For a moment or two, David Lowery -- front man for the band Cracker, and before that, beloved college-radio revolutionary sweethearts Camper Van Beethoven -- found himself enjoying the book. He laughed in the right places, winced in the appropriate spots and thought, for a moment, the book wasn't half bad.
A warped perspective: Cracker's David Lowery, left, and Johnny Hickman
And there's no reason why David Lowery shouldn't like Camden Joy's new novel, Boy Island. It's about being a musician, writing songs, starting a new band and going on the road with three other guys on a tour that begins but never quite ends. Any rock musician could relate to being stranded on boy island, that beat-up van that moves through the middle of the night, heading from here to nowhere in particular.
Only the more David Lowery read of Joy's novel, the more upset he became. Lowery could no longer ignore the fact that the book's main character bore his name, played in his bands and lived his damned life. It was him. And it was most definitely not him.
Lowery could no longer pretend this was just a work of fiction -- by a man who doesn't even write under his own name. He couldn't stomach reading about how he and his bandmates engage in a contest called "tonnage," in which each member tries to screw the fattest chick possible to rack up points that are tallied at the end of the tour. He saw himself distorted in the writer's fun-house mirror and did not like the reflection. He felt his privacy had been invaded, his life violated.
"It's bizarre to be fictionalized," Lowery says, understating his outrage. "And it's offensive, because a lot of people don't understand it's a fictionalization. And secondly, I feel the writer himself -- and this is why I chose to speak about this -- he really is dangerously close to being a stalker by anyone's definition. He has had an unhealthy fixation with Cracker. If you dislike something artistically, personally or whatever, you let it go. You let it go. You don't write a book to further your obsession. I would think that's one qualification of being a stalker."
Camden Joy -- who works by day answering phones in a downtown Montpelier, Vermont, office and whose real name is Tom Adelman -- says he is hurt "so much" by Lowery's description of the book as "stalker fiction." He complains to his friends, who tell him only to shut up; what did he expect, for God's sake? Even they tell him David Lowery is a real person, not some figment of his imagination. At some point he had to know he crossed the line.
Joy insists he meant no harm, that the novel -- in which a character named Camden Joy joins Cracker as its drummer in 1991, tours with the band, then confronts his burgeoning homosexuality when he strikes out in the game of tonnage -- is a tribute to Lowery's songs. He swears it's not simply an homage to Camper and Cracker, but an appropriation of the songwriter's "aesthetic." After all, Joy insists, Lowery's best songs are the ones in which he names real people. Why must the author be punished for employing the same technique?
"I thought I was tipping my hat to David, and it took me a really long time to write the book," Joy says, sounding not a little sad about all of this. "I thought I worked hard to understand what drove him and what his music was about. Apparently he took it as an attack, which is not how I intended it."
Lowery wants to defend himself against such an assault, but he hates talking about the book, which was just published by Quill, an imprint of HarperCollins. He says this will be the last time he even mentions it to a journalist. He doesn't want to give the book any more free publicity. He will not help sell a book that sells him out.
At its best, Boy Island is like a good three-minute pop song: It's sensation without substance. But when you know what the book was constructed from -- intimacies betrayed, facts twisted to fit a writer's agenda -- it leaves a nasty aftertaste. No matter how noble Joy's intentions, the result is more than a little disturbing. He has taken someone else's truth and twisted it into his own fiction, consequences be damned. Actually, they were never even considered.
And because there is indeed a little bit of fact buried inside Joy's narrative, the line is only further blurred. A decade ago Joy traveled with Lowery and Cracker, interviewed the band, then used his information to write his novel without the band's okay. The result, in the words of novelist Carol Shields (who wrote about "Opting for Invention Over the Injury of Invasion" in The New York Times last month), is "the tissue of imagination." It's indolent fiction, a thinly veiled truth offered up with the defense that it's nothing but an "imaginary tale." And such things are bound to cause harm, intentional or otherwise. As Lowery points out, readers are going to either take the book at its word or spend the entire time trying to figure out what is and isn't "truth."