Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton
William Morrow and Company, 1991
Price I paid: Libraries are fun and educational
Several years ago Bradley Denton’s first novel appeared as a paperback original entitled Wrack & Roll. Locus called it “an eccentric triumph, recommended reading for members of that paradox-ridden generation where rock ‘n’ roll will never die, but kids have turned into grownups all the same.” “Moves at breakneck pace, filled with comic invention and brutal satire,” said Booklist. “Impressive work, highly original…Highly recommended,” said Science Fiction Chronicle.
Now he breaks into hardcover with Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede, an extraordinary novel of realism and wild fantasy in the postmodern vein. This book brews a heady concoction out of such diverse elements as space aliens living in disguise next door in suburban Kansas; a resurrected Buddy Holly appearing on TV worldwide with the planet Jupiter in the background, on all channels, twenty-four hours a day, a desperately depressed computer-store clerk, Oliver Vale, whose nutty mother worships rock ‘n’ roll. What results is a car-and-motorcycle chase across the southern Midwest ending in a huge revival rally at the drive-in movie theater. Attending are a motorcycle gang, a murderous renegade secret agent, a sympathetic psychiatrist, a robot Doberman who likes beer, various alien beings in human disguise, and thousands of worried people whose TVs won’t work right.
Along with the strange and wonderful aspects of the story comes a strong sense of what life and the world have gone though over the last thirty years, a gently jaundiced view of the world at present, and a deep and abiding love of rock ‘n’ roll and its saving powers.
Bradley Denton is a strong and original voice in American fiction, dealing with pop culture elements and finely tuned characters in a hyperbolic plot reminiscent of early Vonnegut novels or the work of James Morrow, with a dash of Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide mode. Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede has wit, color, intensity, narrative drive, and an involving story. Hold onto your seats, Bradley Denton is here.from the inside flap
Good god almighty damn (as my father used to say; Happy Father’s Day) the jacket copy of this book is a freakin’ press release, and a pretty bad one too. It’s mostly accurate, but just wrong enough to bother me. It doesn’t take much. But it’s the tone it takes, the desperate attempt to sell me this book, that’s really irritating. It doesn’t need that! It is entitled Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede. It doesn’t need any more selling than that. It’s possibly the best title I’ve ever seen. You see a book with this title on the shelf, you’re either gonna buy it or you’re gonna find an excuse not to, and then you’re gonna regret it for a few years until you see it again and you buy it that time.
It might sound like I’m talking from personal experience in that description, but I sadly must fess up that it is not the case. I was introduced to this book about ten years ago when my friend John saw a paperback copy and snatched it up. He’s one of the former examples, you might say. He read it and liked it and then loaned it to me, whereupon I also read it and, as I seem to recall, liked it.
Cut to a few weeks ago and we’re chatting and the book comes up and he suggests that I read it again for a review. See if it holds up, etc. I agreed that that was a very good idea, and so I grabbed a copy from the library. It turned out that the book was significantly longer than I remembered, which is fine except for my shoddy work ethic, and it also turned out that I remembered, uh, basically nothing about it!
After I put eyes to paper, there were a few things that felt familiar, like the protagonist’s name and general demeanor, but all-in-all, this was like reading the book for the first time. I don’t know what to make of that. Normally it would be a pretty damning statement to make about a book, right? But in this case it shouldn’t be. It’s a fine book. I really enjoyed it this time, and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it the first time, as well, although I’ll step back for a moment to reflect on the fickle nature of memory.
Okay, that’s quite enough of that.
What we’ve got here is a book that’s light on the sci-fi. There’s some there—the title of this book is not metaphorical or a pun or spiritually true or whatever—but the overall tale is one of a guy trying to make sense of his inexplicable circumstances as best he can. These are circumstances that have dogged him his entire life, but come to a head on the afternoon of February 3, 1989.
Our guy is Oliver Vale, and this date is important to him for several reasons. For one, it’s the anniversary of his conception, which he knows about because he’s read all of the several volumes of his mother’s diary. It’s also the anniversary of the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper. Oliver’s mom’s diary makes it clear that she thinks the conception happened at exactly the same instant that Holly died, and that she thinks that his spirit passed into her unborn son.
Oliver himself is a regular guy. He sells consumer electronics and goes to therapy and is just trying to have a decent life. He has read his mother’s diaries and misses her dearly, although he will openly say that he thinks she was a kook. She had a rough life, largely in part due to her out-of-wedlock child in the oh-so-forgiving and open-minded year of Our Lord 1959. Estranged from her own parents due to her “condition,” limited in opportunities to give her child a good life, also limited in opportunities to give herself a good and fulfilling life, it’s a pretty rough scene, and she does her best. But she also turns to new-age mysticism, immersing herself in tales of UFOs, Atlanteans, and the healing power of Rock and Roll in an attempt to make sense of it all.
One thing I’m glad about is that this book didn’t do the thing where Oliver discovers his mother’s diaries and then reads them as the book progresses, and maybe something like how certain entries so happen to be pertinent to his current situation. Instead, he read them all a few years ago and recalls certain entries as they happen to be pertinent. It’s a small thing, but a welcome one.
