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Book Reviews

Moody Food

by Ray Robertson

Conflict is story. Not all novels follow formulas, but a simple and effective formula is to give your protagonist a goal, then create conflict by presenting an obstacle to that goal. In fact, there will usually be many obstacles, the resolution of each giving rise to the next, leading ultimately toward the resolution (or not) of the main conflict.

Set during the raucous 1960s hippie era of Toronto’s Yorkville, Ray Robertson’s Moody Food is told from the first-person perspective of an aimless bookstore clerk named Bill Hansen. Fresh to Yorkville from the western middle-class suburb of Etobicoke, Bill is befriended by a wealthy, charismatic, white-suited young man named Thomas Graham, thrower of wild intimate parties, said to be connected with criminals, and obsessed with country-and-western music.

Thomas Graham has a goal: he not only wants to make country music, he wants to write, record, and perform what he calls “Interstellar North American Music,” a new musical style that he hears in his head. The question is, what conflicts will try and deter Graham from his goal.

There are obvious similarities here to The Great Gatsby (the milquetoast narrator, the white suit, the partying, the nefarious connections, the obsession). But Thomas Graham is more than a Gatsby for the Woodstock era, he is also based on the musician Gram Parsons. Robertson has selectively and cleverly blended elements of the two with the idea of forming a Gatsby for the 1960s out of Parsons.

It is an extremely inventive and seductive scenario. Parsons was himself a very intriguing man. Known for his white Nudie suit (after designer Nudie Cohen), colourfully embroidered with naked women, pot leaves, and pills, Parsons is credited with having invented country rock (which he called “Cosmic American Music”). He played with The Byrds, influenced The Rolling Stones (who wrote “Wild Horses” for him), and cultivated Emylou Harris’s career. Undoubtedly headed for superstardom, Parsons died prematurely in 1973 from a morphine/tequila overdose.

Many of these facts, and others, are either literally transposed onto Moody Food, or appear as winking references (Graham wears a Nudie suit; he invents a type of country-rock; The Byrds attend one of his concerts). There, Robertson morphs them with the Gatsby elements to create a unique hybrid. But he encounters trouble breathing life into his creation because Graham’s main goal is ultimately too abstract. The obstacles between him and it are not potent enough to exact much pathos from, or impose much suspense on, the reader.

“Interstellar North American Music,” the music Graham is trying to create, is described by Hansen in terms of colours. The trouble is the reader has no idea what the heck the music is, it’s in Graham’s head, so we can never fully appreciate what he’s chasing. Music is never easily described in prose, nor is colour. The use of colour to describe “Interstellar North American Music” offers little for the reader to grasp onto.

Such a nebulous goal bleeds the story of conflict, forcing Robertson to find inventive ways to create tension in the story. As early as page 40, he’s throwing curves at his characters. Graham forms a band with Hansen, called The Duckhead Secret Society, but Hansen is too nervous to ask his girlfriend to give up her solo music career to join them. Then Graham gets sick. Then Christmas interrupts. The band doesn’t actually begin rehearsing until almost 80 pages in. But the reader forges on because Robertson’s introduction of Graham was so appealing.

Over the book’s bulky middle section, as the Duckheads tour America offering rock-influenced country classics and originals, and while the drugged-out Graham and Hansen work on “Interstellar North American Music,” Moody Food cruises on a hell of a lot of charm, much extremely competent writing, and a few exceptional scenes. (A visit to a biker’s home to buy drugs is a gem.)

But the meandering plot is filled with obstacles that seem only logistical and incidental. Scenes such as the one in which the Duckheads, realizing that draft-dodger Graham will have trouble getting past the reputedly strict border guards at Detroit, drive north to the more lax Sault Ste Marie crossing, could be discarded without notice. Not until the last 100 pages, when they hit Los Angeles, unveil the new music, and begin screwing up in earnest, does the pace kick back in.

“Interstellar North American Music” is Robertson’s symbol for the abstract idea of art. But the symbol is intangible, unknowable to the reader. To be successful, a symbol has to be grounded in the physical, or at the very least be somehow familiar to the reader. In Gatsby Fitzgerald used Daisy, Gatsby’s long-lost love, to symbolize the American dream, breaching the gap between the conceptual and the corporeal, grounding both the protagonist’s main goal and the conflict. In Moody Food, as charming as he is, Thomas Graham remains far too aloof.