The Alternative Hero
By Tim Thornton
Knopf; 397 pages; $24.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
for the Miami Herald, 8.9.09
Think back to when you were young, when music was your life. A devout follower of your favorite band, you bought every album and saw every gig—even dressed in the uniform of band shirts and serious fan fashion. Then, eventually, you grew up and moved on. But if you’re 33-year-old Clive Beresford, the neurotic, obsessed, yet earnest protagonist of Tim Thornton’s debut novel “The Alternative Hero”—you never did.
Instead, Clive remains in mourning for the long-gone group who composed the soundtrack of his youth—the Thieving Magpies, an imaginary alternative band created by Thornton, who seems so real you almost believe you’ve heard them, too. Clive has been untethered ever since the lead singer Lance Webster mysteriously fled their final show at the Aylesbury festival stage in 1995, but when Clive alone discovers his hero Lance is living a few doors down from his London flat, Thornton’s distinct set up and Clive’s hopes of reestablishing his music journalism career are ignited.
When Thornton’s not writing, he drums for the alternative artist Fink, and his unsurprisingly music-entrenched plot is, on the surface, uproarious. In a drunken rush Clive pens an hysterically gushing letter to Lance, which gets him threatened by ex-roadies, then stakes out Lance’s neighborhood until, Clive hopes, they’ll become friends and Clive can pen the music interview of the decade. Yet because Clive takes himself and his desperate scheme very seriously, its unfolding, while sometimes funny, is also painful and awkward. Like a bad relationship, Lance’s “spectre has continued to clatter about in [Clive’s] skull,” and Clive can’t do anything with his life but drink, and the book can’t move forward until he understands where it all went wrong for the Thieving Magpies.
To get there, Thornton forces readers to wade through Clive’s rambling journal-like narration, continually waylaid by lengthy, minute-by-minute recollections of his youth, which remains as real to Clive in the present as it did in the past, and almost dissertation-like digressions on topics such as the Magpie’s influence, the definition of ‘alternative,’ and why Brit Pop never measured up to indie classics like Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Jesus Jones, and The Stone Roses, evoking potent nostalgia in readers from Clive’s generation. These seeming off-topic diversions are in turns amusing, riveting, painful “like describing an episode of a bad sitcom to someone,” and pointless, as even Clive notes: “And why, I hear you desperately wail, am I telling you all this?” But they’re never superfluous, and their seamless connection to the larger plot is eventually revealed.
Clive’s self-conscious narration also soon appears to be forming a draft of his “eventual masterpiece,” and thus his “book-in-progress” becomes inextricably enmeshed with Thornton’s subtly self-reflexive novel. What could be perceived as common debut novelist errors—odd shifts from first to second person, a seeming lack of organization, losing track of plot—can also be interpreted as evidence of Clive’s peculiar character and his amateur writing process, a symbiosis that, whether purposeful or smart problem solving on Thornton’s part, works brilliantly.
Each chapter, complete with listening recommendations, temporarily resurrects that time when life “was all about the girls and the music,” and all it takes to enjoy the meandering journey that is the “The Alternative Hero” is complete and utter commitment to Clive, much like Clive committed his life to the Magpies.