Juliet, Naked

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

It’s probably appropriate that I found my copy of Nick Hornby’s latest on the way back from catching Elvis Costello in concert. Costello has, after all, attracted his share of obsessive fanboy anorak train-spotting music geeks and one of the protagonists in Juliet Naked is a prime example of the species.

And while Costello is up to his thirty-somethingth album, Tucker Crowe disappeared from public view after visiting a toilet in Minneapolis, leaving behind Juliet, the legendary breakup album that devoted fans like Duncan, the world’s self-proclaimed leading Crowologist have spent twenty years dissecting in minute detail.

Duncan and his partner Annie return to the wonderfully named Gooleness from a pilgrimage to various Tucker Crowe-related sites in the US to find a review copy of an unexpected album release. Juliet, Naked contains the demo versions of the songs that found their way onto Juliet sans the instrumental arrangements that padded out the final version that Duncan and his mates know and love as well as two previously unreleased tracks from the session.

Duncan, in a predictable act of fandom, rushes a gushing review onto the website. Annie isn’t quite so taken with the new release, posts a contradictory review which elicits a response from Tucker Crowe and before you know it the wheels have fallen off various relationships.

After fifteen years with Annie, Duncan takes up with Gina, a drama teacher at the college where he works. 

Annie, on the rebound, spends a night out with Ros (a freelance curator and history teacher she’s collaborating with on a museum display about Gooleness in 1964) meeting Gav and Barnesy, two legendary figures from the murky world of northern soul dancing.

Tucker Crowe, living mostly unnoticed in rural Pennsylvania with his partner Cat and six-year-old son Jackson, comes to a parting of the ways himself and from there it’s a matter of fitting the pieces of the jigsaw back together in a new configuration.

While Duncan and his mates believe they know more about Tucker Crowe than Crowe himself, they’re oblivious to the existence of Jackson, or Tucker’s other offspring and it’s the pregnancy of his daughter Lizzie which provides the excuse for bringing things into their new alignment.

Along the way we learn the truth behind Crowe’s escape from the spotlight (it’s not what happened inside that Minneapolis toilet, it’s what took place immediately before) and Hornby performs a neat scalpel job on the motivations and character traits of each of the protagonists.

In a wonderful little turn up for the books, most recent sightings of Tucker Crowe are, in fact, Crowe’s friend Farmer John (or False Tucker) which means that when Duncan comes across the genuine article in Gooleness he refuses to believe his idol is staying with his ex-partner. 

Hornby also does a hatchet job on the sort of internet-based fandom that stalks virtually every artist of any note in the western world, and it’s a point that’s well worth making. 

There’s an enormous amount of mythology out there and in many cases the reality falls far short of the legends. The faux-Wikipedia entries and the whole obsessive fan theme are just about perfectly rendered, and the little flurry of email messages at the end of the book hit the nail full square on the head.

Hornby, in other words, has done it again.

© Ian Hughes 2012