If there’s one thing I hate about John Andrew Fredrick’s novel, The King of Good Intentions, it’s the fact it reminds me that the early 1990s were twenty years ago. To his credit, Fredrick balances that fact against a lively, buoyant narrative of a young musician making a start in Los Angeles during that period. In short, I forgive him.
Fredrick has taught at the university level for several years now – most recently in the Writing Program at USC – but it’s his two decades-plus at the helm of indie rock band the black watch that serve as ballast for The King of Good Intentions. He has an unshakable handle on the doubts and glories – large and small – that an upstart band faces, and perhaps as essential for a novel like this, on the petty squabbles over who’s more invested and who knows the band’s direction best.
In the simplest terms, The King of Good Intentions follows a band, eventually known as The Weird Sisters, from just after they’ve formed until they’ve cut their first album. It also follows the formative stages of John and Jenny’s romance, as they help guide The Weird Sisters to some sort of early notice. John narrates this journey, as well as his work as a substitute teacher, a cruel and thankless endeavor.
Frederick’s style feels a bit self-conscious in the early going, perhaps too concerned with appearing clever. It’s all italics and parentheticals and bids for laughs, but pretty soon something happens: it works. Of course, that’s because there’s suddenly enough on the page, even if it’s only band dynamics, to support the style. That is to say that the voice here, while carefully tuned, isn’t quite up to the task of carrying the reader for the length of a novel.
That’s not a dig – Fredrick has hit on a fitting voice here, upbeat and wry in the proper proportions, and it works in service of the story, rather than drawing attention away from it to the narrator. It’s also tailor made for the subject matter, as when John reflects on getting Jenny’s phone number:
Do I have to lecture you, reading reader, on the unambiguous elations a guy feels when he gets the telephone number of a girl he thinks is really pretty? A girl who’s obviously supertalented as well, and seems almost too nice, and just might jam with his band? My God: the whole world, for a while at least, changes. Colors brighten. Rows of roses, daisies, violets, poppies explode from golden clouds. Trees grow green flags and the air tastes like apples dappled with summer raindrops. The universe burns like cinnamon incense and, er, I guess I’m getting a little carried away here, lily-gilding. Let’s just say it feels real good, okay?
Fredrick also shines when cataloging the many and varied ways in which young men, living together, eschew basic hygiene and decorum. John and Jaz appear to survive on a diet of quickly prepared snacks, takeout leftovers, booze and bong hits. It’s richer fuel for John, whose band gets off the ground, than Jaz, who wants to write movies (to gauge his odds, consider the first ill-conceived script idea we encounter: Othello meets 2001: A Space Odyssey). Fredrick is also firmly in command of the musical side of things here. He doesn’t linger on the technical side a great deal, and that seems like an honest choice. This isn’t a band that comes from an intellectual place; they’re playing for a feel, and when they find it, people respond.
What sets The King of Good Intentions apart, though, is Fredrick’s resolutely straightforward approach. He could easily, perhaps naturally even, cast these experiences in a nostalgic light, particularly given the carefree nature of life for John during that period. Yet he opts to play it straight. The band’s struggles and disagreements are never presented with a gauzy, wistful gloss. Walter is a shitty drummer. Full stop. This is a reality for the band, and Fredrick treats it as such. John and Jenny are happy, but that happiness begins to fade: “Jenny was becoming somewhat disenchanted with our relationship,” he observes, as doubts and worries intrude. Again, full stop. John laments things he’s done to betray Jenny, but it’s not a lament delivered from a great distance. Fredrick instead keeps John close to events, and retains their urgency in a way he wouldn’t by idealizing them. He doesn’t slot Jenny in as a great love, or rank his behavior toward her among his great regrets. These things happened, at a time when I was still finding my way as a musician and as a man, he seems to say, and simple as it sounds, there’s something improbably appealing about that.
Throughout the book, we see again and again a phrase the band “used jocosely when we’d flogged a song, over and over, till it sounded not exactly very good but very good enough.” Perhaps that fits The King of Good Intentions as well. There are some striking moments here. The band’s performance at a party, an occasion which brings them to the attention of a producer, is a pleasure on multiple levels, for instance. There’s also a sense that Fredrick sees the significance of this era in John’s life, but keeps it in perspective. He’s a blundering young man in many ways, and he’s not yet fully aware of his own finer qualities, or how to emphasize them. Give him a decade and see what he’s learned and where he’s been. I don’t know if that’s Fredrick’s intention, but it’s an intriguing prospect. In the meantime, The King of Good Intentions is a lively and funny nod to days just behind us, brought to you by a publisher and a writer who seem made for each other.
– John McIntyre
* Verse Chorus Press is based on Portland, Oregon. Their list shows evidence of excellent taste in both music and writing. They’ve published books by The Mekons and John Langford, and on The Church and The Go-Betweens. Add to that Mr. Fredrick’s debut, and there’s much to explore. That’s to say nothing of the offerings from their Dark Passage imprint (crime fiction from Australian stalwarts Peter Doyle and G.S. Manson). Take a moment and look at their entire catalog.