Fuel Injected Dreams, James Robert Baker

Onyx, 1986, 322 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-40027-5

Dead authors rarely get reviewed. That’s how it works, and I’m no exception. While some scholars prefer a stable corpus, I’m like most readers: I love to splash into the boiling hot-tub of contemporary literature where reputations are made, new authors appear all the time and no one knows if the next novel will be a dud or not. Most of the books I review are books I buy from the bookstore, which usually implies a still-breathing author.

But there are exceptions. Used book sales. Premature deaths.

The world lost a heck of a writer when James Robert Baker committed suicide in 1997. Boy Wonder still figures on my top list of Hollywood novels: An angry, hilarious, knowing and over-the-top satire of the film industry, it’s as mean-spirited as it’s liberating. For years, I looked for a copy of his earlier novel Fuel Injected Dreams, hoping for much of the same. I finally lucked out… at a used-book sale.

Taking on the rock-and-roll music publishing industry through the lens of a disillusioned radio DJ, Fuel Injected Dreams steps on the accelerator from the first few lines and seldom lets up. Protagonist Scott Cochrane’s narration is fuelled by bitterness and illegal substances. He has never quite been able to forget the one lost love of his life, and seems determined to hasten his own exit through the usual sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll regimen. The first few pages read as if Hunter S. Thompson had remixed the familiar litany of Hollywood venality. The rest of the novel is just as intense.

Because Cochrane is about to stumble upon something everyone wants: an interview with Dennis Contrelle, a legendary music producer turned recluse after a string of classic hits. Without quite knowing why, Cochrane befriends Contrelle and ends up with what he thinks is a new single. But it’s not, and it sets in motion a series of events that reach back to Cochrane’s own teenage years. Could it be that he will finally learn the truth about his lost love’s sudden disappearance?

If that sounds sweet, let me disabuse you of that notion: One of Baker’s writing quirks is excess. If there’s a way to fit graphic sex and dripping violence in the story, Baker will find it. The result is a pedal-to-the-metal succession of shocks and twists, anticipating Chuck Palahniuk and Quentin Tarantino’s work by a few years and delivering a reading experience quite unlike another. Perhaps the one saving grace of Baker’s work is that it’s genuinely hopeful: otherwise, the bleakness and morbid obsession of his prose would be nothing but a freak show of burnt characters and violent excess.

Fuel-Injected Dreams is a case in point. While it starts reasonably well, it eventually turns into one of those novels where characters don’t die despite grave wounds, where the protagonist spends half the novel on the run from the authorities, to say nothing about the natural disasters, necrophilia, betrayals and media hysteria so prevalent in those situations. Oh yes, you will remember bits and pieces of this novel for a long time.

The writing is what ties it all together, of course. The narrator may start off sounding as the most jaded deejay in the history of radio, but that’s just illusion: it doesn’t take too many paragraphs for the veneer to crack and show his true nature as a moping romantic. Baker is capable of harnessing this desperation and channel it into a course of action that seems as inevitable as it is extreme. As a romantic thriller, this book crackles with forward narrative power. By the time the narrator heads to his high school reunion with a runaway bride and a gun, you can almost anticipate the fireworks.

This being said, the novel will appeal even more to those with a good grounding in sixties and seventies rock-and-roll: I could catch a number of offhand references to California pop music bands and fill the rest with what I remember from music of that era, but those with better memories of the period will probably get a lot more out of the in-jokes, atmosphere and musical references.

But even for those who can’t remember the sixties on account of not having been there, Fuel-Injected Dreams is a high-octane romp through a chaotic slice of South California life. At times apocalyptic and disgusting, romantic and hilarious, it’s a highly enjoyable read and a reminder of what remains when great writers leave too soon.

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