Review: World Enough by Clea Simon
World Enough is an intriguing, hard-hitting, intricately-plotted mystery set in Boston’s clubland and marks an exciting new departure for cozy author Clea Simon.
It’s only rock ‘n roll, but I like it.
Clea Simon brings us back to the ’80s Boston rock club scene with her newest mystery, World Enough. A journalist by trade, she calls on her own experiences and tells a story unfettered by nostalgia, spinning a twisted tale of rockers, critics, fans, bouncers, club owners, and groupies—warts and all.
Tara Winton has left the rock zine life for that of a corporate office, surrounded by touchy people who consider her the “edgy” one. Her ex Peter got her the job, possibly to kill her dreams of greater things as a journalist, and he lingers in her life like a bad smell—who she sometimes returns to because it’s a comfy bad smell.
She’s coasting along this way until Frank, the singer of a band she loved back in the day, dies in an accident that might not be an accident. His funeral brings friends from the rock scene who haven’t seen each other for ages back together. Her bestie Gina, now a nurse, who held a torch for Frank; bouncers turned bartenders; has-beens; and never-weres—all haunted by the overdose of Chris Crack, the one star back in the day who might’ve made it big but died young and, coincidentally, whose ex became Frank’s wife.
Her old pal Scott, who put the zine she cut her teeth at together, wants her to write a piece for a trendy local mag that focuses on the drugs and the nastiness, all set to be washed away by a final surge of gentrification.
That was how she met everyone. Underground Sound never became a must-read, nothing like Boston Rock, and with everything that happened, it didn’t last long. But while it did, it got her name around. And Tara was glad to have her own way in, something besides her friendship with Gina. The paper got her into bigger shows, too, once it became established. Once people could count on it coming out on time. She remembers the first time she went backstage, into the cramped closet they called a dressing room at the Rat. She’d come to bring in an issue, but had forgotten about it from the moment she walked through the door. The room was tiny, and covered in graffiti. Sharpies, paint, ballpoint. The band names alone mesmerized her. She could’ve spent hours reading the walls, and she watched as the Painkillers, the band on the cover, added their names, dripping and sloppy with red nail polish.
You can tell from the writing that this is a personal novel and that Simon has lived not only through the era but in the city where it is set. Boston isn’t quite a character in the book, but we get a vivid picture of how it has changed since her days at the Rat. Like New York’s Lower East Side, Southie has changed. There’s money to be made, and the owner of what was the most money-hungry rock club—where the bouncers were quick to bash your face in and not just toss you out—also happens to run the rag where Scott is now editor.
This isn’t “The Big Chill,” but the story isn’t a traditional mystery either—despite Tara’s investigative chops. Both Frank’s death in the present and Chris Crack’s in the past fall under scrutiny. Chris was deep into heroin, and Frank barely escaped it. He and Gina, Chris’s ex, have lived clean for decades. But questions keep piling up as Tara pieces together a story of what was.
Her memory is clouded by rose-colored John Lennon-glasses as she reminisces about the crowd that once accepted her. They weren’t the fun-loving rockers she remembers. There was a darker side.
Except for Chris Crack. She can still see him, lounging by the door to the Casbah’s office. From there, he could see the stage. See the fat man in the thousand-dollar suit as he waited, staring at the empty stage. Chris didn’t seem to care. He might as well have been at some Allston house party as a sold-out rock club. The way he leaned against the open door frame, his lace-edged tank hiked up to show some skin. His head lolling back against his upraised arm as if his career weren’t on the line.
Despite the looming presence of money and corporate greed, Simon keeps the story focused on the personal, like all the best noir. I was a little too young to hit the clubs in the early ’80s, but a friend I grew up with from grade school overdosed in the tub in the early ’90s, right after he got a record contract. This story brought me back to that time when our innocence began to crack, and we became conscious of hidden motives and manipulations by people we thought were our friends. How everything seemed so important; when we had world enough and time, we acted like we had neither, and all that mattered was “right now.”
Tara’s struggle with her job and relationships are as intriguing as the mystery of whether Frank’s or Chris’s deaths were accidental or something more sinister. Is Peter as protective as he seems, or is he more of a controlling bastard? Same with Gina, who knows her friend so well she can play her like a piano. In the end, Tara will learn that we never have world enough and time, as her friends learned the hard way.