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Onyx reviews: The Five by Robert McCammon

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 big.

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 replaced.

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.

Two incidents 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.

During 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.

Jeremy 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.

Though 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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