Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
272 pp., $24.00
Who, in a world now so thoroughly constituted as a consumer culture, is not susceptible to the allures of fame? As Rick Bass's new novel palpably demonstrates, certainly not Maxine Brown. Maxine was (and remains) the oldest of the three siblings that made up the Brown Family, a country music singing group successful in the late 1950s and early '60s. The Browns pumped out a burst of hits that included "The Three Bells," "I Take the Chance," and "Money," and for awhile kept pace with the brightly blazing production of a close friend of the family, one Elvis Presley.
Bass' novelization of the Browns' experiences is not a chronologically ordered, exhaustive retelling of their lives and career as a singing group. Instead, he gives us a series of set pieces that poignantly show the Browns (especially Maxine) in the ascent from poverty in the Arkansas woods to Nashville stardom, and then their abrupt retreat back into comparative obscurity. The book is also a fictional meditation on fame and its cruel vagaries.
The youngest sibling, Bonnie, was never intoxicated by fame and happily departed from it into a vibrant marriage and the quieter joys of gardening that accompanied her into old age. Jim Ed, the male voice spicing the female harmonies of his sisters—in looks, he could have been the twin separated at birth from newsman Sam Donaldson—pursued and established a reasonably successful career as a country music soloist. He is best known for the rollicking jukebox favorite, "Pop a Top."
This left Maxine, who was enthralled by fame and at the tender age of 29 had achieved her peak success. She far more than either of her siblings struggled to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. Bass shows her struggling with fame's departure, bruised by a wretched marriage and later a trying divorce, battling her way into and out of alcoholism. She wonders to this day what her life has meant, with the nagging suspicion it was wasted in the bitter aftertaste of fame.
Bass' set pieces, however true they are to real life, are consistently arresting. The Browns were able to create their smooth and shiny harmonies—which came to be known as "Nashville chrome"—not only because they were siblings. They were the children of a combustible alcoholic father, and as such learned to read together the subtle signals of shifts in his mood and demeanor. They carried this finely tuned intuition into their music-making.
What's more, the Browns' father operated a sawmill. Each day at lunchtime, when sawyers sharpened or "tempered" saw blades, Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie were summoned to the mill. A fully tempered saw blade, when started spinning, gave off a certain sound, a distinctive ring, indicating that it was as finely tempered as it might be. With their unusually gifted ears, the Brown children could identify the ring and indicate whether or not a blade needed further sharpening. Have children ever more elegantly and charmingly contributed to the family wherewithal than this?
There are other chapters in which Bass, who is known especially for his pungent writing on humanity encountering nature, memorably matches his characters with their natural environment. The descriptions of Bonnie and Elvis canoeing and picnicking are marvelous. And Bass' evocation of snowy winter in a stove-warmed cabin in the Arkansas woods makes for a cozy mini-vacation all by itself.
But the supreme and climactic set piece depicts what becomes of Maxine's longing to have a movie made of her life. In her eighties, she pins a notice to a supermarket bulletin board, stating simply that she looks for someone with the talent and will to render the cinematic story of a once famous person. Her ad is answered by a young teenager. At first Maxine is shocked and bitterly disappointed that a child, "no older than ten or twelve," is the only one interested in making her life into a movie. But she settles for what she can get, and over a series of short chapters we see Maxine adjusting her expectations and pouring out her precious memories to a sometimes calculating youngster belonging to a more media savvy age.
This is the sort of narrative exposition that lends heft and punch to Bass' ruminations on the nature of fame. He sees that fame is "the feeling of being noticed, the certainty of being a star." He depicts celebrity as an addicting drug, one for which tolerance grows and which must therefore be delivered in ever greater doses. So this, on Elvis and his fame: "Having made it to the top of the world, he'd seen how far he had to fall and couldn't bear the thought of not being loved. Every day had become double or nothing."It was in fact—or Bass' fictional representation of fact—Elvis' funeral that finally disillusioned Maxine from her fondest fantasies about having been famous. The surreal funeral gave her "a moment of clarity from which she could fight the enemy, which was not anonymity or obscurity, as she had once believed, but another enemy, myth and surface representations rather than any deep truths. The hundred thousand mourners crawling all over the roads, the millions or billions beyond, had been loving someone they had never known—someone they themselves had manufactured, sleek and polished. Someone about whom they had never known the first tiny bit of sweetness or reality. They might as well have been drunk themselves, during those years."