A mystery involving a real-life rocker, a perfume that will knock you out and a cast of characters ranging from drug-crazed Italians and mist-making Persians to wannabe musicians and star-struck Jersey girls.
Levine’s first novel, billed as book one in the Spec Time Trilogy, takes the reader through four fictionalized days in the life of rocker Jon Cells. But the rock’n’roll mystery really involves a U.S. Customs/FBI/NYPD investigation, a botched raid of a Persian perfume family and the Italian brothers who stole some of their intoxicating Princess Mist formula. The mystery carries through right to the last chapter, failing to keep the reader on the edge of his seat only because of side stories involving a dozen other characters, descriptions (sometimes repeated) that slow the story and digressions that provide interesting details but don’t necessarily lead anywhere. Levine puts forth Cells as the book’s hero, but where does he fit into the action? Cells works for Laden Imports (the Persian perfume factory) at a job (required by his probation—another story) he barely tolerates. His real interests are sex, drugs and rock and roll—and violence (he has a nasty temper). The real Jon Cells (born John Edward Neulinger, aka Jon Neulin or Slide) had a brief underground career in Denver, New York and Los Angeles. Lyrics from several tracks of his Cracked House album creep (or stomp) into Levine’s narrative, and Levine’s obvious appreciation of Cells generates some tantalizing sentences: “Jon’s long, raspy, blood-curdling screech capped the insanity-tinged climax of ‘Mental Disorder’ with a mesmerizing urgency that unraveled in a frenzy of strangled lead notes, blistering bass runs, and piercing cymbal crashes, eventually ending in abrupt sonic seizure.” Still, Cells plays only a marginal role in the story, perhaps a reflection of his marginalized relationship with society. With any luck, we’ll be able to follow him through the rest of his short life (he died in 1994 at the age of 44) in the next installments of Levine’s trilogy. For now, this book, especially chapter 67, would be best enjoyed with Cracked House cranked up in the background.
This book offers up a worthy mystery just short of gripping, along with an insider’s tour of the dark underground of the early 1980s New York City music scene.