Anyone who knows me, knows I love a book with rock’n’roll at its heart. Dashboard Elvis is Dead is such a novel, but it is also a lot more too. This novel may have started out as the story of a Texan runaway who met a Scottish band on tour in the USA, but the pivotal moments on which the story turns transform the novel into something else entirely.
The main character is Judithea ‘Jude’ Montgomery, a Texan teenager with a Black mother, and Scottish father whom she had never met. Jude had been secretly dating AJ Carter – secretly for AJ is white, and his parents wouldn’t approve of her. No sooner had they met, than AJ is mown down in a high school massacre. Jude decides she has to go… She gets on a Greyhound bus to head west. Along the way, she falls in with Brandy and Matt, a pair of loveable rogues, and it’s when they stop off in Phoenix, and Brandy sneaks Jude into a gig the Hyptones are doing, that the most critical linking moment happens. Jude has her instant camera and takes a photo of lead singer Jamie Hewitt who catches her eye – seconds before all hell break loose in the redneck bar.
Jude and Jamie are now linked forever – it’s fate, karma. She will go on to San Francisco, eventually becoming a renowned photographer and journalist in New York. As for Jamie and the Hyptones, well they turned out to be one-hit wonders, the band split in a bad way, and for Jamie it leads to a slow descent into debt and addiction.
However, their one hit, ‘A State of Independence’ has a life of its own, continuing to resonate around the world for years, holding tight to its own secrets.
Ross frames the story by beginning with Jude, now older, in 2014, arriving in Glasgow for the first time. But it’s not clear at first why she is there. Is it to search for her father’s memory? To find Jamie again? To make up with Rabbit, the young foster-sister she lived with in SF, now an artist, who is there? Or does it have something to do with Anna, a politician fighting for Scottish independence?
Ross is very clever in the way he structures the novel, how he drops in the frequent bombshells that release crucial new facts about what really happened. He also goes a bit meta on us too, introducing himself in the text as author of an article which may have contributed to the Hyptones’ demise. Indeed, in a reading list of inspirational books appended at the end, he lists Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy – my favourite novel, which is a wonderful example of how to do meta.
I experienced a lot of different emotions as I read this novel. At first it was fun, Jude was a sparky young protagonist, even if she had experienced the first tragedy of several in her life, and as I write this it occurs to me that she shares a name with Jude of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and I wonder if that was maybe a deliberate choice – although Ross’s Jude doesn’t experience the child abuse that HY’s did, she was bullied at school for being brown.
Ross captured the atmosphere of the band brilliantly. Yes, there was some Glasgow dialect in their banter, but not so much that it got in the way (phew!). Their antics and the band dynamics were fun, at least to begin with until it went wrong in Phoenix. And what about Dashboard Elvis? Well, he’s a talisman that Jude nicks from a garage shop that stays with her the whole way through.
There is a real depth to this novel in its tale of fate and regret and that search for absolution. It was the first that I’ve read by this author and definitely won’t be the last!
One thing did make me laugh though. Before transforming herself into Anna, this character was Jamie’s erstwhile girlfriend and band photographer who drove them all mad. Like me, her name was Annabelle (diff spelling though), and to the guys she was always Annafuckingbelle, AFB.
Annafuckingbelle. The AFB. Omnipresent. Like a second skin. An irritation that no amount of calamine lotion can salve. A few months earlier, the first time AFB travelled with the band, a Bulgarian concierge in their London hotel had registered her name firstly as Hambel, and then Hannibal. Four daft young Glaswegians mocked her relentlessly. […]
‘Jesus Christ, it’s Anna fucking Belle. It’s not difficult,’ she had eventually yelled across the desk. Her rage was overtaken by embarrassment. But Annafuckingbelle she has been ever since.
I share her pain! Someone even wrote my name down as Hannibal Gasbill once! And ever since I stuck the word ‘book’ in the middle of my forename for my blog’s title, people have tried to call me Anna. I’m not changing though.
Meanwhile, do check out some of the other stops on the blog tour above.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Orenda paperback original, 342 pages.
BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)