Seattle rocker Laura Loss, one-time teen bass player in her brother's successful early-'80s hardcore punk band SCC, recalls her ascent to grunge queen—and her descent into rock tabloid infamy—as drummer of the legendary '90s band the Mistakes.
Inspired by the spectacular rise and tragic demise of Nirvana, McMahon's first novel skillfully captures two rock movements. Brief flashbacks of SCC, whose story ends when Laura's stage-diving brother Anthony is brutally beaten by a skinhead, are interwoven with the story of the Mistakes, the accidental band that brings her out of retirement. She's working in a coffee shop when she meets two flannel-shirted, SCC-loving hayseeds from Montana: Sean, a withdrawn soul and genius guitarist who sees sounds as colors, and Nathan, a singer and bassist with a gift for writing intense lyrics about their messy lives. We see Laura go from being a reluctant den mother who agrees to help "the boys" start up a group to excited participant in the trio's unique, razor-edged sound—and sexual partners with Sean, whom she doesn't love, and then Nathan, whom she does. On the verge of making it big, the band derails following a physical altercation with a label executive. They sign with a label with troublesome commercial designs and discover that Sean, whose signature move is to fall from a height onto his guitar, isn't the same guitarist after he sobers up. Haunted by the fate of her brother, who remains in a vegetative state, Laura is determined to save Sean from a bad fate but ultimately can't—any more than she can save herself from being held bitterly accountable for the end of the Mistakes. McMahon stays in an enviable comfort zone: He never strains for effect or tries to sell his characters as myths, as much as they may resonate with the Kurt Cobains and Courtney Loves of the world. His female narration is so good, there is a Lorrie Moore–ness to Laura's intelligence, self-awareness and self-deprecating wit. And the descriptions of the performances give you a feel for why fans went crazy over the Mistakes.
A rock novel good enough to wish you had an accompanying soundtrack.