Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede" by Bradley Denton [Review]

Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on GanymedeBuddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Over twenty years ago, I saw a book on the shelf that looked interesting, but I decided not to buy it. I later regretted that decision and always wished I had. Last month, I discovered the book is available online for free, so I finally got a chance to read it. That book is Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede.

This book has one of the strangest premises for a novel ever. The title is not a metaphor; it's literal. At the beginning of the story, on the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly, every television set in the world changes to a station showing a thin young man with thick glasses. It's Buddy Holly himself, somehow brought back to life. He's in a transparent dome, and stars and planets can be seen behind him that show he's on Jupiter's moon, Ganymede. Holly has no idea how he got there, and says the only thing he can see is a TV camera with a sign on it that says to contact someone named Oliver Vale for assistance. Then Holly starts singing, and no one can turn him off.

Oliver Vale is the hero of the novel, a down-and-out TV repairman with a passing resemblance and obsession with Buddy Holly. He was conceived on the day of Holly's death, and taught by his mother that he has a mystical connection to Holly. He's lived his life around Holly's music, and even drives an Ariel motorcycle, just like Holly. Oliver has no idea why Holly has come back to life or how he's supposed to help him, but Oliver sets out on a pilgrimage to Holly's grave site for answers. Along the way, the people and governments of the world are after him to try to get their TV working again, including his psychiatrist, a government assassin, a televangelist cult, a cyborg Doberman, and a couple of space aliens in human form.

If it's not clear at this point, the book is a comedy.

Oliver's journey takes him through the Midwest, hiding out in grungy motels, struggling with his temperamental motorcycle, and meeting odd characters who have hidden connections to his life. As the world goes mad from lack of television, Oliver becomes public enemy number one; considered a terrorist by the government, the Anti-Christ by the Christian right, and a danger to extraterrestrials who've been hiding among us and risk exposure.

At the same time, half the book is dedicated to the life and times of Oliver Vale, whose father killed himself, leaving his mother alone and pregnant in the fifties. Disowned by his grandmother, Oliver's mother gets a job at a radio station, and struggles with poverty, loneliness, and a growing obsession with UFOs. As he grows up, Oliver is forced to watch her life collapse around her in a surprisingly moving and tragic story, partially told through her diary entries.

Much of the novel is about the power of music. Oliver shares his mother's view, which is that rock and roll is religion. His gods are Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and his prayers are pop songs. His extensive record collection is his prized possession. Every death of a major rock star, from the Big Bopper to John Lennon, is the death of a saint. Throughout the book, Oliver mediates on the effect music had on his life and the lives of others. But it all comes down to Buddy Holly. Holly's effect on the world through his interstellar concert is a metaphor for the effect he had on the music world in general.

I found the book very dated, to be honest. It was written at a time when videotape and cable were exciting new technologies, vinyl records were the main medium of music, and televangelism was ripe for skewering. In an age when hip hop dominates the radio, and even eighties pop is on the oldies station, celebrating the joys of fifties rock and roll felt like a distant memory. I did get a sense of how rock and roll changed American culture, and felt new and dangerous, and it made me wish for those days again.

Of course, the big question with a book like this is, "Is it funny?" I say, yes. It didn't make me laugh out loud like the works of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, but it did make me smile. I usually prefer comedic novels that are more zany than this, but I liked it. Despite the weirdness, I found the book very grounded in realism. Most of the characters, especially Oliver, feel like real people. I was impressed by the author's efforts to flesh out the story rather than just rely on sheer wackiness.

[Spoiler alert: if you plan to read the book and don't want to spoil the ending, skip this paragraph] My biggest complaint with the novel is that the central mystery of Buddy Holly's resurrection is left unresolved. The question of how and why Holly is brought back to life, put on Ganymede, and put on television is never really explained. I mean, it's implied it has something to do with the aliens, but I still would have liked to have someone sit down and explain it fully, considering it's the entire premise of the book. I also found Vale's role in saving Holly vague and undefined. He starts out headed for Holly's grave with no real plan as to how this will solve anything, and then changes his mind two-thirds of the way into the book, and heads for a satellite dish store/drive-in instead with even less of a plan. And when Vale finally does what he was meant to do, I thought, "Really? That's it?" Vale's role turns out to be a McGuffin, an excuse to get him running around with no real point.

There aren't a lot of comedic sci-fi novels, so I'm always eager to seek one out. This is one I'm glad I got to read. It's an uplifting and funny story about music, life, and family. And it's free, so why not? Recommended.

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