By Brendan Buck
Brian Costello, a Florida native and Chicago immigrant, is a comedic performer, musician and writer. He currently hosts the monthly game show “Shame that Tune” at the Hideout and drums in the band Outer Minds, but he’s also a two-time novelist. His first, “The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs,” was released by Featherproof Books in 2005, while his second, “Losing in Gainesville,” was just released by Curbside Splendor. I recently caught up with Costello over email about his new book.
One of the first things that strikes me about your novel is its conversational and lyrical style, similar to the writings of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, the latter’s work having a direct reference in the book. Were these writers a conscious influence on your writing? Who are your influences?
Not really. I like them both, and learned a lot from “All the King’s Men,” but overall, with structure, I was influenced by double LPs like “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, “Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and “Double Nickels on the Dime” by the Minutemen. I love double albums, and how each side can create a different mood. Side Two of “Exile on Main Street” comes to mind, for instance. With “Losing in Gainesville,” I wanted to write a “triple album,” where each part/side has a different mood to it. Within the actual writing, the influences could be everything from Herman Melville to the movie “Dazed and Confused,” rock critics like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, the TV show “The Wire,” and various writers directly referenced in the novel itself.
The protagonist of your novel is writer/musician/screwup Ronnie Altamonte, so “Losing in Gainesville” follows the personal, professional and general failures of his thirteen months in Gainesville. However, you also trace journeys of other characters, some of whom intersect frequently with Ronnie, but also some who don’t really interact with Ronnie at all, such as distressed adjunct writing teacher Andy Cartwright. How did these characters come about and what made you keep following them?
In early drafts, what emerged was how the different characters were losing, in the varied definitions of that word. Also, the novel is set in the 1990s, when “losing” was somewhat glorified and embraced, in t-shirts and song. They came about because I wanted to explore this idea of losing not just through the prism of people in their early to mid-twenties, but through characters (like Andy) in their late thirties, and even characters (like Ronnie’s parents) in their mid-sixties. Most of it is in third-person, a choice I made, in part, because I was/am so sick of “I me I me I me” first-person screaming in writing and readings—where the reader/performer says the f-word a lot and talks about (tee-hee) sex. I was interested in getting into as many different characters’ heads as possible, to follow them around, see what kinds of hijinks and such they get into.
The aimlessness of your twenty-something college graduate cast spoke to me a lot about my own aimlessness as a twenty-something college graduate millennial. What is it about being in one’s twenties that interested you enough to write a book about it?
In a small way, it was a reaction to this horseshit idea perpetuated by far too many people who ought to know better, that adolescence is some kind of magical wonderful time where each new day is a gosh-wow epiphany, and all the teenage characters have the musical tastes of middle-aged rock critics and are played by actors in their late twenties who are losing their hair but at least don’t have pimples, and after adolescence, it’s all downhill and completely lacking in drama and excitement afterward. This idea that the teenage years are “the best years of your life” is one of the biggest lies out there, but that was just a small part of it. The early to mid-twenties interested me because that’s when you have to try and start following through on the things you started to figure out as a teenager. It’s when you see if the dreams you had in high school can actually come true or not. No more of the theoreticals of “When I graduate…” You’ve graduated. Now what?
A lot of my favorite moments in the novel are the cultural gems, such as the Myrrh Poster and the deluded thought that nineties culture was somehow more immortal than those before it, or the moment Ronnie confronts a former classic-rock-station DJ about being stuck in the past. What interests me is that Nirvana, that great leader of nineties alternative, has become to the nineties what Pink Floyd is to the seventies, the musical shorthand for a bygone era. Do you think culture is intrinsically ephemeral, or do you think there is anything that can avoid being future nostalgia?
In Chicago, there has been a really excellent next wave of rock ‘n’ roll/garage-punk/whatever bands sprouting up everywhere. Getting to know these people who are making that happen, what’s obvious is how they don’t really give that much of a shit about genre, or when something was recorded. They’re just as knowledgeable about late-sixties Kinks albums as they are about the late-Aughts output of Thee Oh Sees. (Or Bo Diddley. Or Slayer.) Genre’s just a marketing tool anyway, and before the internet and such, you kinda had to stick close to what you liked in terms of genre, because it sucked buying a record, taking it home, and hating it. Sure, there were mixtapes, zines, college radio, etc. in the past, but we’re now living in this time of unprecedented access to music. I don’t think the year something came out, or the style of music, matters as much as a result. With fashion, nostalgia looks back twenty years. In the nineties, bellbottoms came back. In the 2000s, mullets. In the year 2023, it’s going to be interesting when people get nostalgic for the jingoism and paranoia of post-9/11 (maybe they’ll even bring back the reality show “Glutton Bowl” then), but maybe those kids will get hip to the music of The Tyrades and The A-Frames.
“Losing in Gainesville”
By Brian Costello
Curbside Splendor Publishing, 524 Pages, $15.95