I approached The Cost of Living, Rob Roberge’s third novel and first with Other Voices Books, with the hope I approach any novel with a substantial rock and roll backdrop. As a rock novelist three times over, I’m always looking for reasons to get excited about this underrepresented genre. Every time I see a writer my age focusing his energies on some futuristic alternate reality, or domestic milieu, or bloodsucking tale with nary a Stratocaster in sight, I think, “Come on. You had ‘Triumph kicks ass’ written on your Mead spiral notebook just like me.”
Roberge does not disappoint. Bud Barrett, the main character of The Cost of Living, is a songwriter-guitarist years removed from his success in the Popular Mechanics and dealing with the baggage of a dying father he loathes and a mother who killed herself years before. You might expect all this unresolved emotion to lead a rocker to some tampering with drugs, and Bud obliges by getting down and dirty with pills and needles and anything else he can get his hands on. As much as the rock element of the novel drew me in, it’s Roberge’s rendering of addict culture—and the specific way addicts unwittingly destroy the souls of those around them—that makes The Cost of Living such a compelling read.
Take Bud’s relationship with Simone, a bald, wigged, sexy bartender at a club hosting one of the Popular Mechanics’ early shows. The attraction between the two is palpable, and they eventually find themselves alone in the damp walk-in cooler.
I kissed her inner thigh. Her skin was warm. My knees were cold and wet, the water having soaked through the patches on my jeans. I felt like I could spend a long time kissing anywhere on her body she asked me to. I left my head in her lap and felt the hypnotic rumble of the freezer’s motor vibrating the chair and Simone’s legs.
The pair’s budding romance hits a snag Bud runs out of opiate, and he asks Simone to help him break his pinky in order to score pain meds. Roberge writes, “The amp clunked on the floor when I got my finger out from under it. The fingernail ripped halfway out and dripped blood.” Simone regrets having had any part of it, which Bud can’t allow himself to understand.
I looked down at my splinted finger, wet with bloodied gauze. I held it up. “I’m the one who got hurt here.”
“No,” she said. “You’re the one with the broken finger.” She tossed her cigarette out the window. “You’re not the one who got hurt.”
The price for Bud’s addiction becomes Simone’s broken heart, and just about everyone else’s he touches.
Bud also did a number on his band. I imagine the Popular Mechanics as Wilco-like in style and level of success, but with two distinct periods in its history. Bud is the primary creative force of the first period before being thrown out for addiction issues. I love the scene when Bud rejoins the threesome and they try to navigate the political terrain of their reunion. Ground Zero is the Bud-penned song “The Problem with Drugs,” which a currently sober Bud doesn’t want to play despite it being one of the band’s most popular tunes. He says, “I haven’t requested anything else. I’m playing everything people’ve suggested, and I haven’t tried to push anything of mine you guys wouldn’t want.” To which drummer Jack retorts, “So you’re more important that two thousand fans a night?” As a guy with a history in rock bands, I can picture too well these little skirmishes for power and leverage. Roberge has clearly done his time in the practice room.
My main gripe about The Cost of Living centers around Roberge’s need to oversell the drama in Bud’s life. Every time he has sex, does drugs or hurts himself, the situation is so over the top it’s actually less compelling. Bud and his mates take drugs in random bunches—Vicodin and heroin and pot and Ecstasy and speed—often at the same time. Likewise with sex, Bud can’t just be in love with a woman but must penetrate every orifice in every possible way to show just how far his passion stretches. Finally, and most unrealistically, whenever Bud damages himself physically—a frequent occurrence in TCoL—all commonsense injury gets bypassed for repeated, brutal, cringe-worthy maiming. This melodrama pull me out of Bud’s real pain: being driven to emotional and spiritual ruin by his inability to escape his dependency.
To focus too much on this is to miss the achievement of The Cost of Living. Roberge has written a painfully realistic look at a rocker grappling with his own broken soul. You’ll shake your head every time Bud reaches for OxyContin, and cheer as he fumbles toward a meaningful life.
About the reviewer:
Art Edwards’s writing has appeared in The Writer and Writers’ Journal, and online at Salon, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently shopping his third novel, Badge, and working on a memoir.