Pepperland: A Novel
- Barry Wightman
- Running Meter Press
- 323 pp.
- Reviewed by Randy Cepuch
- May 21, 2013
The romantic clash between a successful rock musician and his geeky girlfriend anchors this joyful romp of a tale set in Chicago’s 1970s music scene.
The unattributed cover blurb calls this book a “rock and roll joyride,” so at a glance one might think Pepperland: A Novel is a Beatle-oriented tale.
It isn’t (unlike another book entitled Pepperland, written by Mark Delaney and published in 2007). The book is set in Chicago in the 1970s, the decade after the Fab Four released the legendary “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. The main character, Pepper Porter, was apparently named for the baseball player Pepper Martin, an outfielder and third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals between 1928 and 1944.
Music does play an important role in the novel. Pepper is the leader of a band, Pepperland, which is good enough to have its songs played on radio stations throughout the Midwest. The odd titles of some of those songs — “Your Aunt Is Cool” and “Burgers in Benton” — suggest the sort of fluffy material one might expect from the comic book band formed by Archie, Reggie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica.
Indeed, Pepperland does play out a bit like an animated adventure that would be as much fun to watch as it is to read. Boy (Pepper) meets girl (Sooz) in a college computer lab, and when they bump into each other again a month later while working as camp counselors, romance ensues. At summer’s end they go in different directions but ultimately find each other again. Pepper must choose between his dream of rock stardom (playing a Felix the Cat guitar and channeling a cosmic “it” hallucination with his glamorous little brother, Dave, who’s also in the band) or Sooz and her dream of using computers to revolutionize global communications (eat your heart out, Al Gore).
Pepper himself is a talented character — lead singer, lead guitarist and main songwriter for the band — who manages to be both self-deprecating and full of himself. Sooz is a Wonderwoman type, complete with a secret identity, who pursues saving the world while simultaneously holding down a job that depends almost entirely on her knockout looks. Supporting characters include a mysterious friendly ghost, a somewhat clueless real-life celebrity (the leading lady’s boss), a somewhat famous Rolling Stone writer whose name has been changed to “Stanley Wong-Garcia” (from Ben Fong-Torres), an elderly music-industry mentor who seems to have supernatural connections, goons who work for an evil agency called SNARB and even a thieving nemesis within the band — a smarmy accordion player who sells insurance.
Wightman does a fine job of telling their tale and I found myself rooting for almost all of the characters (except the SNARB guys and the accordion player). He brings unexpected dimensions to the central characters — revealing, for example, that the fervently anti-capitalist Sooz takes guilty pleasure admiring the view from the observation deck at Sears Tower, although she’s enough of a nerd to compare the grid of streets below to a printed circuit board. Meanwhile, he paints a faithful and detailed picture of 1970s Chicago —right down to the fanatical reverence for the Frango Mint chocolate truffles then produced and sold by the Marshall Field’s department store on State Street. Wightman’s description of Sooz’s vision is downright poetic: “an unrooted tree — a great tree of life to which everybody and everything is connected … it will extend and grow from any point. And nobody is in charge.”
The organization of Pepperland is a little unusual, with chapters called “sides” named for albums, songs or lyric snippets of the era and subdivided into “tracks” — individual scenes. There are more than a few footnotes, suggesting a “director’s cut” where the author wanted to keep some asides that an editor might have recommended omitting.
Anyone old enough to remember the Cold War, Kodachrome film and Mott the Hoople (an influential but somewhat obscure British band referenced in the text) is likely to feel right at home with Wightman’s book, but younger readers won’t have any trouble keeping up and might even learn a little history along the way.
Although Pepperland doesn’t venture anywhere near Liverpool or feature John, Paul, George and Ringo, it is a magical mystery tour well worth taking.
Randy Cepuch, author of A Weekend With Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures, was a DJ in the 1970s and a fan of Mott the Hoople.