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Book Review: Pistonhead by Thomas A. Hauck

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Although I don't watch the show, the concept behind American Idol strikes me as a microcosm of music in America today. The general auditions attract "tens of thousands each year, a few hundred might get to audition for the judges, a couple dozen might be "semifinalists" and the show then winnows them out with some going home quickly, others becoming household names and a very few actually becoming stars.

Increase the initial number of those auditioning exponentially and you're starting to scratch the surface of music and musicians in the real world. Drawing on his years as a performing rock musician and songwriter in the Boston area, Thomas A. Hauck gives readers a chance to go beyond that surface in his self-published novel, Pistonhead.

Using one week in the life of rock guitarist Charlie Sinclair, Pistonhead explores the world of performing musicians are good — or lucky — enough to perhaps make the level analogous to those who actually get to perform before the Idol judges. Even if you've managed to hook up with a few others to form a creative and professional unit, you're still spending nights playing in clubs where most people are more interested in drinking than listening to your music. Some audiences may be hostile, and even the opportunity to open for other "name" acts doesn't mean anyone's really there to hear you perform. On top of all that, you still have to get up the next morning and go to a "real" job so you can make ends meet. That's exactly where Sinclair, the 24-year-old lead guitarist in the fictional Boston-based rock band "Pistonhead," finds himself.

Sinclair loves music and has the dream of the band making it someday. Yet his best friend, Jack "Rip" Taylor, who also happens to be the band's lead singer and co-writes with Sinclair, seems to have picked up a drug habit and, along with it, the company of shady characters. He's working on as an assembly line supervisor through a temp agency, and his work team is comprised of behavioral health patients in a rehab facility. Rumor has it, though, that the jobs will soon be off-shored. These and an assortment of personal issues we all face come to a head during the week Hauck uses to focus the story, forcing Sinclair to look and see inside himself and his music.

Hauck's background gives Pistonhead a realistic flavor, not only from the struggles of keeping a band alive and moving forward but what goes through a musician's head while performing. The book also provides a taste of the grind second- and third-tier musicians experience. There is the tediousness of the assembly line pitted, the obstacles of trying to get a break in today's music industry and the question of whether at some point the costs outweigh the exhilaration of playing music. Yet Hauck also seems to carry his attention to detail into less important matters. For example, we have a paragraph on the etymology of ergonomics and its history as a field of study. We often get specific accounts of how Sinclair gets from point A to point B, including not only the train lines he uses on a trip but whether, after leaving the train, he walks "two blocks up" one street or "ten minutes down" another.

Hauck also throws in occasional tastes of irony, some obvious and others a bit more subtle. There is, for example, a scene in which Sinclair has to go to an emergency room for a foot injury after struggling with Rip's drug issues. While Sinclair is trying to prevent those issues from tearing the band apart, the television in the emergency room shows a prescription drug ad where pills danced around and "happy senior citizens frolicked in a field of daisies."

Pistonhead could well be cast as a converse of literary nonfiction. While it is a novel, it is undoubtedly based on Hauck's own experiences, thereby giving it a quasi-documentary feel. Even if it does wrap a couple things up just a bit too easily due to its compressed time frame, at just under 175 pages the book is a compact look into the dedicated pursuit of an avocation you'll never see on so-called reality television.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.