Anyway, like I said a hundred paragraphs ago, things come to a head for Oliver on the thirtieth anniversary of the Day the Music Died. It’s also the fifth anniversary of the Day His Mother Died, so he’s got a lot on his mind already when it turns out that his television has started showing something unusual. It’s Buddy Holly, alive as he could be, chitchatting with the television camera and occasionally singing “It’s So Easy” and “Everyday” and all the other far-too-few classic jams, with the planet Jupiter in the background.
We soon learn that it’s not just Oliver’s TV doing it. It is, in fact, everyone’s TV doing it. Around the world. And to make things worse, Buddy finally says something about how for him to get free, he’ll need the help of one Oliver Vale, and then states Oliver’s street address, and asks if someone could maybe get hold of him please.
And so what follows is a madcap adventure wherein Oliver is pursued and threatened by the police, the feds, people who are just kinda pissed off about not being able to watch TV, and a group of fundamentalist evangelical Christians who think that Oliver is the Antichrist.
The remaining story is told from multiple points of view. Oliver’s takes up the bulk of the book and is written entirely in first person, and each of his sections usually begins with some reminiscence of his mother, peppered with entries from her diary, and his own reflections on the matter. Often these will revolve around the deaths of further rock and roll superstars, but not always. Other times they are Oliver coming to terms with his mother’s difficult life and his own role in that. Sometimes there’s a sense of guilt but fortunately Oliver never really wallows in it. He just acknowledges it.
Oliver’s therapist, Sharon, also has sections of the book and they are also written in first-person, albeit because they are her notes on Oliver’s prior behavior and his current “breakdown.” Like many, Sharon is convinced that Oliver has somehow managed to create this whole situation himself, but unlike many, she wants to find and help him before he comes to harm. She has enlisted her lawyer boyfriend, Bruce, to help, and her entries often end up reflecting on what an obnoxious guy he is.
Sharon’s sections are probably the fewest in number, and I admit that I don’t think they would have hurt the book too much if they’d been cut.
Other point-of-view characters are entirely in third person, and they include
- Richter, an aging federal agent who wants to bust Oliver and prove that he’s still Got What it Takes
- Cathy and Jeremy, Oliver’s neighbors who are some kind of non-corporeal beings and representatives of one faction of said non-corporeal beings
- Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, also non-corporeal beings and representatives of the other faction
- Ringo, a Doberman belonging to Cathy and Jeremy, cybernetically enhanced physically and mentally and also still basically a dog who acts like a dog
One of the ways this book tells its story is by having it be told from one of the points of view until one of the other POV characters shows up, whereupon it jumps to their POV, but also backward in time a bit to get us caught up, whereupon it progresses again until the next POV character shows up. It’s kind of interesting and pretty different from other books I’ve read with the multiple POV character structure, like A Song of Ice and Fire, wherein you’ll switch points of view but pick up at the same point in time, telling a linear narrative.
It generally worked pretty well but there were also times when it felt like it wasn’t strictly necessary.
Oliver flees his home on his motorcycle, a black Ariel Cyclone named Peggy Sue that he’s half-convinced is the one that used to belong to Buddy Holly (I did some research and it appears that at the time this book takes place, Holly’s Cyclone was in the possession of Waylon Jennings). He settles on heading for Lubbock, Texas, Buddy’s hometown and burial site, in the hopes that it will lead to answers.
Along the way he picks up a straggler named Gretchen, a hostile and very conservative blond woman whose insistence on sticking with Oliver is a bit of a mystery. Sometime later he runs into Pete and his family. Pete, it turns out, was in the same unit in Vietnam as Oliver’s uncle Mike. In fact, Mike was Pete’s best friend in ‘Nam and read all of Oliver’s mother’s letters Mike and found himself falling, not in love, but in fascination with her. When Mike was killed in a friendly fire incident by the wrong end of a Claymore mine, Pete kept all of the letters.
This is a book that seems like it rides on astonishing coincidences, but then later you learn that they aren’t, actually. In some cases it turns out to be the machinations of non-corporeal beings, but other times it’s just people figuring things out by listening to the news on the radio. So Oliver doesn’t run into Pete completely randomly, it’s more that Pete thinks to himself that the route the Feds think Oliver is taking will lead him to somewhere nearby, so he ought to keep a a lookout for him.
Pete’s son, also named Mike, might be my favorite character in the book. He’s a thirteen-year-old leftist radical and he’s incredible. At one point he accuses his older sister, Laura, of having “the political naivete of a Baby Boomer” and that made me chuckle for a good couple of seconds. This book is ahead of its time, pulling an OK boomer like that in 1991.
Other elements of the book are timeless. The evangelical fundie Christians in the book, led by the Reverend William Willard, are almost tediously recognizable. They’re exactly the same shade of right-winger who will crash a protest they don’t agree with and beat people to death in the street, and then whine about their rights being violated when someone else complains about what they have to say. I’d blame Reagan but it goes back even further than that.
