Romantic tension isn't necessary to make great rock music, but it's been known to help: Think of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks transforming their resentment into song on Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," or Richard and Linda Thompson breaking lyrical bottles over each other's heads on "Shoot Out the Lights." With that in mind, Pagan Kennedy's second novel, "The Exes," is a simple story about love colliding with rock-and-roll: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy starts a band with girl, because the concept of a group made up entirely of exes is so brilliantly high concept that Phil Spector would kick himself for not thinking of it first.
"We'll have the gossip factor," Lilly, the vocalist, tells her ex-boyfriend Hank, the band's guitarist. "People are going to go nuts trying to figure out how ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends can stand to be around each other enough to be in a band -- that will make us instantly intriguing." And in the rock world that Kennedy creates, they do become intriguing. With another broken couple -- Shaz and Walt -- on bass and drums, the Boston-based Exes get the "buzz" they hoped for and a small taste of success. By avoiding gimmicks, Kennedy comes up with a breezy work that is a knowing and smartly conceived examination of relationships in general, which can be as uplifting as a Motown drum fill or as clumsy as a teenager's first attempt at bar chords.
As befits someone who's written loudly and often on such topics -- Kennedy has also written books on zine-making, '70s kitsch and other hipster talismans -- "The Exes" is propelled by a healthy dose of hip references, from Snoopy blankets to "Star Trek" episodes to "Superfly." But Kennedy's finest passages uncover the emotions the band members go through, stripping off their poses and gas station-attendant jackets to reveal their insecurities. Lilly, talented and slightly neurotic, struggles to understand Shaz, a bisexual Pakistani who fears success, and is thrilled when she makes a breakthrough. "You couldn't tie her to you with heavy ropes; you had to use hundreds of spiderwebs instead. You had to sew her to you with invisible thread and a needle made of glass."
The typical story-of-a-rock-band themes do crop up: Egos swell and get smashed, tour-van claustrophobia kicks in, an A&R rep from The Evil Major Label promises too much, and on occasion the relationship between Lilly and Hank becomes so tangled that The Exes tend to be, well, not exes. Kennedy puts a fresh face on those clichis. What Nick Hornby did for the insufferable record geek in "High Fidelity," Kennedy does for the touring rock musician: makes him (and her) real and layered. It offers a basic 4/4 beat, something you can groove to, but underneath is a lovely swirl of counter-melodies and sounds that are unfamiliar but engaging.