Book review: Dead, Jail, or Rock’n’Roll, a novel by Jeff Muendel.

When my acquaintances start to write things, I try to warn them. Poetry is the gateway drug, a fairly harmless exercise that nobody expects will get past the apartment walls. Songwriting is a nastier habit, because it implies you think someone might give a shit. Screenwriting is worse -- a form of prostitution that screams masochism and low self-esteem. Nonfiction is for academics; it’s part of their pathetic job. Journalism is the alcohol of letters, condemning the addict to poverty and slow starvation. But the deadliest is novel writing: It’s like heroin, consuming enormous amounts of time and energy while offering absolutely nothing in return.

Jeff Muendel, a musician and critic with whom I have quaffed some gallons of lager over the years, is hooked on novelia. And unfortunately for him, after self-publishing several books, he’s getting good.

“Dead, Jail, or Rock’n’Roll” is once again about Mr. Muendel’s previous addiction, the rock life, which he endured as Hammond organist for Rattlebone and Backbiter among other bands and still hasn’t fully kicked. He has experienced the smells of overdriven amplifiers and beer-soaked stages; the exhaustion of weeks in a dying van; the temporary triumphs and endless knocks -- and he makes the reader feel them too. He’s especially adept at re-creating the peeling paint of crappy nightclubs and the floorbound mattresses of musician crash pads, while infusing the squalor with the ultimate drug that drives the wheels: hope.

Herr M.’s characters, as cartoonish as they often get, are always believable, and “Dead” sports some of his best, especially the women -- singer Anatha, fat, angry and alcoholic, and bassist Tinny, confused and hallucination-prone. On the male side, he’s got a knack for sketching losers such as the aging, self-doubting Curtis and the egomaniacal doctor/drummer Ricky. Not just chess pieces, they’re supplied with sufficient background, well spaced over the course of the book’s 164 pages, to make their motivations real.

One trick Muendel has always been able to pull off is the most difficult: He keeps you reading. It’s a mysterious talent -- why should you care what happens to these slobs? But they’re always forming bands, traveling somewhere, meeting lovers, making stupid jokes, and you want to find out what’s around the corner. The momentum is one way Muendel makes a judicious break with realism, since actual musicians are usually locked in a cycle of boredom and stasis, and that would make lousy reading. Frustration and conflict, on the other hand, don’t.

“Dead” has a grabby structure. Short chapters switch between characters while deepening our understanding of the larger picture and advancing the action, even when there’s a leap of years. The foreshadowing is pretty subtle. And the conclusion ties things up in a unexpected, satisfying ways.

Muendel’s style has gotten cleaner and smoother, and he’s pared down his use of sometimes awkward metaphors to a few that are often striking: “the lake, frozen and calm but for an occasional rise of snow lifted from the surface in a gust, as if one of the icy beast’s fingers had stirred.” The guy’s no Hemingway, and “Dead” could’ve used an edit (a process even most mainstream publishers hardly bother with anymore). But his book, y’know . . . it’s got something.

Good work, Jeff. Now knock it off and save your sorry ass.

“Dead, Jail, or Rock’n’Roll” can be purchased here