Pagan Kennedy, The Exes
1998, 203 pages
Nothing is more satisfying to a book-lover than finding an old book you’ve never heard of and immediately being taken with it, enough to want to recommend it to friends. This happened to me when I picked up Pagan Kennedy’s The Exes, a slim novel about a group of Boston punk musicians (their band is called The Exes because the members dated each other in the past), published by Scribner in 1998. The book got pretty decent reviews back in the day–it’s funny, charming, and stands the test of time–but, like many books, it fell off the literary radar at some point (and, by radar, I mean that it is currently ranked #2,319,807 in Amazon’s Book list). So I’d like to formally suggest, like a favorite Spotify playlist, it get back in the rotation.
The novel is broken into four sections, narrated in limited third person POV by each of the four members of the band: Hank (a wannabe rock star), Lilly (singer, Hank’s ex, and a little crazy/genius), Shaz (a talented, bisexual Muslim female bass player and loner), and finally, Walt (drummer, scientist/nerd, and Shaz’s ex). Kennedy expertly creates four distinct voices and tones for each character, and each one feels like a fully-developed protagonist by the end of the book. For example, Hank’s reflections on Lilly set up their tumultuous and passionate relationship in a way that anyone who’s been madly in love can immediately recognize:
He used to wake up to the grit of Lilly’s never-washed sheets, the smell of stale cigarettes, her clunky rings that fell off in the night and always ended up underneath him. It wasn’t just the rings. Lilly’s bed had been full of sharp objects. He’d wake up with a stabbing pain in his side and find that he’d been sleeping on a plastic army man or a barrette or a pencil stub or a Lucite ring…
And those marks that her bed left on his skin—the wrinkles, the indentations—he almost wished they would last forever, instead of fading away entirely, his skin turning flat and blank again, as if nothing had ever happened.
However, by structuring the book in four distinct parts, Kennedy manages to create a fifth protagonist: that is, the band itself, The Exes.
The book is a bit light on plot: Hank has been having trouble finding success as a musician in Boston, and after he and Lilly break up, he’s able to appreciate her songwriting genius. They start a band together and, with a little song doctoring, have some good material on their hands. They recruit Shaz, who recruits her ex, Walt. The book follows the band’s trajectory, both professionally and emotionally.
Since it takes place in the 1990s, there are a couple of very sweet nostalgias to enjoy–like watching Meadow Soprano log on to AOL in Season 1 one of The Sopranos–as a few major plot points in The Exes revolve around antediluvian technologies like answering machines, and a local printed music zine called The Sound that publishes scene gossip. But the drama of drink-and-drug addled artists smashing together for a few years of their lives is timeless.
The book isn’t perfect–there is some plodding backstory narration, a preoccupation with sexual relationships, and a questionable shift into the present tense during Walt’s section–but otherwise the book is a highly engaging and enjoyable read that provides a fun snapshot into a very specific 1990s rock world. Pagan Kennedy has gone on to a long, award-winning career, publishing ten books–novels, nonfiction, journalism, and more–but for me, finding this book in the stacks was like wandering into a club without knowing who was playing that night, and then being completely blown away.