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Onyx reviews: The Five by
Most of Robert McCammon's books have contained overt supernatural elements.
In his most recent novel, The Five, McCammon is more subversive. The book
could be read as a straight rock novel about the plights of an indy group whose
members become the target of a deranged sniper. On the other hand, McCammon
allows for the possibility that there is an underlying battle between good and
evil. The avatars of those factions are, respectively, a Mexican girl who
touches and encourages the band members during a pit stop and the phantom
gunnery sergeant who goads the sniper into action.
What's at stake? In this
case it's a song, the last one The Five will ever write together. Every member
of the group must contribute to it even though in the past only two of them have
written most of their material. Even George Emerson, their road manager, is
encouraged to write some of the song's lyrics. Throughout the novel, McCammon
hints that this song, once complete, will change something. Perhaps something
The Five, out of Austin, Texas, were already on the verge of
disintegrating when ex-Marine Jeremy Pett made it his mission to kill them. The
group has been together three years, and its band members have been with other
groups before, so they know that it is the nature of the beast that bands fail.
The Five have been foundering for a while. They make albums and have even
recorded a few videos, but their career consists mostly of careening from one
gig to the next in a dilapidated van affectionately nicknamed the Scumbucket.
They hump their own gear, and they may get a decent soundcheck before they go
live, maybe not. They'll sell a few t-shirts and CDs at the back of the venue,
accounting for most of their income. They'll share a room or two at the cheapest
motel they can find and set out the next morning for another gig, crisscrossing
the American Southwest. They have some fans, but they've peaked. Their dreams of
playing in stadiums before tens of thousands of fans are just that. It's not
meant to be—at least not in this configuration.
George is the first to
announce that he plans to leave the group at the end of this tour. He's been
offered a new business opportunity in Chicago where he might actually make some
money and not live on the road half the time. The band has barely had time to
digest this news when keyboard player Terry Spitzenham chimes in, saying that he
wants to go into the vintage instruments business. Neither George nor Terry
believe that their departure means the end of the band, but the others know
otherwise. Terry is responsible for the band's retro vibe, and won't be easily
These announcements inspire Nomad, the group's lead singer and
guitarist Ariel Collier's songwriting partner, to suggest they all write a song
together. The idea isn't met with a great deal of enthusiasm.
occur that shape the rest of the novel. First, they agree to do an interview
with Felix Gogo, the host of a late-night cable TV show, to promote their new
single, "When the Storm Breaks," and the associated music video. Nomad
and Felix get into a pissing contest over the song's perceived anti-war
sentiments. To show them who's boss, Felix cuts the segment to make it seem that
Nomad is saying that they're accusing American soldiers of deliberately killing
children. The Five never see the interview—they're en route to their next
gig—so they are blindsided when it inspires Pett to murder them all.
a roadside stop, they encounter an angelic young Mexican girl, part of an
isolated farming community. She passes each of her fellow community members a
cup of water drawn from a well as they return from the field. Her touch seems to
revive them from their labors. Nomad is the only member of the group who doesn't
accept her offer of water. His suspicion of the implied blessing holds him back.
Pett is the novel's agent of chaos. After returning from several tours of duty
as a successful sniper, he feels that he and his severely injured former spotter
have been abandoned by his country. His rage builds as he struggles to find work—the
only thing he's trained to do is kill. He considers becoming a mercenary or a
paid assassin, but a failed suicide attempt changes his focus. He starts hearing
from his old gunnery sergeant, a phantom companion who whispers terrible ideas
in his ear and goads him to take action after he sees the Felix Gogo segment.
Pett doesn't need anyone else's help to complete his mission. Everything he
needs to know about The Five and their schedule can be found on the internet.
his aim is a little rusty and he suffers the lack of a spotter, two of his
bullets strike home, killing one band member and injuring their manager. At
first, the shooting seems random, perhaps even an accident. Reeling from their
losses, The Five are ready to head back to Austin and call it quits. However,
they're encouraged to do one more show, a tribute to their fallen comrade.
Online sales of their CDs increase, as do the hits for their videos on YouTube.
They wrestle over the question of whether they should capitalize on this uptick
in popularity, given the macabre reason for it.
Then FBI agent Truitt
Allen, also an ex-Marine, arrives on the scene of another shooting and explains
who's behind it. Even if they disband, Truitt tells them, Pett won't stop
hunting them. Better to continue the tour with FBI protection in hopes of
catching the deranged man before he can strike again. Truitt has an ulterior
motive that he keeps to himself.
None of the surviving band members like the
idea of being used as bait, but they're also reveling in the glow of the most
attention any of them have ever received as musicians. They continue to tour,
with Truitt acting as their new road manager. They don't hire any replacement
band members, opting instead to improvise to fill in for the missing
instruments. A number of larger venues are added, including a festival in an
amphitheater in the abandoned mining town of Stone Church, which has a legend
about a fight between good and evil reminiscent of Desperation (a
similarity acknowledged by Truitt, who tells Ariel she's been reading too much
Stephen King when she recounts the story).
The novel is suffused with rock
history, much of it fictitious—though clearly inspired by the real deal.
The five band members and their experiences on the road are drawn with deft
strokes. Living in such close proximity, they know each other intimately, though
each has a past that they are reluctant to discuss, mostly to do with their
parents. They work as a unit, playing off each other on stage and off. They also
know how to yank each other's chains and push buttons, which they occasionally
do with undisguised pleasure.
The book's continuing thread, other than Pitt's
relentless pursuit of the band, is their staggering steps toward creating a new
song that each of them sees differently and none of them truly understands. It's
a statement about the transitional stage of their lives where they currently
find themselves. What parts of the past does a person keep and what parts do
they leave behind when embarking on a new journey?
The song's potential
parallels the legend of the Stone Church, where a group of people descend into
the silver mines to confront an evil force. They are never seen again, but
Truitt wonders what would happen if they some day emerged victorious from the
cave. Are The Five at the heart of a similar battle, and what would their
victory mean? What message will their last song send to the world, if they are
allowed to finish and perform it?
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