I mean, just look at these assholes:
It turns out that Lubbock is not the place to go after all, when it comes to light that Buddy Holly’s grave has been exhumed and he’s not there. Oliver and Company (heheh) consider their options and he decides that the answers will be found in El Dorado, Kansas, where Oliver’s mom once bought a satellite dish. Really, it’s all based on a hunch and perhaps a bit of a nudge from our friends Ike and Nicky, who are hanging out in El Dorado.
We learn that Eisenhower and Khrushchev represent the “pro-flesh” faction of their species, while Cathy and Jeremy are “anti-flesh.” It’s not about liking humans versus wanting to wipe them out, it’s more about the idea that humans should be taught the secrets of becoming non-corporeal themselves. The anti-flesh contingent believes that humans aren’t ready and ought to be left alone until they can figure themselves out a bit more.
Also in El Dorado are William Willard and his mob, who have set up a major demonstration there. Oliver and his posse show up and it’s really fraught for a while, practically becoming a battleground. Oliver gets his knee shot by a ball-bearing from a slingshot and then goes down, but he crawls to safety and, with the help of Cathy and Jeremy, who don’t want him killed, manages to set up a broadcast of the current Buddy Holly on Ganymede situation. Everyone stops to watch just as Buddy delivers his final message, that a voice has appeared and told him that he can now go on tour across the cosmos, free of his body, and that he’s decided to take the voice up on the offer. He vanishes, leaving behind his guitar.
And then regular TV comes back. Everybody celebrates and then goes back home. The non-corporeal beings, called Seekers, all get together and sort of explain the situation to us, saying that neither side actually won, but that hopefully humans will be able to get their act together soon and that a mission of retrieving Buddy’s guitar from Ganymede might give them just enough of an impetus to work together on a common goal. The two factions agree to disagree on that, and then shed their bodies to fly upward into the night, echoing several times throughout Oliver’s mom’s diary where she was convinced that she saw such upward-going meteors on days when famous rock stars died (most notably Elvis). Was she right all along? Maybe? Kinda? It’s a bit of a mystery and that’s fine.
Oliver gets home to Topeka and finds his house destroyed by raging mobs, but his newfound family helps him put it and his life back together, and he reflects on how all of this is kinda nice after all, and how he’ll use his newfound celebrity to push for a space mission to Ganymede, because he’s called dibs on the guitar. And that’s the end.
A sweet ending to a book that is generally pretty sweet all around. I liked it. The book could be a little sardonic at times, but it was rarely what I’d call ugly or mean. It does suffer from some early 90s prejudices, mostly a good few fatphobic comments about couch potatoes missing their TVs. Also, if you’re thinking of reading this yourself (and I encourage you to do so!), I should add a content warning for two mentions of suicide. Just a heads up.
The book had more in common with litfic than with sci-fi, and while normally I’d say that with a bit of a sneer, I won’t this time, because it was good. I’ll admit that as I’ve gotten older I’ve grown more and more jaded about rock star worship, something I was really into when I was younger, but the book didn’t really make me feel upset about it. Most of that worship came from Oliver’s mom, and she was clearly someone looking desperately for something to hang onto, so I kinda get it. That might actually explain my own feelings when I was younger.
Still, I did roll my eyes at a flashback section to Oliver’s 21st birthday, which happened to be December 8, 1980, the day John Lennon was shot. I have complicated and tedious opinions about John Lennon these days, but they basically boil down to the feeling that he was both a genius and also a really shit human, especially to Cynthia and Julian. So when Oliver’s mom was all “He was too good for this world,” I was less than thrilled. Lennon is a prime example of why elevating people to godhood is not a great idea. Remember him as the human he was, both a brilliant songwriter (in my opinion, yours may differ and that’s ok) and as a guy with a toxic and abusive personality.
(These insights come to you from a huge fan of the late Warren Zevon, who was probably a worse human than Lennon but whose songs spoke directly to my soul, so there you go.)
That said, I haven’t heard anybody say anything negative about Buddy Holly, which certainly doesn’t mean nothing happened and probably has more to do with the fact that he was 22 when he died than anything else. One of my personal favorite what ifs to think about is what would have happened if that plane hadn’t gone down. What songs did we lose out on? What would his career been like after that? Would he have retired in his thirties? Kept going until we were all joking about him being washed up? Kept rocking ’til the very end like Chuck Berry? Or would he have been spared in ’59 only to OD on heroin a few years later?
Rock and roll martyrs, man. They really get you thinking. And this book did a good job of that, too. Even if it’s a little deep in the hero worship, it’s a fine book to get those kinds of thoughts a-churnin’. And all sorts of others, as well. It’s also kinda funny in places, generally sweet all over, and all-in-all, a great read. Give it a shot!
I’ve got Bradley Denton’s first novel, Wrack & Roll, on my bedside table as we speak. It’s a doorstop so it’ll be a while before I get around to it, but I’m excited to see what it has on offer. Until then, keep on rocking?
God that sounds lame when I say it.