“The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass” by Aug Stone (Stone Soup; 270 pgs., $20)
At its foundation, this “Ballad” is an expanded parody of the hunt-down-the-truth-of-obscure-1980s-bands historical analyses. The ur-text for this is Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” which played it straight with devoted coverage of the likes of Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. Between the covers now is a fiction concocted by an absurdist comedian who also plays and writes about music. The prose and vignettes flow in stylistic waves that toss between trivia and chaos—but a close look reveals truth-telling about lives filled unto anxiety in pursuit of…what seems merely to be the intersection of art and souvenirs.
But, wait: there’s more! Actually, a lot more. In his second novel, the author seems to want to challenge himself to maximizing the length to which he can sustain a balance of reader interest and self-interest. With a narrative voice that’s simultaneously laid-back in general sentence structure, but hyper in chasing distractions and trying to make points of obscure references, this is like a marathon Quentin Tarantino interview. Does it need to be said that your mileage may vary?
The plot’s a tall tale of a quixotic musical/cultural quest for a rare album, Live in Hungaria. The pair of seekers, reminiscent of Wayne & Garth with ADD, dig deep for evidence of the album’s existence and information about all the band’s associates. The band comes up with the name “Buttery Cake Ass” after many preliminary attempts and failures. Covered in quite a few of the early pages, this gaming with names (one of many in the book, including the accounting of coincidences involving the band’s original conceptual masterminds, Hans and Hans) dives right into a strength as well as a limitation of Stone’s approach: simultaneously revealing and reveling in the capriciousness for life’s adventures, both great and small. Flamboyant hopes, admirable (if played for laughs) hard work, and dumb luck produces some success (and eventual band reunion) that patient readers will see as relatable and find themselves rooting for, provided they’ve got some tolerance for indulgent wordplay. Speaking of wordplay, there’s a full flowering of Stone’s gift for it in an extended “Discography,” which cleverly captures the evolution of titles for recordings by BCA and various side projects.
The limited number of flavors for the band hangers-on might be slightly disappointing, unless your taste hews toward The Rutles’ “All You Need Is Cash” and away from “This Is Spinal Tap!” (Exception: Becca, the sweet-voiced angel who provides some grounding). Still, plenty of interactions they have with each other, or with the musicians, or even our dauntless treasure-hunting narrative duo, serve well enough to put over a good percentage of snort-worthy moments—whether on tape (on which all is lost but hiss) or on vinyl (shattered into shards as appropriate for denizens of mosh pits) vinyl or in long-distance pleas:
“…after we had asked the all-important, life-changing, opening question ‘Are you the Cookie Doone who is thanked on Buttery Cake Ass’ Formaldehyde Hydro 7”?’, before she even responded in the affirmative, Trig and I just sensing this was the one, well, the two of us temporarily lost the capacity to speak and smell for about 15 seconds.”
(Aug Stone will be at Surface Noise, 600 Baxter, on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m.) •