I first read the novel Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman when I was in high school. Published in 1965, it’s the story of a first-year teacher in a rough New York City school, told through letters, classroom memos, fragments of dialogue, and other ephemera. I’d never seen anything like it, and to this day, I have tremendous admiration for any writer who can pull of an epistolary novel successfully.
I read another admirable one recently. In Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, author Jim Booth tells the story of a fictional 70s rocker through the stuff left behind after the star’s death, including Breeze’s letters and other written fragments: magazine articles about him, track lists and lyrics from his band’s albums, and the memories of Breeze’s literary executor, Charlie Beagle. Beagle is a one-time Rolling Stone contributing editor who invited Breeze to replace him in the band that eventually became the Lost Generation, which ended up one of the biggest acts in the world during the last half of the 1970s.
Telling a story in a fragmented way befits the life of a rock star, for whom living gig to gig and album to album is not remotely like working eight hours a day at the office or the store. The life of such a person seems linear only to the person living it. To the rest of us, it’s an epistolary novel, a story that comes and goes from our lives. Jay Breeze and people like him appear and disappear depending on radio rotations, record releases, tour itineraries, and, eventually, the vagaries of shuffle mode.
Given enough glimpses of them through this cracked mirror, we think we know what our favorite performers are like, but the image they project is not really who they are. One of the themes of Completeness of the Soul involves the people we are versus the people we appear to be. The Jay Breeze who makes it into the press is a lot less likeable than the Jay Breeze of his letters. Even when he tries to be the latter, just a regular guy, telling a fan who recognizes him in a restaurant, no, you’re mistaken, my name is Jay Brent (his birth name), he can’t help becoming the former. It’s what people expect of him, after all—and it’s a defense mechanism, too.
But it is not hotel-room trashing or rock-star attitude that drives creativity, at least not in any way that’s likely to endure. It’s clear from the first half of the book—a series of letters that could never be sent—that Breeze is at his most lyrical and creative when he’s writing about love. As I read, I found myself wanting more of that kind of thing. Breeze the rock star, who is the subject of the last half of the book, is not as compelling to me as Breeze the man, explaining himself and his life to the person with whom he most wanted to share that life.
Author Jim Booth is a musician himself. In fact, at least one of the Lost Generation’s “hits” exists in our reality, and Booth wrote it. He played in a band that came dangerously close to a bigtime record deal, and he runs his own small label today. But if Jay Breeze is one of Booth’s alter egos, so is Charlie Beagle, who became a professor and teacher of writing, just as Booth did. Booth’s experience in both roles gives Completeness of the Soul an authenticity it wouldn’t have otherwise.
You can read more about the book at the link above, and at this one.