The Hellhound Sample
Charles Shaar Murray
287 pages • Headpress • June 23, 2011 [PB]
Protest as Charles Shaar Murray might in the afterword to his first novel, The Hellhound Sample, that it “is not – repeat: not, repeat NOT – a roman à clef” it is undeniably a jeu d’esprit, and one executed with considerable élan at that. But enough of the French – this is as distinctively Anglo-American a work of literature as one is likely to find. Indeed, it is positively mid-Atlantic – in the best sense of that term.
Charles Shaar Murray is a distinguished music journalist and author of acclaimed studies of Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker. As such, he is eminently well-qualified to write a novel on the subject of the blues and the contemporary music scene in the US and UK. He is also an accomplished musician in his own right and thus has a lived experience of the often murky world of the music industry as well as the sleazy pleasures and perils of touring with a band. But such experience does not in itself a compelling novel make.
In The Hellhound Sample Murray has triumphantly managed the transition from journalism and non-fiction to fiction-writing of a high order with a bravura first novel that carries the reader along with its gusto, knowledge and insight. The reader feels in safe hands and is sustained by the sheer pace, energy and intrinsic believability of the writing. But it is, first-and-foremost, a hugely entertaining and gripping read which, if rather too extended in length to be literally unputdownable, certainly deserves that accolade.
In essence, the novel is a family saga (a very dysfunctional family at that) charting a young and talented artist’s long, faltering journey towards self-discovery. Starting in 1932 with the then ten-year-old James Moon’s shocking discovery of the blues – “The sound James heard almost made him wet his pants.” – the tale meanders through to its violent but ultimately satisfying, and rather life-affirming, conclusion in 2004.
As the son of a black preacher man in a viciously racially segregated Mississippi Delta, the boy James has it literally beaten into him that the blues is the devil’s music. His chance encounter on a street corner with Robert Johnson, therefore, is almost bound to end in trouble. But it also sets young James on the road from impoverished obscurity to fame, fortune, failure and ultimately, triumphantly, back to fame again in a long career as blues guitarist and vocalist, James ‘Blue’ Moon.
Whether Blue, like (allegedly) Robert Johnson before him, made a pact (albeit in Blue’s case an unwitting one) with the devil in order to attain his legendary talent is never made explicit, and Murray denies in his afterword that it is to be taken literally. But it is nevertheless a dark and brooding leitmotif that looms throughout the course of the novel.
There are many lighter moments too, some of them bordering on the picaresque (sorry, sometimes English just doesn’t quite cut it), with some truly gruesome and shocking scenes towards the thrilling dénouement (I give up!). However, the conclusion of the saga is almost Shakespearean in its fatalistic resolution, with honour satisfied and good (by-and-large) triumphing over evil.
The inter-personal and inter-generational relationships between the extended Moon family are very well-drawn. Blue’s much-younger second wife, Adrienne, his appallingly self-centred and angry (though hugely talented) daughter, Venetia; her son, Calvin, and long-time friend and collaborator, limey musician Mick Hudson (a little more than kith and less than kind, it transpires) form the emotional core of the story, around which a cast of other intriguingly roguish and downright repellant characters revolves.
The story of young Calvin’s struggle to overcome the handicap of being a closet bi-sexual in an aggressively (indeed, murderously) homophobic rap world is both fascinating and touching. Although the third generation of musical talent in his family, and richer than both his grandfather and mother, Calvin has taken his stepfather’s surname Holland since his mother refused to divulge the identity of his genetic father. Calvin doesn’t wish to capitalise on the family name, electing to make it on his own account. (Murray’s choice of the name Holland is an interesting one here as it is, of course, the name which Oscar Wilde’s estranged sons were given after the scandal of their father’s imprisonment in Reading Gaol for ‘buggery’.) He seems to be in perpetual denial and the fact that his wealth enables him to indulge his obsession for white clothes, décor, vehicles – and boys – is psychologically deeply significant. As he says to Venetia, “Moms, the whole reason this family’s fucked up as it is is ‘cause we all been lyin’ to each other my whole life.” He should add lying to themselves too.
Discovering that he is about to be publicly ‘outed’, Calvin reluctantly comes out, first to his staff, then to his mother and finally to his grandfather – to a generally positive reaction. However, the Jamaican rap artists, Omega Man and Screwdriver, whom he has signed to his label and then refused permission to include their track Battyman 9/11, don’t take so kindly to the news and it is their homophobic revenge which leads to the murderously violent yet in many ways cathartic finale. Calvin emerges a gentler, kindlier, more humane person as a result of the traumatic events which end in his already terminally ill grandfather’s demise.
Verve and energy this book has aplenty, though it is not without a few longeurs (pardon my French!) – I found some of the dream sequences bordering on the tiresome and there were repetitious passages of reported conversations which could perhaps have been dispensed with in order to tighten the pace. I also noticed some irritating typos and editorial infelicities (a glaring one on the very first page) which were in danger of undermining this reader’s willing suspension of disbelief and spoiling his enjoyment. In that respect at least Murray has not been as well-served by his publishers as he deserves. But all this is to quibble. Though seemingly a youngish outfit, Headpress appear to be an energetic and committed publishing house and, as they have put an entertaining novel out and in front of an eager reading public in an attractive paperback edition, to over-emphasise these relatively minor irritants would be mean-spirited.
If forced to commit myself as to the overarching theme of The Hellhound Sample, I would have to plump for the redemptive nature of art – in this case music (which, as Congreve rightly tells us, “hath charms to soothe a savage breast”), and specifically blues music. As the dying old man says to his assembled (or is that re-assembled?) family, “Everybody get the blues. Everybody need the blues. An’ everybody love the blues, though a lot of ‘em don’t know it.”