One character in Bill Flanagan's sharp, exceedingly funny first novel thinks A&R stands for "Assault and Robbery," but he's wrong. In the music biz, it means "Artists and Repertoire," and an A&R man is a talent scout expected to sign up bands with major record labels, tell them he's protecting their vision, and then rob them blind. The book's protagonist, WorldWide Records A&R man Jim Cantone, is too kind to do this. He sincerely wants the best for his discovery, the vaguely 10,000 Maniacs-like group Jerusalem. His entertainingly sleazy boss, J.B. Booth, prefers the slightly Jewel-like Cokie Shea, a coat-check girl who slipped her demo tape into his jacket and walked off with a contract and his unwanted adulterous paws all over her. The downtrodden A&R girl Zoey Pavlov was about to sign Jerusalem when Cantone beat her to the punch, so she seethes with loathing, misinterpreting his every word in a plausibly paranoid, bitter way. Meanwhile, the millionaire founder of WorldWide, Wild Bill DeGaul, should be paranoid, because his underlings are Machiavellian piranhas, but he's always jolly and full of ganja-scented high spirits. He whisks everybody off to frolic in Brazil and takes Jerusalem to his Caribbean private island to record their debut CD, with idyllic and horrific consequences.
A&R is as witty and knowing about the music world as Primary Colors is about politics, but it's not really a roman à clef. You don't need to guess who WorldWide's bestselling pop diva Lydya Hall might correspond to in real life to savor the drama of her tough-love rescue by Wild Bill when she's "sucking the glass snorkel" (addicted to crack) and unable to deliver her Christmas album. Flanagan (a bigwig at VH1 who wrote superb books about songwriters and touring with U2) makes you more interested in his characters than their counterparts. He nails the self-delusions of music types affectionately, even when they're behaving abominably. Brilliantly, he shows how even the coldest betrayal of friends and principles for cash is cloaked in pious, bogus words. "Moral jujitsu," Cantone calls it. "Doing the right thing gets flipped around to become evidence of selfishness." Flanagan is also good at sussing out people's motives and milking misunderstandings for comedy. When Cokie drunkenly succumbs to her discoverer, J.B. Booth, she's no victim. "While she could resist his love talk and was not bullied by his anger, she could not handle the sound of him whining and begging. So she gave in, as much to be able to lie down as to make him shut up." Afterwards, she knows that "the easiest time to dump a man was right after sex. He'd gotten what he came for and his instincts were telling him to run away." Cokie plays J.B. like a fine violin. And as a satirist, Bill Flanagan has perfect pitch. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
This panoramic, episodic and occasionally trenchant portrait of the scheming and treachery of the Artists and Repertoire part of the music world teaches a commendable (if familiar) lesson, but not always as subtly as it could. As the book begins, Jim Cantone, a fresh-faced father of two from Maine, has just been made senior vice-president at Worldwide Entertainment, a pop record label. He observes the verbal sniping of a normal day's work with bemusement gradually turning into hardened wisdom. CEO Bill De Gaul and president J.B. Booth, similarly histrionic, driven men, struggle for control of the company. Through underhanded manipulations, Booth finally manages to have De Gaul fired, leaving him in charge of the company and forcing Cantone to make some tough choices. Flanagan simultaneously keeps readers entertained with two mildly satirical success stories: that of Black Beauty, a black lesbian group that reappears throughout the book as a stereotype of a "politically correct" act of "unglamorous black women playing Woodstock era folk-rock," and that of Cokie Shea, a coat-check girl and aspiring country singer who metamorphoses into a star. Cokie is the novel's one memorable creation, less an embodiment of greed or na?vet? than an individual, with feelings and a soul. Seasoned music journalist Flanagan (U2 at the End of the World) is clearly wise about the ins and outs of the industry, but his knowledge occasionally leads him astray, making for long explanations and character biographies that may clarify events but retard the momentum. The faux journalism of his nuts-and-bolts style fails to make his story more believable. Although the novel is witty and has its fair share of thrills (including muggings in Brazil and a storm on the high seas), it falters too often and risks too little. 6-city author tour. (June)
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