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The importance of family, the life-and-death cycle, friendship, and the struggle to understand divinity are
some of the themes explored by former high school science teacher turned musician and author Matt Syverson in his novel Black Dog, ISBN 978-0-615-42806-2 (published by Backstage Pass Publishing http://www.backstagepasspublishing.com as both paperback and available from Amazon Kindle as an e-book).
The novel tells of two high school students Jonah and Joe E, an emo and brainiac respectively, who decide to spend their summer vacation visiting Joe E’s aged grandmother in a seemingly pedestrian town in Alabama. Jonah and Joe E are likeable enough characters, and made this reviewer think of Bill and Ted (minus the stoner humour), especially as the plot developed. The house of Joe E’s grandmother has seen great tragedy in the death of Joe E’s Uncle Ernie, whom he had never met. The boys avail themselves of Ernie’s belongs, which include an extensive collection of classic albums including Led Zeppelin IV, which some of you will be aware features a track titled Black Dog, to which the title of Syverson’s novel refers. Whilst skylarking, the boys play some of Uncle Ernie’s albums backwards, and in doing so cause the song subjects to manifest themselves, for example, a black Scottish terrier the boys decide to name Black Dog.
It soon becomes apparent that somebody has used the portal of Uncle Ernie’s old record player to conjure more nefarious characters from the classic albums, such as Black Sabbath’s werewolf, and Jonah and Joe E are faced with the decision that will shape them as young men, in the classic coming-of-age style (‘We must answer the call and fulfil our duty’). They are not alone, however, as well as Black Dog they are aided by a unicorn, a sagely old African-American man named Otis, and the Jethro Tull inspired character
The novel’s characters are well-defined, and although it might seem to the reader that there is a lengthy
build-up to the ‘action’, Syverson’s well-paced narrative and fluent style make for very enjoyable reading.
Syverson also employs an effective tool in having an intelligent-voiced, tongue-in-cheek ‘narrator’ occasionally interrupt and explain proceedings. The overall language, especially that of the ‘narrator’ is
poetic, and the novel makes clever use of pop culture references in its imagery. Jonah and Joe E’s maturation from slothful teenagers to brave young men feels natural, particularly Joe E’s self-discovery at one very poignant moment toward the novel’s end.
An enjoyable book I would recommend particularly to rock music fans, and Gen-Xers seeking a ‘boy’s own’
type of story. Also to those who like the idea of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung playing Pac-Man.