Imagine a trust fall where, instead of a bundle of coworkers who you didn’t like to begin with, you drop into the arms of Metallica. Or The Ramones, or Nirvana, or even Jimmy Buffett, if that’s your jam. The players in If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home are permanently ready to rock. Musical affiliation is the filter through which many of the characters assess the world—and in some cases, that view is clouded by time, desperation, and delusion. Dave Housley shows us what it means to succumb to fandom, to suspect that you owe yourself to your personal anthem, and what it means when a man in his forties owns an eighteen-gauge steel “real deal” codpiece and can do the full-on Gene Simmons make-up, even if the length of his tongue has been a lifelong disappointment.
These stories are not at all about an ecstatic herd experience, but rather they show the moment after, or just before the revelry. In “Be Gene,” the Demon is home in suburbia taking off his stage makeup and about to make a really bad choice. In his Kiss attire and platform boots, he considers an overdue electric bill, his sleeping wife, and the downturn in his landscaping business. He knows that his tribute band has morphed, by virtue of his age and the bad attitudes of the attendees, into something far less desirable: “Comedy. A spectacle.” He is not exactly pining for his youth, so much as the exuberance of losing oneself to a passion. Here is a narrator who could easily have become a punchline, yet his fears and wants are universal, making his absurdities endearing rather than cartoonish.
Full disclosure: I am tone-deaf and can barely hear in one ear. I listen to podcasts of “Stuff You Should Know” when I drive, rather than to music. I have downloaded no more than a hundred songs, and that has been primarily to referee arguments over lyrics. That said, I worked for three years in a punk bar, married a disc jockey, and have a child who just recorded a folk-opera, whatever that might be. So, I have witnessed this affiliation, this obsession, from one step away, and I’m here to tell you, Housley nails it.
In “So Fucking Metal,” the teenaged narrator is trying on identities, a familiar teen occupation. Having been abandoned by her mother, her closest role model is her father and “Uncle” Rash, who are about two years behind her on the maturity continuum:
I’ve only been metal for about a year, but already my hair is longer than Dad’s or even Rash’s, longer and more metal than the kids who stand out on the corners smoking before school, more metal even than the guy in PylDryvyrz, which is pretty much the only metal band worth seeing around here. Or at least that’s what Dad says.
She longs to feel a part of something, be it an actual family or a tribe of another sort. Through her emulation, she gets what they are up to: that all this badassedness is a cover. This insight doesn’t tell who she is, who she might become, but that she can figure them out gives the reader hope that she might make it further than her apparent destiny.
These stories drop in on different moments in the passion-disappointment continuum. What happens when hero-worship is past its sell-by date? What about the moment a young person feels the exhilaration of finding that thing? These characters define themselves by the righteousness of their personal anthems and yet are fully-realized, independent of this linking mechanism. Were these characters not so complex, I think that the use of music to connect the stories would have seemed like a trick, but here, the commonality acts as a platform from which the stories spring in all directions. These stories are how fervor can be both savior and doom.
In “Death and the Wiggles,” the narrator is stuck with the chore of taking his young son to see the Wiggles, a musical act for preschoolers. His wife was in Myrtle Beach, having left behind their young son as well as the show tickets:
She bought them months ago, long before she dropped the news about the “emotional affair” with the dentist, which was followed shortly, of course, with news of the physical affair with the dentist. “It’s so intense,” her note said. “I owe it to myself to explore this.” And then, like the Magellan of late-thirties sexuality, she was gone.
The spare ticket goes to the narrator’s childless and drunk buddy, Woomer. It’s not a logical choice, but there they are. Our narrator, who claims to know little about the Wiggles, actually knows a lot, which feels like him trying to do his best, considering. Meanwhile, Woomer is checking out the ladies, like you do at a concert full of frazzled mothers and their screaming spawn.
We soon see this is about the boy, about the fear the narrator feels about being a single parent, about having chaos dropped into one’s house without warning. When Ian gets grooving, so to speak, “his face is pure joy. This is as happy as he’s been since Sherri left, as happy as I can ever imagine him being.” Then he adds, “Ian is happier right now, I think, than I will ever be again in my entire life.”
Most or all of us have seen this scenario before, but with the genders of the parents switched—father takes off for a sleeker or more fun model, forgets about the kids and so on, but here, where the mother takes off, we sort of expect the father to fail. I initially, just for a second, was irritated that no mention was made of the fact that single moms have been managing this since forever. But after reading the collection as a whole, I suspect that Housley knew exactly what he was up to. He set the reader up for a disaster, which we still get, but its name is Woomer.
Either by circumstance or by their own design, these characters are careening along without a plan when Housley throws a mess of trouble their way. The genius is that we see them realize what music can and cannot do for them. While these characters define themselves by their enthusiasms and observe themselves through a particular lens, we can see them as individuals who will either be set free or tacked down by their fandom. Bad decisions are made, sure, but we empathize for these folks because of their earnestness. Linking the stories by music might appear to be a device, but it is much more than that. It’s not about the music; it’s about devotion and want, but also about discovering a thing to lift one above whatever sucks in their life. It’s also about our need to affiliate, our desire to be aligned with like souls.
If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home, by Dave Housley. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, January 2015. 208 pages. $14.95, paper.
Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer and artist living in Arroyo Seco, a tiny rural village in northern New Mexico. She has taught metalsmithing to jaded college students, mentored middle schoolers in creative writing and facilitated installation art with kindergartners. When all that isn’t going on, there is way too much skiing. She received an MFA (visual arts) from the California College of the Arts and is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bennington. She has published stories and essays in a number of small journals, and is a reader for some larger ones.