What is it about live music that inspires such fascination, loyalty and obsession? Why are audience members willing to pay so much for bad seats in overcrowded venues, looking for something new in songs they’ve heard a hundred times before? What drives some to put their own lives on hold as they follow a band from state to state and attempt to parse the hidden meanings within purposefully obscure lyrics? Portland writer Justin Tussing explores some of those questions in his new book, the tender, acerbic and carefully observed rock ‘n’ roll road novel, “Vexation Lullaby.”

At the center of the story sits 11-time Grammy Award-winner Jim Cross, variously called “a genius, a lovable misanthrope, a national treasure, a fraud.” At age 70, with more than 90 million records sold, the Dylanesque Cross is still on the road most nights of the year, although sometimes he can’t seem to remember why.

Justin Tussing

Justin Tussing

As the book opens, Peter Silver, a young physician dumped by his longtime girlfriend, sits adrift in an unsellable condo, when he receives a telephone call from none other than Jim Cross, who says he’s “trying to reach Judith Silver’s son.” Although unaware of any connection between the musician and his mother, Silver finds himself making a house call to the aging superstar’s hotel room.

Cross is worried about the hallucinations he’s experienced lately and some other mental lapses. The elusive performer tells Silver he’s worried about his mental acuity, saying, “I spent half my life trying to give people the slip, and now I’m scared some vital part of me will split without leaving a forwarding address.”

That impulsive house call has far-reaching repercussions for Silver. At first, his hospital is ready to fire him for breaching patient protocols, but thanks to the machinations of an attorney provided by Cross, Silver’s superiors are eventually more than eager to have him take a leave of absence. The young doctor is appointed to be “the first physician to embed with a touring rock band.”

Even as he considers the appointment a boondoggle (and the reader wonders about the likelihood of this plot turn), Silver accepts the job, and soon he’s getting to know all the other collaborators and hangers-on that accompany a musical living legend as he works the onstage magic that keeps his fans coming back for more. Also along for the ride is Cross’s irresponsible son, Alistair, condemned to live forever in Jim’s shadow and worried that Silver will push him further away from his dad.

If Silver can be counted among Cross’s least ardent fans, at the opposite end of the spectrum lies Arthur Pennyman. With an ex-wife in California and an estranged grown daughter in Tennessee, Pennyman has reduced his adult life to one basic fact; “…What sets me apart from the other seven billion souls on this earth is this: since July 27, 1988, I’ve attended every one of Jim Cross’s public performances.” Living mostly out of his ’96 Toyota Corolla Wagon, Pennyman posts setlists on his website (JimCrossCompendium.org) and offers commentary on what the selection of songs and their order in the show might mean. When he spots Paul Silver, he wonders what a doctor’s presence on the tour might portend, and he is eventually compelled to search among Cross’s song titles for clues.831818_13966 VEXATION LULLABY cove.jpg

Tussing, the author of “The Best People in the World” and director of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program, provides a narrative set-up whose trajectory might seem not difficult to predict. Silver is the uptight professional, the homebody who needs to loosen up. Pennyman is the blinkered obsessive who needs to tighten his connections to the people who still care about him. Cross is the cryptic holy fool who might help both protagonists achieve their goals. The narrative alternates between Silver’s third-person/past tense point of view and Pennyman’s first-person present. (Jim Cross never takes center stage as a viewpoint character.) It’s a tidy set-up that highlights the contrasts in the characters and allows the story to develop its easy comic rhythm.

With an ear for nuanced dialogue and a steady hand when constructing scenes that reveal character, Tussing wisely refrains from letting the plot veer too far into either the mundane or the outlandish, presenting Silver and Pennyman on complementary narrative tracks without many intersections, their scenes leading to an encounter that’s restrained and realistic. Cross remains an enigma, but Tussing imbues him with enough humanity to prevent him from turning into a VH1 Behind the Music cliché.

At one point, Cross tells a journalist that “… being a fan is how we teach ourselves to love.” There’s something a little too glib about that observation, but it contains a nugget of truth. Fandom has its crazy side, but with the right song at the perfect time, moments of grace are possible.

Tussing’s novel is all about people learning to love, often failing, and occasionally succeeding. As its title suggests, “Vexation Lullaby” can be both prickly and soothing. Its graceful language, sharp character work and open heart bring home life on the road and leaves the reader satisfied with the trip.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: mlberry


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