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The Five by Robert McCammon

We are who we are. If we’re lucky, we’re reasonably happy with who we are. That helps us through this vale of tears without too much pain. For the less lucky, there’s the constant grind of having to do our best when not enough people around us care what happens to us.

The Five (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a book about people who are professionals. They all want to succeed at what they’re good at. It can be playing music, or making deals as a manager, or remembering what it was like when you could hold a rifle and put a bullet through a man’s head at 500 or more yards. Yet life has a way of not co-operating. When you want to push forward, it pushes back. So what do you do?

Let’s approach the answer to this question from a slightly obscure direction. Whether you’re young or old, it’s strange when you look back at your life. In your head, you can remember so clearly when, against the odds, you triumphed. How you threw the perfect pitch when it was needed or played the best guitar solo since the days of Jimi Hendrix. Yet most of the time, you were just average. You had your own high standards and, by those, you were rarely any good. Except, every now and then, you did raise your head up above the parapet. You joined a group and, when everyone gave you their emotional support, you were accepted as good enough most of the time. At some point, maybe you even became good enough to make a living out of the skills that gave you the most satisfaction. Well, perhaps it might be an exaggeration to say you earned enough to live on. Particularly those in the creative world. The stories of writers starving in garrets and bands on the road using their own savings to pay their way round the circuit of no-hope dives, playing for pride, ever watchful for the A&R men who might recognise their talent and give them a recording contract. . . They’re all true. It’s the pursuit of dreams that keeps them going. It’s trying to make a consistent reality of those few memories of greatness they treasure in their heads.

Robert McCammon. You remember him. He wrote all those great horror novels years ago and then dropped off the radar. Sad when that happens to a talented author. Then he was back with the Matthew Corbett books. Now comes The Five. Well, perhaps the title is a little off since there are actually six of them on the road if you count the manager, but that would make it even less clear who the thumb is (sorry, in-joke). And then there really are only five still alive, albeit with one in a hospital ICU, as a deranged sniper stalks them. Let’s face it. There’s nothing like being the tethered goat to bring out the best in people. Hey, that’s not very fair, is it? Tethering the damn goat. Perhaps it might be better to let it drive around the countryside with the words, “human target” stenciled on the side of the van — the FBI hijacked the description from the comic book and television series as a challenge to keep the stalker motivated and therefore catchable.

There are wonderfully evocative passages like the time the band sees the girl give water to the blackberry pickers and the explanation of how Stone Church got its name. This is the old Robert McCammon, magically weaving words to hint at supernatural threats, at menace beneath the surface. Yet the whole is a taut and economical thriller about a band on the run (literally), albeit with ambiguities about how they may just be pawns in a greater game. Except, of course, all such supernatural shit has no place in a rock musician’s world. If the band is going to move people and change the world, the only way it can be done for real, is through the lyrics to a perfect melody. That would be an example of art. Yes, even a rock musician has a holy grail. In this case, the quest for the song they will still enjoy playing in twenty years time. Not some anthem they can belt out to get a club full of fans to sing back to them. But something that can speak to everyone who hears it and, as individuals, they can all believe the song is speaking directly to them, giving them a message about life, the universe and where the next burger is coming from.

So how do you write such a song? The answer is by accepting all the shit the world throws at you and soaking it up as part of life’s great experience. As a naive youngster, you can rarely ever say anything profound enough to appeal across the spectrum of cultures. You haven’t lived enough. You need maturity. You need to have been there, got the T-shirt and have the wit to write it down in a way that allows others to share in that experience. So this band goes through the mill and comes out the other side with a song. Not all survive and, in the end, the survivors accept change in their lives. This means they are growing as artists and thereby better able to inspire others.

Irrespective of how you might choose to classify this book by genre, e.g. as mainstream fiction with rock n’ roll overtones, a thriller about a band pursued by a sniper, or faintly supernatural fiction, The Five is one of the best reads so far this year. Here we can observe a beautifully detailed set of characters struggling to survive in a hostile world. The stresses and strains of communal existence in a band on the road are nicely captured. It all feels authentic. Everyone we meet on this journey gets their moment in the sun as we see into their lives and understand how their family and other relationships work. Even the crazed killer comes out as someone we can understand even if we have little sympathy for him. This is Robert McCammon on his very best form and I unhesitatingly recommend The Five to you.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Here’s a piece of good news: nine of McCammon’s early books, The Wolf’s Hour, Mine, Blue World, Swan Song, Mystery Walk, Stinger, Gone South, Boy’s Life, and Usher’s Passing are back in print as e-books. If you have not already read them, now’s your chance to catch up. These are classic horror novels!

For a review of another book by Robert McCammon, see The Providence Rider.

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