Thomas Hauck’s novel Pistonheadaddresses the ambitions and lifestyles of the young. Set in contemporary Boston, the story focuses on Charlie Sinclair, a 24-year old aspiring musician who works as a temp on an assembly line during the days to make ends meet. He’s recently broken up with his girlfriend; she was cheating on him with another guy anyway. He lives in a mouse-infested studio apartment in Back Bay that is being sold to Boston University. During the course of the novel, which takes place over about a week, almost every aspect of Charlie’s life disintegrates, and he is forced to re-evaluate what is important to him.
The novel opens in a dreary music club, The Big Ditch Club, on a Thursday night as the Pistonhead quartet gets ready for a show. The band’s front man and the Keith Richards to Charlie’s Mick Jagger (or the other way around), Rip Taylor, is missing just before the band is about to go on. The reason is that he’s scoring drugs. Eventually Rip appears before the club manager takes drastic action, but the scene highlights the essential tragedy that is about to happen in the story. Pistonhead has a successful show nevertheless that fosters its hopes of slugging it out among the local aspiring bands to achieve relative success as an act. “Success” surely means being able to quit their daytime jobs.
The contrast between the go-go night life and the workaday 9-to-5 world is not as great as one might suspect: both are ultimately gritty affairs involving struggle.
The next day Charlie is back at his temp job assembling video packages, working on a minimal amount of sleep. The contrast between the go-go night life and the workaday 9-to-5 world is not as great as one might suspect: both are ultimately gritty affairs involving struggle. In both situations, Charlie demonstrates that he is a responsible person.
Charlie struggles with the question of who he is and who people take him to be. He suspects he’s an ordinary musician, no Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix. The only thing he’s got going for himself is persistence. This, indeed, is the very definition of a “pistonhead.” (“I keep going and going. I bang my head and never stop.”) The girls that fall for his rock star persona don’t appeal to him. He feels like a fraud when they take him for a glamorous showman.
In the midst of the grimness and decay in the novel there are a number of truly hilarious scenes. One involves a groupie who enlists Charlie for sex in the service of a video she is making of her face while having an orgasm – “The Wave of Bliss.” Another occurs when he visits his mother in Beverly one Sunday, as a dutiful son, and his brother-in-law asks him on the q.t. about all the sex he must be getting as a “rock star.” In this chapter, Charlie is also shocked to learn his mother has a new boyfriend: yet another aspect of his life seems to be crumbling. The kids in his hometown think he is putting on airs, trying to be “famous.”
Once Rip dies in a classic rock-star drug overdose, the whole house of cards begins to collapse. The band breaks up, Charlie’s job ends, he is injured, hospitalized. What can go wrong does go wrong.
Pistonhead is reminiscent of Jay McInerney's debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, in that it deals with confused youth looking for some personal sense of meaning in the distracting world of clubland where hearts are broken as casually as a cigarette stubbed in an ashtray.
But because he is truly a pistonhead, Charlie turns a corner in his life. For one thing he seems to have found a satisfying, mature relationship with a woman, Lisa, with whom he’d worked at Evergreen Software. He also comes to terms with who he is, as a musician and a person trying to fulfill himself in the world. The novel ends on a positive note, Charlie singing his own music in a subway station, Lisa there for him.
Charlie is a likable, decent person, and the reader sympathizes with him all the way, wanting him to succeed professionally and romantically.
The writing is clear, and, like Charlie himself, the prose works in an unadorned way to do its job, tell its story. Indeed, some of the description is a little too detailed, as when Hauck describes the assembly line work in excruciatingly boring detail. It could be that this is to show the reader just exactly how “ordinary” the glamorous rock star really is, but whatever the case the description is deadening, and then, just when you’ve been beaten over the head with the cartons and the stickers and the shrink-wrap machine, Hauck launches into a disquisition on “ergonomics,” one of those tedious workplace words, like “flextime” or “telecommuting,” not only parsing its etymological derivation but citing its first usage by the philosopher Wojciech Jastrzebowski in 1857. Whoa!
But thankfully this attention detail is generally put to good service. We follow Charlie’s movements on the mass transit line and at the funeral of his friend in minute steps that serve to clarify the picture. This kind of detail works wonderfully in the descriptions of the band at work. In one chapter Pistonhead opens for an Alice Cooper-like act called Lizzie Bordan and the description of the band at work, the audience, the venue, the dealings with the manager, the people who book acts, road crew, etc., is vivid and interesting, just as it was in the description of events at The Big Ditch Club.
The novel’s subdued but hopeful ending is at once believable and satisfying. Pistonhead is reminiscent of Jay McInerney’s debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, in that it deals with confused youth looking for some personal sense of meaning in the distracting world of clubland where hearts are broken as casually as a cigarette stubbed in an ashtray. It’s a good read that deserves an audience.