Book Review: “World Enough” — and Punk Time
Set in Boston’s rock scene during the ’80s, the mystery World Enough serves up plenty of compelling entertainment.
By Ed Meek
During the months when the days grow shorter and snowy evenings accumulate, many readers reach for a satisfying mystery. You know what you are getting with a mystery. A death at the beginning that is unexplained, a main character who won’t rest until the answer is found, and a writer who holds information back from us, divulging clues and secrets one at a time to keep us intrigued. World Enough has the added local interest factor of being set in Boston in the ’80s, during the Punk era of The Cars, The Ramones, and The Dead Kennedys.
The main character is Tara, a music fan nostalgic about that period, the musicians, and the community she was once a part of. She delves back into the past when asked to write an article about what it was like back then by an old editor of hers. In those days, Tara wrote music reviews and features for an underground publication. Now she works in communications, but she is happy to take on the project because she misses the old times, when Tara and her friends felt they were part of something bigger, hitting the clubs to listen and to dance to cutting edge music, on the hunt for the next breakout group. But, as Tara chats with old contacts, she finds herself questioning the circumstances of the death of a former musician; did he really fall down the stairs of his house to his death? Might it have something to do with another musician’s OD twenty years before?
“I wonder if there was something else going on?” she asks again.
“You still think like a writer.” Peter leans toward her. She feels his lips, warm and dry, on her cheek. “But this isn’t some story, Tara. This is real life.”
The passion the main character, Tara, feels for the music and her knowledge of the club scene ring true. Author Clea Simon wrote extensively about the period and the music for The Boston Globe, The Herald, and The Boston Phoenix, back when the city boasted a number of alternative newspapers. The mystery may deal with the past, but it is set in the present tense — and that gives it a pleasing feel of immediacy: “the Shakers take the stage. Two guitars and a bass bash out the first chord. It is loud and lively, and the drummer jumps in with a fill, kicking everyone up to speed.” Writing well about music, describing its power over listeners, is not easy to do — Simon does so with authority.
There are flaws in World Enough. Because Tara needs to look back into the past to carry on her investigation, the narrative is filled with flashbacks. These are also told in the present tense, which requires the use of the conditional. She thought she’d brought her phone. She hadn’t remembered to lock the door. She’d been in a rush. That device, used throughout a novel (rather than a short story) becomes somewhat affected: after a hundred pages you begin to long for the convention of just having the action related in the past tense.
Also, Simon is more at home writing in the voices of women. There’s an enormous amount of dialogue and the banter keeps things moving along. But not always convincingly. Here’s an exchange with Tara’s new love interest, Nick, who was a bartender during the punk era. She has fallen into a reverie thinking about the past, and he says to her:
“A penny for your thoughts?”
Tara looks up into the impossibly blue eyes once again.
“Or another Alligash perhaps?”
Nick doesn’t exactly sound like a bartender (or a guy) for that matter. There are other questions regarding the story’s credibility. At one point, Tara comes out of work and finds four tires slashed on her car. Even though she is researching a mysterious death — that her ex has told her is an open case with the police — she does not report the incident to the cops. Nor does she ask the cops about the case. In addition, the novel starts off with Frank’s death as a result of falling down his basement stairs. Yes, falling down stairs is a suspicious way to die. It turns out that 18,000 Americans die from falls each year and nearly 100,000 kids are injured on stairs! Most of those who die, though, are either really young or really old. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up…” as the old advertisement goes. But Frank is in his forties. Wouldn’t there be questions raised?
Another problem is the number of characters. If I count correctly, there are at least a dozen. By the third chapter I made up a chart — around halfway through the novel I gave up on the project. You can still follow the plot without remembering who all the characters are, but the pile-up is annoying.
The final quibble I have has to do with the invention of names. Simon sometimes uses real names like The Rat and The Cars, but other times makes up names and the made-up names don’t (to may ear) work as well as the real thing. The Casbah instead of The Channel. The Whirled Shakers. Why not The Dead Kennedys? The Voodoo Dolls? Simon also has a character whose name is Chris Crack.
Still, there is plenty of compelling entertainment here. World Enough recreates the Punk era within the framework of a noir whodunit and keeps you guessing. And, if you are from Boston, or went to college here, you’ll enjoy the references to the Rat and the music of the period, which took us from Disco to Grunge.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.