by Matthew Binder
Ex-Members is a New Jersey book. Its New Jersey-ness runs off the pages. Do you remember those early Kevin Smith movies? Ex-Members feels like New Jersey in the way that Smith’s movies felt like New Jersey.
Ex-Members’ primary cast of characters is a ’90s hardcore band called Alphanumeric Murders. Like a lot of bands, it was one super-talented musician surrounded by a revolving cast of characters who did their best to bring the genius’ vision to fruition. For a fleeting moment in time, the Alphanumeric Murders were the it-band on the Jersey all-ages scene.
The book jumps around from chapter to chapter, skipping ahead a decade, then backward a few years, and then ahead again. Carroll utilizes different narrative devices, most compellingly with an oral history told by the band’s many members and the fans who loved them. One might think you’d have to know a band’s music to have much interest in the “behind-the-scenes,” but Carroll manages to draw the reader in with quirky bits of nostalgia. Lines like “They had two songs about farting, and one song about setting lawns on fire. I’m pretty sure their drummer is a cop now. . .” capture the banality and naivety of aspiring musicians—tales of recording sessions, inter-band squabbles, affairs, and breakups.
The other dominant motif running through the book is a half-constructed tower at the center of the town of New Duchess. During the ’70s, the ambition for the tower was for it to become a grand hotel that would put New Duchess on the map, but the project got derailed and for decades the tower has blighted the horizon. The tower serves as a metaphor for the dashed hopes and regrets poignantly reflected in the various bandmembers’ post-band lives. For instance, we learn that one of the bandmates, Will, has become a music producer, but his financial situation is so precarious that he considers new eyeglasses a luxury he can’t afford. And then there’s Åsa—perhaps the most well-adjusted of the characters—who’s become mired working as a translator in the Army, a career in which she sees no future for herself.
The book’s most interesting character is Virgil. He wasn’t a member of the band, just a friend of the band’s lead singer, Dean. The book opens with Virgil as an adult having recently moved back to his hometown. He’s not in a good place, neither mentally nor physically. His only reason for leaving the house is to attend church each Sunday. Previously, he’d always driven, but on this occasion, he decides to make the three-quarters of a mile journey on foot. This may not sound like a tall order, but Virgil is really struggling—wheezing, sweating through his shirt, panicked about the smells emanating from his body. Carroll’s tender treatment of Virgil’s quest to reach the church will break your heart.
After this poignant scene, Virgil disappears for larges stretches of the novel. With each chapter, you’ll hope for his return. What happened to Virgil? you’ll repeatedly ask yourself. Finally, Virgil makes his not-so-triumphant return one hundred and fifty pages later, when he dolefully drinks beers at a bar with his friend Åsa, in a scene set a few years before his fateful walk to the church. Even at the bar, it’s clear Virgil is unwell. Åsa notes that his “cheekbones had gone” since she’d last seen him and that “his eyes seemed lost in his head.” As a reader, one waits for a big reveal, but none comes. Certainly, nothing that could explain Virgil’s fate. Instead, Virgil is evasive, telling Åsa that his folks are “Moving west. Upper middle or southern west; it’s not clear yet. But they’re going somewhere.”
All we eventually learn of Virgil is that he returned to New Duchess after making a killing on stock options at a job in Manhattan and that he became a recluse and “moved toward religiosity.” My hope is that Carroll will write a B-side, or a spin-off, centering on Virgil’s journey, because I’m dying to know why his life became what it did.