Set in a small and haunted New Jersey town, Tobias Carroll’s fourth book (and second novel) is a patchwork portrait that illuminates as much by what it leaves in shadow as what it reveals. Centered around the brief lifespan of a local punk band called the Alphanumeric Murders, the book deftly shifts point of view and format from chapter to chapter while maintaining a sharp focus on how formative early relationships and events can determine and sometimes even enslave people for all the rest of their days. By honing in on a particular subculture, Carroll is able say something universal about often invisible and insignificant ties that bind us to one another.
As the book opens, Virgil Carey has moved back to his hometown of New Duchess, New Jersey. A young retiree after a dot-com windfall, Virgil is searching for a new passion to fill his days with the purpose he felt in his youth, when he belonged to a music scene centered around his childhood best friend Dean’s band. The organizing event of his weeks now is his Sunday visits to a local church. He feels unsure and embarrassed to be turning to faith, but doesn’t know what else to do in order to salvage a life he feels is slipping away.
The central landmark in New Duchess (and the novel) is an unfinished hotel tower in the middle of town. The victim of poor civic planning, economic downturns, and mismanaged expectations, it looms over the town as a symbol of both possibility and failure. When the action shifts a couple decades back to the 70s——Virgil’s and Dean’s parents’ time——the longevity of the tower’s almost mystical hold on the place is further sketched in. Dean’s mother, Mallory, is an ambitious city planner, who moves to town with her son and a full head of dreams to transform New Duchess into a destination, rather than the sleepy, kind of depressed hamlet it has always been.
The rise and fall of the Alphanumeric Murders is detailed in a note-perfect oral history voiced by the titular ex-members of the band. Carroll clearly knows the world of small insular music scenes inside out and is tuned into how tiny fissures can lead to fatal fractures within them. The ups and downs of a band depend so much on maintaining a delicate chemistry and any change in the PH is liable to throw off the whole formula. While they’re not quite Spinal Tap, the Alphanumerics’ revolving-door membership is equal parts comedy and melodrama.
Like the unfinished tower, the band is a vessel to carry the hopes and dreams of all who come in contact with it. This includes fans, exes, recording engineers, and even possibly imaginary online personalities. No matter what character, decade, or format, each chapter concerns the ways in which a passion——be it for esoteric field recording, board game design, or small-town civic planning——can both lend meaning and destroy those devoted to it.
A favorite band, hobby, or person can become the focal point of a person’s life such that they themselves disappear. They live to serve what they love but their love can also curdle or consume them. While most everyone in the book is connected, their primary connection is to their own private vision. They each believe they’re on the inside, even as they often can’t see past their own noses. We’re all this way more or less: in love with our idea of love, forgetting what it was that got us so worked up in the first place, then realizing too late that our lives have flown past without our notice.
In the end, the long-unfinished hotel tower becomes a thriving hotel, but is it still a fulfillment of its town’s dreams? Carroll wisely leaves it up to the reader to decide. The answer will depend on what role childhood ambition, nostalgia, faith, friendship, and obsession play in your life. A “perpetual almost”, as Carroll calls it at one point.
And you thought it was just that eyesore in the middle of your hometown.