Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review of The Fourteenth Colony (A Novel with Music by Jason T. Lewis)

I just finished reading The Fourteenth Colony by Jason T. Lewis.  The book comes with an eight song companion CD/download. 

Lewis was a well known regular in the Morgantown WV music scene back in the early 90s.  He later moved to New York City to pursue his music, started an Americana rock band there called Star City, worked with the late Jay Bennett (Wilco) and for the last couple years has been Director of the Writing and Humanities Program at the University of Iowa.

My first memories of Jason Lewis are that of a musician and journalist.  If I remember right, he was a music writer for The Daily Athenaeum, the WVU student newspaper.
He interviewed me 20 years ago when my cassette “New World Out of Order” came out.

To be from West Virginia is to be an artist.   You must be creative to stay, but you must be creative to leave and stay away.  Staying away is the real trick. Some find it impossible.  Others live their lives tortured by it. Pining away for the Great State or the selective memories of what they thought was great before they left.  In West Virginia there’s art in the way people speak, in the food, the land, the slice of a buck’s belly, the pain and the heaven that is there or almost there, daily.

I spent my twenties trying to get out of West Virginia and I spent my thirties trying to get back. 

The Fourteenth Colony is a fictional work about trying to “get back” home and slipping as you try.  It is about trying to mend your broken past somehow. 

It is about a musician from a broken family, a broken state and heart stepped on by a mother and a father who didn’t know how to be a mother and father.  A musician who moved to New York and was signed to a major label, but then the bottom fell out and left him with nothing but some master tapes that he had no legal right to release.

I know that some of this work of fiction is fact and follows Lewis’ actual life, but I’m somewhat afraid to ask him which is which as it all seems so painful. 

The story is a compelling one for me as I too come from a broken home and am a musician who moved away to search for my musical “legacy”. My reasons and motivation to start playing rock and roll were not sexually motivated as is the case with most young men, but possibly a reaching out to my family.  An attempt to prove something to them. If Dad had hugged me once or twice as a baby, maybe I would have been an accountant.

I feel this to be the case with the main character in Lewis’ book, John Martin.  I can’t shake the name. Or maybe the name shakes me in an interesting way.  John Martin.  John=John and Martin=fine guitar.  Crapper Guitar.  Crap Guitar.  Music in the crapper.  Ha.

At any rate, The Fourteenth Colony is a book of struggle that is more than worthy of a read from anyone, but especially those who grew up in West Virginia then moved away.  Maybe it is best to never go back, but sometimes going back is the only option. 

John Martin finds himself going back to the same haunts, losing sobriety and his mind or possibly finding his mind as he gets lost.  He seems to be connecting himself with those people who most remind him of his past.  A stripper who reminds him of his mother who has a teenage son comes to mind.  The stripper talks about how she had her son a bit too early in life and one of my favorite lines of the book falls here.  She talks about how her boy will take off without letting her know where he is, just long enough to make it hurt. “He knows how to make time painful”, she said.

John Martin sees his teen years in that boy and his mother in the stripper.  He desperately attempts to mend his past by connecting with both of them.  The spark of the book is in this ongoing friction.

John Martin’s dying father’s request for a deer steak for his possible last meal turns into a wonderful metaphoric trip through the familiar West Virginia hills of my boyhood.  I can almost smell the words.  As John Martin reluctantly hunts the deer down he is thinking, “It wasn’t in me, but I had to try. I stood and walked further up the hill, past the place where I’d been the day before, toward the clearing above.  It was an unknown place. Maybe unknown things could happen there.” 

Unknown things do happen there.

Throughout the story, Martin refers to the master tapes that are in his van, the major label release that fell through.  In most books you would simply imagine the music, but Lewis has included a CD/download of some of the songs mentioned on the master as well as others that touch on the book’s theme.  The book gets so desperately dark at times that I expected the songs to venture into Lou Reed’s territory, lyrically I mean, but they don’t.  They are straight forward Americana rock songs with a well rehearsed band.  No hillbilly twang here.  They are aching Americana Rock tunes.  They sound like songs from a man who may have spent his twenties running away from his West Virginia roots only to realize that there was nowhere to run.  They most certainly sound like songs that could have been on John Martin’s never to be released CD.  The book stands strong on its own, but it is really great/unique having this musical companion.

As a songwriter, this work was inspirational to me.  It is an exciting and admirable achievement by Lewis.   

Read it.

Todd Burge Jan 11th 2012

Find it here:

No comments: