Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Live by Request

by Rob Payne

In Fictionland, all novels that are narrated by struggling members of rock bands feature embarrassing alcoholic dads; laconic, skinny love-object minxes; service jobs that resemble psych wards; descriptions of greasy food; and at least one reference to Morrissey or Radiohead. Rob Payne’s debut novel Live By Request contains all of the above, plus some other get-in-the-van standards, such as a road trip and rehearsals that are stormed out of.

But Payne also puts something fresh in the mix. This surprisingly heartfelt book about low-level rock dreams doesn’t try to outcool the reader or get all artsy on us. Live By Request simply recounts several months in the life of bartender Jay Thompson, a 26-year-old loser secretly in love with his band’s sour/sweet bass player. Thompson is basically a nice-guy downtowner with an appalling family, a ratty apartment, and a conviction that his life can’t sink any lower. Even his musical escape hatch has become dysfunctional: Jay is the vocalist with indie hopefuls Archangel, a band desperate to break out of playing Police hits on “Sunday night at a crappy English pub in a university town.”

A get-rich-quick-then-outta-there plot is hatched: the distinctly unbiblical Archangel will pretend to be fundamentalist Christians, conquer the Christian rock market, then return rich to the real world. If Live By Request has one problem, it is this contrived chunk of action – we never really buy that the band would even consider such an obviously incompatible strategy, let alone have a prayer at succeeding. But just as every good CD contains one dud track that gets fast-forwarded, readers can skip Payne’s blackout in judgment and go straight for the rest, which is mellow gold.