Rob Roberge is a rock star writer. This would be true even if he wasn't, in fact, an actual rock star, who plays with L.A. punkers the Urinals. This would be true even if he never wrote about music. This would be true even if he didn't have a fiercely dedicated fan base of students and readers, even if he didn't wear a leather jacket. He brings it all to the page, every fiber of himself. He is absolutely fearless in his work. "I like that Roberge never takes the easy way out," writes musician Steve Wynn, in his endorsement of Roberge's new novel, "The Cost of Living," and this is true. Roberge looks straight into the darkest corners of human experience without a single flinch.
"The Cost of Living," just out from Other Voices Books, tells the story of Bud Barrett, former lead singer of The Popular Mechanics, an alt-country band with a cult following. Bud is kicked out of the band because of his drug addiction; after several clean years, he suffers a relapse when he's invited to join the band for a reunion tour. In order to find true redemption, Bud has to make peace with his past, including his mom's suicide and the murder he watched his father commit. "The Cost of Living" is a gritty, funny, heartbreaking and ultimately very hopeful novel, full of sex, drugs, rock and roll and --beating fiercely at its center -- love.
Roberge, who lives in Palm Desert, is also the author of the novels "Drive" and "More Than They Could Chew," and the short story collection, "Working Backwards from the First Moment of My Life." A musician for 30 years, he plays guitar and sings with the seminal L.A. punk band, The Urinals -- he joined in 2006, shortly after they returned from the Beijing Pop Festival, where they were first American punk band to play China -- as well as The Danbury Shakes and The Violet Rays. He recorded a soundtrack for "The Cost of Living" with friends, including his wife Gayle Fornataro (you can listen here). "I gave myself an out," he laughs, discussing the lo-fi sound of The Popular Mechanics. "I lowered the bar of expectation in the narrative so it can sound sloppy." He wrote some of the songs while writing the novel; others (including The Popular Mechanics' biggest hit, "The Problem with Drugs") he wrote shortly before the book came out, which he said felt like a fun bit of method acting, stepping back into Bud's head. You can easily hear a whole bar full of people singing along to the chorus: "But my only problem with drugs is that they always run out."
It's hard to not see parallels with Roberge's own life in "The Cost of Living" -- like Bud, he suffered a drug relapse a few years ago -- but Roberge says "It's so sad when the most important question a reader has is 'Did it really happen?' We've fetishized event over imagination." And he doesn't consider the book a rock and roll novel. "I didn't even know that was a genre," he says after one reviewer used the label. "It wouldn't be called an office novel if it was set in an office." Roberge is working on a memoir now (portions of which were published on the Rumpus). Told in the second person, the memoir weaves back and forth in time with a stunning and fluid honesty. "It's the first book that captures the digressive nature of how I think," he says. "I've never been able to show how my brain works in any sort of structural mimesis before."
Roberge is finding himself in a new creative surge. "I couldn't write for one-and-a-half years after my relapse," he says. "I had to learn how to write all over again." In 2010, he says, "something cracked open for me in a good way," and now he is working on several projects--the memoir, an ambitious new novel told from five points of view that takes place over several decades, and a book on the craft of writing. "There's only one hard and fast rule I know -- specific writing is better than vague writing -- but there are also patterns of success and failure that are worth looking at."
Roberge came to writing fairly late, himself. Until he was in college, he didn't know that people actually wrote books; he grew up with only two kinds of books in the house--car manuals and physicians' drug references -- and thought that literature was the purview of dead white guys. Then he catered a reading by Richard Yates when he was a student at Emerson College in Boston and thought "Oh my god". Shortly after, he happened upon a copy of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Raymond Carver at a bookstore on Charles Street and told himself "I want to learn how to do that."
"I was a Carver and Amy Hempl impersonator before I learned to write anything like me," he says. A friend who read his early stories said that two of the most important things in his life -- women and humor -- were missing from his work, and a lightbulb went off for Roberge. He made a list of the five things that attracted him in people and decided he wanted all those elements in his work -- humor being at the top of the list. He considers the comic Dennis Leary, who taught a comedy writing class at Emerson, his first great teacher. "He showed me the rhythm of the sentence could make it funny or not funny. Timing, pacing, rhythm is everything."
"The Cost of Living" is full of dark humor; take, for example, this description of tourists in Las Vegas: "They were pudgy. Mostly white. Doughy-looking, buffet-stuffed, and soft. They looked like a parade of manicotti." "My goal is a sort of gallows humor that has the weight and gravity of life," he says. "Not the looking-away kind of humor where you're not engaged with the world around you. That can be the character's humor, but it can't be the book's humor or it becomes disposable."
"The Cost of Living" is definitely not a disposable book. Roberge gives a lot of the credit for this to his friend and editor at Other Voices Books, Gina Frangello, who guided him through several drafts of the novel. "She made me a better writer," he says. "After I thought it was as good as it could get, we went through two more drafts."
Frangello, a novelist herself, first discovered Roberge's work in 1998. "His story, 'Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams,' came to me from the slush pile at Other Voices magazine, and simply knocked me on my ass," she says. "The thing that really spoke to me in his work from the get-go, and that we spent 2 years honing with "The Cost of Living," is the way Rob is able to translate naked emotion into precise, unflowery language. I think this is a rare gift for ANY writer, but it is particularly rare, I believe, in work by contemporary American male writers, and even more so in the sub-genre of really "edgy" work that centers on drug culture or sexual excess or crime, as Rob's often does...I think Rob has done something I just don't see out there in that he is stunningly unafraid of tenderness, of deep emotional investment, of naked portrayals of love and shame and hope and pain alike."
Frangello is stepping down as editor at Other Voices, and is grateful that "The Cost of Living" is her swan song there. "I think what I most would like is for the readers of "The Cost of Living" to take away a more profound understanding of the fact that there is no emotional wall between the person struggling with mental illness and counting tiles in the bathroom, the obese guy who dies alone in his trailer, and themselves...that there is no cool, slick emotional numbness that comes with being a rock star or a junkie or a criminal, and that it isn't glamorous and it isn't monstrous, it's simply human. Rob is a profound recorder of our common humanity, I think, and I'm just beyond excited to have The Cost of Living as the book I go out on with Other Voices Books...in many ways, it's just a perfect embodiment of what the press has always been about."
Roberge and his wife Gayle are moving back to Long Beach this summer -- part of "The Cost of Living" is set there, and it's one of two places (Amsterdam being the other) where he truly feels at home. Roberge first fell in love with Southern California when he and Gayle flew in from Buffalo to visit her parents. "We were driving on the 22 in Garden Grove," he says. "It wasn't PCH or anything like that, but I looked out and saw palm trees like these big wavy Dr. Seuss characters, and I could see rooftops, just this crummy neighborhood in Garden Grove, and I thought, This is beautiful."
Roberge is eager to continue to mine all that is beautiful and painful in his life as a writer. Writing "The Cost of Living" felt like a breakthrough for him; "I knew I was doing more of my job than I had ever done before," he says. "It was harder in all the right ways. I want to every book to be this obsessive. I want to keep writing books that challenge me. I want to stay uncomfortable." Spoken like a true rock star.
Top Image: Rob Roberge.