A Delightful Addiction
It's summertime, and the old-time string band "Sweet Evening Breeze" is heading off on tour. This is a colorful lot. Bass player Norma is a six foot tall graduate student, studying botany, whose "wild-ass blond hair seems to be perpetually on the verge of terminal lock." Malcomb the banjo player ". . . is always dressed like a Riverboat gambler, or some such. Floral vests, fancy derby, and a handlebar mustache . . . coupled with a slick and charmingly heartfelt delivery certainly seemed to attract an awful lot of a certain type of females." Twenty-year-old guitarist Skip Yale, a high school dropout (novelist John Pedersen is clever) and the youngest of the group, is a trusting soul whose naive sweetness will land him in some serious trouble. "Gypsy dark" Celene, a ceramicist teaching at Williamstown College, is the mandolin player. Buddy, their Roadie, is a rather moldy-looking fellow, but his loyalty to the band and his skills as a sound engineer and mechanic substantially offset his sartorial challenges. Trying to keep this odd troupe headed in the right direction is founding band member, and the novel's narrator, fiddler Dan Munroe. Dan (Pedersen's alter ego?) is a first-rate musician and strives to be an honorable person though, not infrequently, his aspirations are fortified by a "tasty beverage."
These guys have been together for years, and, despite their individual proclivities for occasional excessive behavior, they have honed the group into a tight, soulfully spirited music engine with a loyal following spread along the entire East Coast. As skilled at repartee as they are at making music, this often jolly bunch knows each other very well. Though devoted to the band (most of them, anyway), each is far past worrying about what the others might think of sporadic on-tour indiscretions. They have developed a group comfort level that allows for off-stage screwing up.
So off they go, comfortably settled in a 35 foot Recreational Vehicle which was somehow procured for this trip by the band's agent, Vern, from his cousin's wife's dad. "This was a sleek looking Airstream XL 390 cruiser. The so called `Land Yacht' with two axels in the back, a Turbo Diesel, an air conditioner, and a satellite dish on the roof that made it look like a seriously designed rig . . . this is some float." This six wheel behemoth is the story's primary set, a sanctuary and fortress, and the scene of much of the action. They depart Saratoga Springs, New York, on an eight gig, ten day tour down the coast from New York City to North Carolina, then back up to Massachusetts, with dates in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia along the way.
Immediately there's a wrinkle: on the way out of town, Dan needs to spring Malcomb from the local police station where he's being held after he passed out on the stoop of his rooming house, then barfed on the cop who was attempting to revive him. (By this point, we've learned that Malcomb is the band's problem child). At the station, Dan negotiates a trade with the Desk Officer (a bag of donuts and some tickets to an upcoming "Sweet Evening Breeze" concert in exchange for the partially revived Malcomb), then heads the RV toward their first stop in New York City. His concerns are manageable: finding a place to park the dreadnought camper, and keeping his fellow band members out of trouble and focused on the tour. The first is accomplished with more luck than skill; the second is subject of the novel.
At a sidewalk sale in New York City, Dan unknowingly buys a violin of significant pedigree and provenance. This is a mysterious and important piece, and soon several unscrupulous, wicked forces begin to vector in on it. These bad guys are serious and scary, and each very much wants the violin, and has a different motive for tracking it down. Dan tries to unravel the instrument's history and protect it and the band from harm while he determines exactly what he's got and what he wants to do with it. The tour must continue on schedule in spite of repeated attacks on the RV and several band members, even as Dan struggles with how much information he should share with the group (especially Malcomb for whom common sense is at best an inconvenience) to explain the increasingly dangerous incursions on their stuff and the vehicle.
Pedersen is a brilliant story teller. He builds the tension slowly: the band returns to a storage room containing all its equipment, to find that the door is standing wide open. "Say fellas, I don't mean to be an alarmist, but it seems that there is an open door into our dressing room, and I certainly hope that there is at least a small selection of our stuff left in there." Nothing goes missing; everything is fine for the moment. But Pedersen shows us the band's vulnerability to intrusion, and the seriousness of losing their instruments. After Dan acquires the mystery fiddle, we begin to worry whenever the instruments are left unguarded. Pedersen is coy, sometimes pointedly describing how Dan locks the RV when he leaves, and sometimes not saying a word about closing it up. We read, turning pages as quickly as we can, fearing something bad will happen; Pedersen has made us care. As the intrusions and the mayhem amp up, and the evil-doers become more vicious, bad things happen to good people. And, bad things happen to bad people and to idiots as well; Pedersen's justice is sardonic.
The matrix for all the action, and the co-star of the tale, is the inter-relationship among the members of "Sweet Evening Breeze". Personal issues flare like sun spots. Buddy has lusted after Norma for years, and suddenly it seems that his overtures have become productive. Poor Skip, until he needs to leave the tour for medical reasons, seems to find a role model in Malcomb; not good. Wretch Malcomb has an obsessive reflex to try to charm any woman who crosses his path when he's not with another. His prioritizing these relationships ahead of his band responsibilities has left his musical comrades ready to vote him out of the organization. And the rich, supportive twenty-year friendship between Dan and Celene, each married to another, is interestingly tested when Celene senses that her husband is becoming distracted back at home.
But the wonder of this tale is in the telling, which Pedersen does beguilingly with much humor, skill, and conviction.
Novelist John Pedersen, with wife Judy, is the owner/operator of Amazing Grace Music Company in San Anselmo, California. Pedersen is a master luthier, and a prize-winning model boat builder. He can play almost any stringed instrument, and he's an accomplished builder and player of bagpipes - all forms. He won the 2007 California State Old-time Banjo Championship, and many, many old-time fiddle contests. He's an avid surfer, motorcycle rider, and a member the Roadoilers old-time string band. He writes what he knows, and does so very well. Published in 2009, Scroll and Curl is his first novel. John, in his mid-fifties, promises that he has several more novels up his sleeve. I certainly hope so.
As eclectic a reader as I am, this book was somewhat of a departure for me. Aside from icons Chandler and Hammett, I'm not usually drawn to the mystery genre. But I had much, much fun with this one; it shanghaied my life and kept me smiling for several days. Pedersen's wry philosophy, his pitch-perfect dialogue (which somehow combines an aw-shucks vernacular with an almost lyrical formalism), his propulsive, cliff-hanging narration, and his natural ability to spin a compelling yarn make this book exuberant and gripping. I'll bet others will succumb as I did, yielding to this delightful addiction.