Reviewed by Nick Rees Gardner
The Nothing Brothers is a wild ride; kick back in the bucket seat as Nugent blows the speakers out.
Leo Kraft believes in nothing, except when it comes to music—then he is passionate, creative, ready to risk it all. Sick and tired of the trappings of suburban zombiedom, Leo and his high school friends band together as The Nothing Brothers, giving Jeff Rosen’s novel its title.
Self-proclaimed nihilists, Leo and his friends battle against the straight life of college and wage-slavery with long hair and pot smoke as well as the throbbing basslines of Ted Nugent, Rush, and Pink Floyd. In a similar bent to other music-steeped generational novels such as David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Rosen’s is a classic coming-of-age tale that nails down the specific vibrations of a generation and shows how music can change a person and an entire culture.
Unlike Chabon’s or Mitchell’s books, Leo’s group of teenage ne’er-do-wells are not in a band, but rather a mismatched crew of disinclined stoners obsessed with music, cars, and girls.
The narrative begins at Camp Wel-Met where Leo takes a job as a counselor, sneaking pot with his seniors and trying and failing to woo a girl. A few chapters in, though, the storyline zips back in time to depict Leo in his more formative moments: His first hit of weed, his first kiss, first live show. Like many high schoolers, Leo wants to be popular and acts on the evidence that “his early lessons showed that you had to be funny, or get in trouble, or do a lot of drugs” to achieve acceptance.
As his timeline progresses through parties, close calls, and car wrecks, Leo rejects college and is kicked out of his house. His bonds with his friends wind tighter and release. The world changes around Leo, and as he nears graduation, he struggles with the decision of whether or not to change as well.
While The Nothing Brothers succeeds brilliantly as a novel of personal growth, it extends beyond the individual, mirroring Leo’s emotional shifts with a metaphorical mood board of 1970s nostalgia. Arguments are resolved over Grand Slam breakfasts at Denny’s and harsh break-ups simmer beneath the bowling alley background din.
Leo and his friends name-drop up-and-coming bands like Journey and The Clash over the whispers of gas shortages and failed real-estate in The Bronx. Leo’s problems revolve around his steadfast adherence to heavy metal, arguing with friends-turned-Dead-Heads.
Through such devices as heavy-metal-versus-folk rock feuds, Rosen adds depth, using pop-culture as a mirror to a much deeper and more personal underlying conflict. As much as The Nothing Brothers is a book about growing up in an ever changing world, it is about hanging onto the bits of the world you’ve come to love while also learning to grow and accept the passions of others. While the epiphany at the end of this novel could be seen as merely a broadening of Leo’s taste and a more accepting attitude, it also shows how much music can change us, if we allow ourselves to change.
It’s an impressive feat for an author to plumb these depths and even more impressive to do so in the fast-paced, often hilarious, and hijinx-filled sprawl that is The Nothing Brothers.
As frustrating as Leo and his friends’ immature escapades can be, they are also familiar, understandable, and real. Each foible encourages the reader to look deeper into their own histories and laugh at their own antics growing up. In this way, Rosen’s The Nothing Brothers vividly captures not only the struggle of coming into adulthood in a world that feels wrong, but also how the struggle itself can open one up to a more meaningful life.
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