The novel “Pepperland” considered

(Since this post, which was written in January 2010,  Pepperland, you’ll be happy to know, is now finished.  It rocks. Release date: May 21, 2013.)

So the review copy of Barry Wightman’s still unfinished novel of the intersection of rock ‘n roll, technology and love, Pepperland, showed up on my groaningly chaotic desk, tossed there by my boss who growled something like take a look at this thing would ya? He wandered away across the newsroom with a bottle of Wild Turkey, an old school bourbon and water, ice clinking in his glass. The man’s been insufferable lately, moaning about how all this new technology—blogs, digital text, the death of newspapers, plunging ad revenues and the demise of books, mere future kindling for the fire—how they are going to be the death of him.  I sighed and looked at the weird psychedelic cover of Pepperland, did a quick flip through and thought—oh, oh, here comes another self-indulgent and screwy tale of music, mayhem, magic and footnotes.   I was right.  So I found an old 8-track tape—Yes’ Close to the Edge—stuck it in the ancient stereo and read this endearing oddball novel.

As seems to be typical with Wightman, Pepperland is a thinly veiled stylistic throwback to the writings of a few old hipster writers from mid-20th century America, when writers were effortlessly subversive, dangerous and yet somehow hopeful amidst the, dare I say, entropy of the day. Thomas Pynchon and Jack Kerouac come to mind.  Like Pynchon, of whom Wightman is a mere imitative, plodding hack wannabe, his interests and plots are all over the map—music, technology, history and the shifting sands of generational politics.  Like Kerouac, his prose tries hard to be musical, rhythmic and melodic, carrying the reader along on impossibly long howling sentences that somehow do usually end up making some sort of sense—at least if we consider what we come to know of the mind of Pepperland’s narrator, the sweetly tempered yet oddly passive 24 year-old rock ‘n roller of 1974, Martin Alan “Pepper” Porter.  Sometimes though when the reader is immersed in the thickets of Wightman’s habitual and beloved dashes and lunatic long lines with no comforting periods in sight I found myself thinking maybe he could go further and lose some of those damn commas and semi-colons and like Kerouac or Ginsberg let the prose flow wild free and uninhibited with crazy exploding sentences like a deep American river flooding the black dirt bottomland and just go for it why not go furthur just like Kesey’s psychedelic school bus maybe it could work maybe it could I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know and yet I think we may be all bozos on this bus it’s still too early to tell.[1]

(Q: Do you think it could work?

A: Hey man, you gotta believe.”)

The tale is not a downer.  There is a perpetual hopefulness and some might say liberal optimism in the face of the dark days when the Sixties ended and a new, as yet unknown and undefined era began to slowly dawn.  Perhaps as yet another attempt to signal his card-carrying Boomer status, Wightman’s use of what some refer to as magical realism (pass the joint, man)—among other things talking crows and the weird recurring presence of the Dark Stranger, a spectral spirit who (I won’t spoil it here) may or may not be Pepper’s long-lost little brother, works mostly.  Readers will likely be charmed by Pepper’s voice and will buy into it and go along, though your mileage may vary—younger readers brought up on hard-core fictional realism may toss the book aside as yet another example of old-folks novelistic claptrap.

Though the plot is as broad and capacious as its setting in Chicago and the flat landscapes of the Midwest, it’s about as deep and flimsy as Dustbowl topsoil in 1935 Oklahoma.  Time and time again we want to go deeper into Pepper’s head, go further and find out what he’s really thinking about the glamorous and mysterious ex-radical girlfriend Sooz or we want him to go out and make something happen rather than him being a perpetual skinny and bent antenna that seems to be stuck in receive rather than in proactive transmit mode.  But then again, maybe Wightman is just as confused and wussy as Pepper Porter.  Maybe he too is still poring over the map of the strange terrain of Pepperland, still looking for clues, still looking for direction home.

“The 151 bus runs north on Michigan Avenue…”

[1] Ref: The Firesign Theatre’s album of hip comedy and social media commentary, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, 1974.

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6 Responses to “The novel “Pepperland” considered”

  1. Barbara says:

    So when do I get a read on this Pepperland??

  2. Great post, thanks. I’ve enjoyed your blog for quite awhile and I should comment more.

  3. bmwvcfa says:

    Thanks much Carroll…appreciate it.

  4. Barbara says:

    Pepper needs a Jill………..

  5. bmwvcfa says:

    Oh, but Sooz is wondrous and he’s enthralled…however she does make him a little nervous. He’s never known anyone like her…