Book Review: Panic Years
Reviewed by Joe Walters
“Panic Years by Daniel DiFranco is a dynamic life-on-the-road novel that never pumps the brakes.”
I had a good feeling about Panic Years going in. First, it’s just my style: literary fiction with a voice on the first page. Second, it’s got a quiet-enough, loud-enough book cover that fits the mood I like: one that says, “Let’s focus on the words, baby.” And third, the premise to this book had me cracking open the spine before I even finished the blurb.
Narrated by their bassist Paul, Panic Years follows one band’s journey across the country to break through the underground music scene and achieve their goal of finally making it. A record label would be nice. A hit song might not hurt either. But really, they want anything that could help them bridge the gap between their panic years and the years of their prime. As a reader, I felt thankful that I went along for their whole damn ride.
The novel opens with his band (Qualia) already on the road. We meet Jeff, their drink-happy lead singer; Laney, their hot-chick guitarist keeping the business afloat; Gooch, their hard-nosed drummer who doesn’t quite fit in; and our guy, your guy, everybody’s guy named Paul.
“I wasn’t the singer, so I wasn’t the voice or the face of the band. I wasn’t the hot chick guitar player, and I wasn’t the crazy good wild man drummer. I was just a dude laying down the low end, holding it together.”
A product of careful writing and just-enough edge, Panic Years by Daniel DiFranco is a gem of constant entertainment.
Qualia’s never-ending complications keep this novel fast-paced, funny, and always on the verge of breaking. In the early goings of the novel, nearly each chapter ends with a gig. Complications always seem to arise before Qualia hits the stage, making sure that we never quite knowhow their set will end up . I fell in love with the see-saw: “They’re gonna fuck it up this time, aren’t they?” and then “Shit, is this actually gonna work?”
DiFranco casts a wide net for his target audience in this one. First, it’s a wonderful read for anyone with a brain. It’s got everything that readers want out of a good narrative: a promising set-up with high stakes, nonstop obstacles, and great characters chasing their dreams. It’s easy to get attached and go along for the ride in this one, for anybody.
But also, it’s a book about struggling artists, and I’m a total sucker for that subgenre. If you’re a writer, musician, painter, or an artist of any sort, you’ll find Panic Years to be one of those unique experiences that manages to accurately depict the daily grind while also giving us hope that Qualia can make it and maybe that we can too.
“I guess it doesn’t matter what you do in this world. Whether it’s a song, or a book, or a bridge, there’s always going to be someone who thinks it’s shit and something else is better.”
From well-timed jokes to killer descriptions in a thoughtful voice, DiFranco constantly illustrates his clear control of the narrative. But perhaps DiFranco’s best work comes in his ability to tease small impactful details early in the plot. He helps us focus on seemingly mundane images like a stubbed toe and objects in a bathroom mirror to increase mystery and keep the reader closely eyeing the page.
In addition to the puzzle-pieces, DiFranco also proves capable of stringing together more than a few lightheartedly entertaining scenes. Qualia’s lead singer Jeff is one hell of a guy to follow around (“I am the Lizard King…I can do anything”), and DiFranco makes sure that we’ve got plenty of jokes, camaraderie, and drug use to keep us happy. In other words, he knows exactly what we came here for.
But this novel isn’t all music, booze, and mistakes. Panic Years will take you on a quiet thrill-ride toward the artists’ dreams, and Qualia will become almost like a family to the reader—a group that you can’t wait to root for. When things aren’t going their way, you’ll want to slide between the pages and pick up the pieces for them, urging them to not give up, to not turn around, because you know there’s something bright on the other side.
“I saw all the young people dancing and drinking. The lovers with sex in their eyes, the drunks with sex in their eyes who would go home alone, the wide-eyed lovers of life, drinking it all in, the scene, the night, the feel of being young and alive and saying “fuck you” to the world in the late hours of the night.”
With DiFranco’s succinct style and Paul’s quick-witted narration, Panic Years proves to be a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read. If you’re in the mood for some slice-of-life fiction combined with experiencing the life you always kind of wanted to live on the road, then Panic Years might be the book for you.
But also, even if you’re not in that mood, I’d recommend checking out this excerpt and seeing for yourself. Panic Years is a gem, and I can say confidently that I’ll be recommending it for quite some time.