Day Thirty-Three: XL

by Tom Noonan

I used to sing in the shower.  Before I shared a bathroom with a collection of endlessly-shedding guys and, occasionally, a few fast-moving, t-shirt-dress wearing girls, I would howl the choruses to my favorite songs under the downpour, the showerhead posing as a microphone.  With a backing track of running water, I wasn’t terrible, and, for about five minutes a day, it felt like I owned those songs, like I was, and always would be, a rock star.  Then my dad would knock on the door, tell me to hurry up, and the room would come back into focus.

In his debut novel, XL, Michael Atchison expertly extends those fantastical rock star moments across an impossible-to-stop-once-you’ve-started 240 pages.  The story, or at least the initial plotline, is fairly conventional.  It follows a college kid who starts a band that, after some initial success, ditches their frontman to form a new, more ambitious outfit under a different name.  “We’re not kicking you out of the band,” one of protagonist’s friends explains, they’re simply starting a new band without him.

This is where Atchison makes a departure from the canon of spurned musician narratives, which are, as a whole, a decidedly angry, jaded bunch.  Instead, he chooses to tell the story of Dave Hankins, suburban music uber fan and family man who lives surprisingly undefeated in the shadow of the band that left him behind’s success.  And, as the story goes, the true rock star in this newly formed band is Ric, Dave’s brother-in-law who was introduced by way of Dave’s wife, so there is no escaping the reach of Ric’s shadow.  Though Atchison never hides from the lingering ache of what could have been, he is able to imbue Dave with a voice that is fundamentally optimistic without seeming naïve.

The story is also told removed from the events, after the explosive elements inherent to these types of situations have had time to settle.  It is told by a content, middle-aged man who, when asked if he is happily married, responds, “Ecstatically”.  It’s a tenderly told saga of youth, love, and rock and roll.  It’s clear that there is a lot of Atchison’s own love for his family permeating Dave’s voice, but this is never a distraction.  In fact, it’s a critical strength in the story’s conclusion.

In the book’s acknowledgments, Atchison writes, “[To] the hundreds of writers and musicians whose work is written in my soul: My gratitude knows no bounds.”  XL is a story told within Mr. Atchison’s soul.  Its landscapes are built from Rolling Stones riffs and its characters are the embodiment of rock and roll ideals, with one of Dave’s friends constantly trying to surround himself with anything tangentially related to the Beatles.

There are books written about music, and then there is XL, which seems to take place in music. For these characters, music is not a commodity; it’s where we truly are free to exist.  Most importantly, there is no snobbish writing here; no one has the answers.  This is not Rob Fleming’s record store.  Here, everyone is a true believer, and music is the only certainty.  Atchison is promoting musical passion no matter where it’s aimed.  It concludes as a thoughtful mission, but the book accepts its passion as truth.

The book itself is being billed as “rock and roll fantasy”, which sounds weird especially when you consider what usually falls in the “fantasy” section at Barnes and Noble.  While the events are highly coincidental and mostly unbelievable, they’re all related with a genuine excitement making them impervious to even the most cynical of bullshit callers.  Near the end of the book, after many implausible yet gratifying events happen in Dave’s world, he remarks, “This whole thing has been the strangest dream.”  What significant rock and roll experience isn’t?