
The porter slurps his tea. &;Tell her you lost it trying to be a Good Samaritan. Maybe she&;ll take pity on you. Who knows?&;
Mrs. Nevitt sits by the tall window. The parlor smells of damp and bacon fat. The fireplace looks boarded up. The landlady&;s ­ledger is open on her writing bureau. Her knitting needles click and tap. A chandelier, forever unlit, hangs from the ceiling. The wall­paper&;s once-­floral pattern has sunk into a jungle gloom. Photographs of Mrs. Nevitt&;s three dead husbands glower from their gilt frames. &;Morning, Mrs. Nevitt.&;
&;Barely, Mr. Moss.&;
&;Yeah, well, uh . . .&; Dean&;s throat is dry. &;I&;ve been robbed.&;
The knitting needles stop. &;How very unfortunate.&;
&;Not half. I got out my rent money, but two pickpockets did me over on Denmark Street. They must&;ve seen me cash my bank order and followed me. Daylight robbery. Literally.&;
&;My my my. What a turn-­up.&;
She thinks I&;m spinning her a yarn, thinks Dean.
&;More&;s the pity,&; Mrs. Nevitt continues, &;you didn&;t persevere at Bretton&;s, the Royal Printers. That was a proper position. In a respectable part of town. No &;muggings&; in Mayfair.&;
Bretton&;s was indentured cocksuckery, thinks Dean. &;Like I told yer, Mrs. Nevitt, Bretton&;s didn&;t work out.&;
&;No concern of mine, I&;m sure. My concern is rent. Am I to take it you want more time to pay?&;
Dean relaxes, a little. &;Honest, I&;d be ever so grateful.&;