As the singer and songwriter of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has often been called a “literary” rocker, thanks to the great lyrics contained in the approximately four hundred songs produced by that band. Whether listening to lo-fi productions of his earlier career or the more musically complex John Vanderslice-produced records he’s done with 4AD, the focus of Darnielle’s fans has always been on his lyrics and the stories contained within. Now he’s stepped off the stage and sat down at the typewriter to deliver Master of Reality, his first novel and a stunning piece of rock criticism and appreciation.
Like all of the books in the 331/3 series by Continuum, Master of Reality concerns itself with a single album, in this case the 1971 Black Sabbath release of the same name. Rather than take a straightforward non-fiction approach to the material, Darnielle has instead chosen to write an epistolary novel set in 1985 and narrated by Roger, a sixteen-year-old who finds himself in a juvenile mental institution after a suicide attempt. At the beginning of the story, Roger has been stripped of his Walkman and his tapes, including Master of Reality, his favorite album. Forced to keep a diary by a member of the hospital’s staff named Gary (to whom much of the book is addressed), he almost immediately begins pleading for his music, claiming that “If I had my tapes they would help me. I can really figure things out when I am listening to my tapes, otherwise I get so distracted.”
Darnielle’s strong abilities as a narrative songwriter instantly kick in as he nails Roger’s voice from page one. Roger is inexperienced and angry, and keenly aware of the us vs. them dynamic of not only the hospital but also the outer world. Arrayed against him are his mother and stepfather, who put him in the hospital, his teachers who don’t understand him, and, most presently, the staff at the hospital, and especially Gary. His side is lonelier. Trapped in the hospital, he makes few friends, relying instead on himself, his diary, and his obsession with Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath. Screaming the songs to himself under his pillows, he finds the strength to keep fighting. Writing about what each song means to him, he begins to understand himself and what will always separate him from Gary and his parents and the others:
I guess I better just get the first song out of the way because you are gonna find out about it anyway. I wish Black Sabbath had put this song at the end of the album so I could talk about it later! I could probably just save it for after some of the other songs but I don’t want you to think I am trying to fool you. Unlike you people I have a policy that I always tell the truth first and then if people don’t like it well then at least I can say that I was honest.
The biggest accomplishment here is the weaving of the rock criticism into the narrative in a way that is not only seamless but also essential to the story’s progression. Roger’s obsession with Master of Reality is, in many ways, the plot of the book. As the voice in the book matures, so does the level of criticism, taking us from first impression onwards through a final summation of the album’s worth to both the music world and Roger’s life. Fans of Darnielle’s heavy metal blog Last Plane to Jakarta won’t be surprised at the quality of his observations or the wit with which he delivers them, but newcomers will be pleased by both the quality of his insights and of the prose itself.
Readers are likely to come to Master of Reality from a variety of backgrounds. Some will come as Mountain Goats fans wanting to see Darnielle tackle a novel, others as Black Sabbath fans wanting to read about a favorite album. Some will simply be fans of the cult-popular 331/3 series, which has now grown to dozens of books, yet kept its level of quality very high. Hopefully, there will be others who will pick it up as novel first, because it truly is a first-rate story, full of moments that will pluck at your heartstrings as you’re brought back to the moment you first fell in love with a piece of music, when an album provided not just the soundtrack to your life but also the meaning behind it. If, by some strange chance, none of this happens, well, you’re probably going to at least dust off your old Sabbath vinyl, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.