Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan
Every once in a while, I like family epics. Usually, I don’t have much of a taste for contemporary domesticity in fiction—which is hilarious, considering how much of a homebody I can be—but something about it spread over generations or, if done properly, a single generation, engages me. I’m also fond of self-made families, whether they’re chosen or not; I’m reminded of a bit in the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty when Don Hahn talks about how the animators at Disney, during a particularly grueling production period, essentially composed a family all their own. I find their dynamic interesting because the bond is deeper, yet more ephemeral than blood bonds. This, rather than an interest in the history of rock-and-roll, is what prompted me to pick up Evening’s Empire.
Evening’s Empire follows the rise, dissolution, and single careers of the Ravons, a rock and roll band, through the eyes of their manager, Jack Flynn. Starting in the sixties, when Flynn first meets Emerson Cutler, Charlie Lydle, Simon Potts, and Danny Finnerty, the Ravons themselves, and spanning through the late aughts, Flynn bears witness to rock-and-roll history and how the excesses of stardom changes every member of the Ravons—including Flynn.
I’ve never seen Forrest Gump. (I’ve also never seen The Wizard of Oz. How I’ve made all these years I’ll never know.) But Evening’s Empire reminds me of what I know about it through cultural osmosis. This is, as Bono puts it in a blurb on the back of the novel, “an alternative history of the sixties generation”. While Flanagan shies away from showing us the Ravons interacting with other great British rock-and-roll bands (for instance, Bowie is only mentioned in passing as a starstruck youth in a British club), the Ravons, through three very different careers, manage to hit almost every large event in rock-and-roll history—except Live Aid, which haunts Emerson to this day. While a lot of it just makes sense for a lesser known contemporary of the Beatles, I thought the Ravons’ success with technology was stretching it a bit; whenever the recording industry switches to a new format, the former Ravons manage to always get out ahead. But for the most part, Flanagan creates a very believable journey through the sixties to the aughts, with each decade retaining a distinctive—but not stereotypical—flavor.
What helps is that Flanagan frames this novel as Flynn writing his memoirs instead of simply following Flynn through the years. Flynn has a very distinctive voice; practical, wry, but with a heaping handful of melancholy. When Flynn first introduces us to his parents, he suddenly reflects on the fact that, although they’re dead now, he can still hear their voices clearly. This makes Evening’s Empire a sad, although certainly not a dark, novel. All of the Ravons are quite distinct; glamorous rock star Emerson, pretentious artist Simon, and cheerful, mischievous Charlie, who comes into the forefront towards the end of the novel, when Flynn and his family help him through chemotherapy. Danny Finnerty, who isn’t considered a real Ravon because he’s an American replacement, doesn’t figure as much, but, just when I was nervous that Flanagan was ripping on rap for no apparent reason, he unleashes a brilliant defense of the genre that went immediately into my commonplace book. Evening’s Empire is a longish novel—a little over 600 pages—but these characters carry it along throughout the years, as any good family epic should. (Although the short, thriller-esque chapters certainly help.)
This novel has been described as anecdotal, and that’s a good way to put it—after all, this is Flynn writing his memoirs, not a straightforward story. There’s the time the boys snuck onto the roof of Sacré-Cœur, the time Simon was forced to tour Eastern Europe (just as the Berlin Wall fell), and the time Flynn fell in love with Agatha, a Dutch expert on elephants. But there’s also the pangs of growing up and into adulthood in the very singular world of rock music, which itself evolves as fans get more and more access to their beloved musicians; as Agatha notes, these grown men are little more than boys themselves. When Charlie’s tottering career finally threatens failure, he panics; he’s going to have to get a job! While this anecdotal nature makes it good fun, it also adds, along with the scope of the novel, to the sprawl that spreads the suspension of disbelief just a little too thin for me.
Bottom line: A sprawling, anecdotal journey through rock-and-roll history through the eyes of Jack Flynn, the manager of the influential Ravons, a man now writing his memoirs and reflecting back on his life. While its distinctive characters, interesting setting, and melancholy, but ultimate hopeful, outlook make it engaging, the anecdotal sprawl can spread the suspension of disbelief a little too thin. But it’s probably good times for a rock-and-roll fan.
I rented this book from the public library.