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Peter Conners’ debut novel draws from his 'Deadhead' youth, when he followed the Grateful Dead

Peter Conners-provided.png
Natalie Sinisgalli, NSP Studio
Peter Conners.

A great opening paragraph for a novel? Call me Ishmael. Yes, fans of Moby-Dick, simplicity works.

But try this:

The worn-out wipers smeared mist across the windshield blurring boundaries between the interstate, sky, and my own foggy mood. Industrial smokestacks rose like ancient Roman columns around the upstate city of Syracuse, New York. It was as if a gray veil had been pulled across the world. Within that veil lay the timeline of history: humankind’s yearning for spiritual transcendence locked in struggle against our ceaseless cycles of birth, sex, death, and survival. I didn’t know that murder lay ahead. I didn’t know that reuniting with my old friend would rescue me from isolation, but cost the last vestiges of my youth. As I drove through dark stretches of bleak October earth, there were ghosts in every dip of featureless landscape between Ithaca, New York and Burlington, Vermont. The sky bled with moisture that was neither snow, rain, or sleet, but some mixture of all three.

Those first words of Peter Conners’ “Merch Table Blues” hit all of the foreboding scene settings a writer can reasonably generate. Bad weather. Bad mood. Factory archaeology likened to the collapse of ancient empire. The inescapable sad fate of the human life cycle. Lost youth. A gray veil. Dark, bleak and ghosts, all in one sentence. The sky bleeds. And suggestion of murder to come.

Beer and hardcore drug use await, just pages away.

“Merch Table Blues” is probably not a true-to-life, unacknowledged autobiographical portrait of Conners as a young man. If it were, it’s not likely he would today demonstrate the nimble brain functions required of the publisher and executive director of Rochester’s BOA Editions, a high-end literary press headquartered in the Anderson Alley Artists building on North Goodman Street. So let’s just guess that “Merch Table Blues” is an amalgamation of people Conners knew, or heard tell of, or read about in an obscure Beat novel … and set aside any speculation.

After all, Raymond Chandler never killed anyone.

OK, William Burroughs did. But that was an accident. Probably.

We know this: Conners is consumed by the aura of The Grateful Dead. “Merch Table Blues” is Conners’ first novel. But he has chronicled that scene through nonfiction titles loaded with colons. “Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead.” And “Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall.” That one was included in the Grammy-nominated Grateful Dead box set, “May 1977: Get Shown the Light.”

Conners has also dissected the origins of that scene in “White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg.” And he’s explored where that scene went after Leary, Ginsberg and Jerry Garcia withJAMerica: The History of the Jam Band and Festival Scene.” He’s also strayed into poetry, with a handful of published collections. They’re all available through Amazon.

And so, given that research, in “Merch Table Blues,” Conners gives us a couple of main characters in a struggling writer, Virgil Frey; a guitarist, Richard Payne Knight; and Knight’s band, Laverna. A rock band with a cult following that smells like The Grateful Dead; as in patchouli and weed. With nothing promising on his horizon, Frey accepts an offer to accompany Laverna on tour as a roadie, and running the merchandise table.

No detail is too small for Conners. A cigarette lighter isn’t just a cigarette lighter, it’s a cigarette lighter decorated with a picture of a hummingbird. He has fun with language. A pause in conversation is “pregnant with portent.” Perspective is everything. The drummer “smoked two joints the size of hot dogs.”

And his words have the ring of truth. “Luckily for the band, the crowd was as wasted as they were,” Conners writes of one of Laverna’s concerts.

The cover for "Merch Table Blues" by Peter Conners.
The cover for "Merch Table Blues" by Peter Conners.

Rochester is in these pages, as the band is playing a large club, clearly modeled after Water Street Music Hall, and even bearing its old name, The Warehouse. The band stays in an apartment just off Monroe Avenue, a street filled with “punks, hippies, street people, skate rats, goths, and weirdos of all stripes.” All characters with whom you’ve shared that sidewalk.

These details feel real. Particularly early in the story when the band gathers in a dump of a house, kind of like a place I lived in as a young man: “Why fix a suspiciously boot-shaped hole in the dining-room plaster when a fist-shaped one will only appear to take its place?”

Small stuff happens. Big stuff. If you guessed mass murder, I wouldn’t correct you. How does any writer gracefully exit such a tale? Perhaps James Joyce did it best, with the final paragraph of his short story, “The Dead.”

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Snow. Can Conners extract the reader from his blizzard of cocaine, and a much higher body count than Joyce, with similar elegance? Spoiler alert: It’s a writer’s confession.

But until I am fully prepared to get back out there in the world, I’m content to sit here in limbo with a pen and a head full of heavy thoughts. I’ll check in occasionally with my friends. I’ll always try to be polite to my parents. I’ll eat the food I am given with gratitude and watch whoever’s playing whatever game my father turns on. I will force a smile until someday, maybe, my face will smile again on its own. And once I have processed more of what the hell just happened, and make the words dance and shimmer on the page, I’ll write the story of Laverna…

And then he drops the f-bomb, which we do not print here out of respect for the children who read “Across the Universe.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.