David F Ross
Orenda Books, 8 December 2022
Available as: PB, 300pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Dashboard Elvis is Dead to consider for review and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.
In Dashboard Elvis is Dead, David F Ross hacks into the secret history of the early 1980s music industry, giving us an inside account of the rise and spectacular fall of The Hyptones, a band of young Glaswegian hopefuls for who everything goes wrong on a fateful tour of the US.
A tour which is a downfall for Ross too, because David F Ross appears in the book as the failed writer who documented the band's experiences and was badly burned by doing so. (So fact, fiction and identity are blurred form the start with real musicians, actors and artists appearing with and - one suspects, sometimes without - approval throughout the book).
Thirty years later, in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, Ross picks up with Jude Montgomery, a revered photo journalist, who's arrived in Glasgow. What they seem to have in common is a love for, and a fascination with, the Hyptones and their one hit, An Independent State of Mind, which has become an anthem for the Yes campaign.
It will take the rest of the story to explain how everyone's paths cross, and especially how Jude, who was running away from her Texas trailer park home when she came across The Hyptones the first time, fared in between. That story is an amazing saga of growth and suffering, of finding identity and seeking redemption, that frankly could have driven a whole sequence of novels. I loved Jude's honesty and her self-analysis. I loved Ross's evocation of the racially divided, tense Texan town from which Jude starts. I ,loved the portraits of 1980s San Francisco, of gentrifying New York later in the decade and in the 90s. Most of all I loved Jude. She is a well realised and sympathetic character who just has an awful habit of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Generally driven by good intentions, Jude makes mistakes, burns bridges as if she had shares in the ferry company, and generally leaves a trail of damaged and more or less resentful (or, in one case, dead) friends, mentors, exes and employers across the USA. Nevertheless, she perseveres, and through this story she's visibly growing, exploring her own identity and, in a somewhat twisted way, trying to make amends. (Ultimately it's down to her that An Independent State of Mind isn't wholly forgotten).
I wouldn't say the same of Jamie, a tragic figure who is the other focus of Dashboard Elvis. Jamie is at the centre of The Hyptones, and he's the one who takes the fall when things go wrong. At his core he believes I think that he deserves that - the band has its own secret history - but really that isn't fair. Everyone deserves a chance, or a second chance, but ultimately Jamie's guilt robs him of that, leading him mon a destructive path that only reinforces the guilt.
In describing the trajectory of the band, Ross brings the same sensibility to the lives and aspirations of young working class Scots in the 70s and 80s as he did in his Disco Days trilogy and in There's Only One Danny Garvey. Their voices ring true, lighting up the pages of the book in expressive Scots, albeit slightly indignant, as though being exhibited in a novel wasn't how they expected to spend the evening. (The exception is Jamie's girlfriend, the enigmatic AFB, 'Anna F*****g Belle' who in contrast uses standard English, a slight marker of class or privilege that prefigures her role in the later parts of the book).
There's an interesting contrast between the lives of Jude, who did manage to "get out" but, as her story makes clear, had to sacrifice a lot along the way, and the band members who as I've alluded to above, are basically on a downward slope throughout the book. Especially Jamie. Like Jude, Jamie makes many bad decisions and ends up with lots of regrets. But he's less in a position to try and put things right. The parallels and differences between Jamie and Jude are fascinating, posing a whole series of what if questions revolving around gender, racial identity and social setting. Both deserve a way out. Jude gets one, Jamie doesn't, a fate he shares with most of his bandmates.
This is eventually portrayed in a brilliant piece of non-writing. After sections dealing with the two fairly evenly, eventually Ross sort of has Jamie just... fade away, again contrasting with Jude whose climactic scenes are vivid and consequential. While Jamie's location and eventual fate are key plot points, we don't actually see them, and this building absence of a character is an eloquent way to express what he's become in the lives of those who knew him and those who don't. His absence is almost a more pointed depiction of him than his presence could be.
Oh I could go on praising this book but really, if you don't want to read it by now then what's the point of you? Just take my advice and read Dashboard Elvis is Dead. It's so many things. A very funny book. A sharp examination of young lives, of origins, identity and the complications of living, ageing and "growing up". A bit of a satire on dependence and independence. And a complex, engaging story set where music, crime, social aspiration, lust and politics overlap and mutate.
Just pure brilliance.
For more information about Dashboard Elvis is Dead, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below.