I'd never heard of Howard Male until I encountered him commenting on a mutual friend's Facebook status, but as soon as he friended me, I gobbled up asI'd never heard of Howard Male until I encountered him commenting on a mutual friend's Facebook status, but as soon as he friended me, I gobbled up as much of his terrific writing on music (particularly that of Africa and the African diaspora) as I could find. I've learned loads from him, and gotten dozens of recommendations that have ended up in heavy rotation on my Spotify playlists. But one of the best recommendations I got from him was for his first novel, the thought-provoking, funny, and all-around delightful Etc Etc Amen. I bring this up because he's so self-conscious about promoting his book, but what's a self-publisher to do? And besides, when none other than Tony Visconti, who's produced dozens of artists from T Rex to David Bowie to Alejandro Escovedo gives you a thumbs-up cover blurb, I think you've got the right to share the endorsement.
Not that he needs the stamp of approval, though when one of your book's central characters is a 70s glam rocker who echoes both Bowie and Bolan, it's apropo. Etc Etc Amen is a mystery on more than one level: It's the story of two journalists trying to get to the bottom of a series of deaths surrounding a new religion inspired by the writings of the Zachary B., the aforementioned glam rocker, it's a meditation on the possibilities and problems surrounding both established religion and cults, it's an investigation into personality disintegration that can come when we idolize pop stars and prophets. It's a wry look at rock journalism and rock music. It's also damned funny.
The book is actually three books: the journalists' tale, set in Marrakesh in 2007; a rock writer's biography of Zachary B, and it's selections from "The KUU Hypothesis," the "bible" of KUU-ism (the initials stand for "Knowing Unknowable Universe"), a religion based on paradox and coincidence. Each chapter is a passage from each book, interspersed among each other so that the events in Marrakesh bounce off of a bit of Paul Coleridge's bio of Zachary B, which in turn bounce off of bits of KUU-ist philosophy, each one shedding light on the others. That Male manages to pull off this literary trick without ever letting up on the suspence--why are KUU-ists committing suicide?--as he builds to the final conclusion is a testament to both his vision and his skill.
Each one of these books would be a rewarding read on its own, but of course the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Throughout, the characters are well-drawn, and even if I was able to figure out some of the "surprises" a page or two before the reveals, the book never felt predictable because there was so much going on. And, as I mentioned, it's funny as hell; even as I reflect on it and write this, I'm chuckling at internal jokes that I'm just getting at the moment. Occasionally, it's a bit too cute for its own good, but the giggles far outpace the grimaces.
And if some of the dialog could have been formatted better (at least in the Kindle version, which is how I read it), well, that's a minor complaint that comes with a self-published book, I suppose. The flip side is that, without the ability to self-publish, this book never would have seen the light of day, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.
It's rare that a book qualifies as both a great summer "beach read" and a thoughtful examination of life, the universe, and everything, but Etc Etc Amen is one of those gems.