NTN: Don’t Breathe the Air

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Don't Beathe The AirNTN 2013 logo 100Written by Simon Fellowes — Ronnie Marston was steeped in the music business. He was one of the most respected roadies in the game, and became a guitar-tech to the stars. Now, those days are over and he is happier running a downmarket rehearsal studio in North London, helped by his son Paul. When they host a scratch band put together to help promote Lizzie Truce, a visiting American singer, it looks as though things may be on the up. While Paul and Lizzie are out getting to know each other, a circuit board at the studio shorts out, and the resultant fire destroys everything. Tragedy follows disaster when Ronnie Marston inexplicably commits suicide, almost in front of his son. As Paul cradles his father at the roadside Ronnie breathes his last words, which set in motion a series of events that turns into a nightmare for all concerned.

To explore the enigma of his father’s last utterance, Paul travels to Los Angeles with his hapless mate, Lugs. Once in Hollywood, they are reunited with Lizzie Truce, and the strange coterie of wannabe stars, drug dealers and promoters who inhabit the greasy underbelly of the music business. We meet Don Schulz, one of the most powerful men in the industry, but a man with a terrible secret. There’s his current mistress Tawny too, with her perfect body and far from perfect sense of morality. We also meet Deram, a former British rock star who spins around in the galaxy of LA’s rock gods like a cheap satellite. And then there’s Billy Caesar, a brutal and unprincipled former musician who shares Don Schulz’s dark past.

As Paul scrapes away at the layers of lies and secrets to find out what links his late father with these deeply unpleasant music big-shots, things start to slip out of control, at first slowly, and then at a breathtaking pace. Careers and reputations hang in the balance. He has all the right questions, but he’s asking the wrong people. That is to say, the wrong people for a naive lad from North London to be backing into a corner. As he gets further out of his depth, Paul bounces around the flashing lights and neon chaos of LA like a pinball.

The writing is snappy, slick, and yet curiously dated. If you are old enough to remember The New English Library (NEL) reading the bold and brash style that Fellowes adopts may twang the strings of your memory. Unfortunately, the characters are generally unlovable. Perhaps the author was looking for some edginess and shades of grey within his cast, but we need more reasons to believe in the key players, and to care about what happens to them. Many pages pass – nearly half the book – before an actual crime is committed, and the story is full of graphic violence, sex, greed, corruption, more sex, and even a spot of incest thrown in for good measure.

However, Fellowes is clearly a gifted writer. His prose is pacy, full of life. He describes the hardscrabble world of not-so-gifted musician wannabes with wit and verve. He knows the music industry inside out, having reported on it and having been a recording artist. He also knows London and Los Angeles. The book is perfectly readable, with echoes of Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins in the LA scenes, and just a hint of Irvine Welsh in the London action.

Strata Books

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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