The Hour of the Innocents
by Robert Paston
Publisher: Forge Books
320 pages, hardcover
Published: 20th May 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads
I ignorantly assumed that the Tor and Forge imprints of Macmillan were both for science fiction and fantasy, exclusively. The Hour of the Innocents then came as a surprise as I made my way into the novel and realized this wasn’t the case. Yet, this unmet expectation may have actually enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the novel because that was the only real unexpected element in this reading experience. This fictional story of a late 1960’s rock band is grounded in a historical reality, the characters are familiar types, and the plot proceeds fairly predictably. However, for all its familiarity, Paston writes the novel with a passionate authenticity and clear voice, making it a piece of nostalgic entertainment with bittersweet fondness for an era of extreme power both high and low.
The story is related from the point of view of Will, the newest member of a rural Pennsylvania rock band. A devoted musician, practicing his guitar with every chance he has, Will is cursed with a fine appreciation of music and its power, but little ability at playing. His personality and talent at songwriting are noticed by Mattie, however, a phenomenally talented guitar player who has just returned home from the traumatic experiences of Vietnam. More intelligent, mature, and talented than any of the other band members, Mattie’s only ambition, only need, is seemingly to play and experience the emotional healing, or coping, that can provide. Yet, the reader slowly discovers Mattie has other strong emotional ties and responsibilities to family, friends, and military relations that fight against all music accomplishes in his life.
Just as Mattie battles even upon his return from Vietnam between a simple life of music and the burdens of his past and his relations, so too does Will battle between balancing the wild, open rock-and-roll culture of the time with desires for the band to make it professionally. Key to this is Frankie, the flamboyant lead singer of the band, who draws crowds, and girls, but creates problems with his irresponsibility and disregard for his wife, who has a past with Mattie, and an attraction for Will.
Rounded out with the band’s drummer, the member we see and hear much less from, and who like all band drummers (we are told) handle the finances, The Innocents are born. Each is an archetype of rock music – the wild frontman who sings, the strong, silent-type guitar player with exceptional musical talent, the level-headed keeps-to-himself drummer, and the songwriter, full of self-doubt. They all share in a common hope, a dream of making it, success that will give them the freedom to just write and play music that can soothe their souls, and touch others. The Hour of the Innocents is about the birth of this all, and the rough road of imperfect personalities and troubled actions that lie in the path to realization of that dream.
What ends up occurring in the novel is therefore no big surprise given the set up. What makes it work is precisely how true to life, how familiar, Paston writes it. You can tell that Paston is just as passionate about the music and this time as his characters.Though brief, the chapters dealing with Vietnam directly or its aftermath, are vivid and moving, and are examples of the more unique moments in the novel, the verses to the more familiar band-member-interaction refrains of the composition.
The Hour of the Innocents will be of interest to anyone with an appreciation for rock music and its history, and to those who would appreciate the backdrop of the era as setting for literary exploration of character interaction, as long as the character familiarity and plot predictability can be overlooked for enjoyment of the journey.