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Festival of Books

Rob Roberge on 'The Cost of Living'

April 19, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Rob Roberge, author of "The Cost of Living," is coming to the Festival of Books.
Rob Roberge, author of "The Cost of Living," is coming to the… (Other Voices Books )

Having a conversation with Rob Roberge is like participating in a discourse about, well, everything: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” the art of celestial writing and the invention of the Big Dipper, why the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” is the best two-chord song in the world.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked him; we’ve known each other for 15 years or so, have taught and published together, and I enjoy listening to him talk.

He’s sharp and funny, often lacerating and deeply self-reflective, qualities that also describe his third novel, “The Cost of Living” (Other Voices: 294 pp. $16 paper). Roberge will be at the Festival of Books at 2 p.m. on Sunday, on a panel called “Fiction: True Grit,” moderated by Jim Ruland and featuring Frank Bill, James Greer and Joshua Mohr.

"The Cost of Living" tells the story of Bud Barrett, one-time guitarist for the indie rock band the Popular Mechanics (think the Replacements, with a touch of Wilco), in his mid-40s and balancing the most tenuous grip on sobriety with a need to find resolution of a kind.

“By far, it’s my most personal book,” says Roberge, whose life Bud’s loosely resembles; in addition to writing, he plays guitar for the Los Angeles punk band the Urinals, and at 46, he’s been through his own battles with addiction. “I wrote the book after a relapse,” he adds, “so it is very close. That made it difficult to write, both structurally and emotionally.”

That difficulty is part of the essential tension of the novel, which opens in 2011, then slips back to the late 1970s before working its way up to 2011 again. Originally, Roberge conceived of it as a collection of linked stories before realizing that there was a way to infuse the book with a bigger arc.

“For the sake of narrative momentum,” he jokes, “I wanted to avoid repetition; there’s a fair amount of repetitive behavior in the life of a junkie, after all.”

This suggests the other challenge of the novel, which is his desire not to write a drug book, although the experience of addiction infuses “The Cost of Living” at its core.

“It’s about family,” Roberge says, “about other things; it’s my only book that is redemptive, even though it’s really sad. The problem with drug narratives is that they’re either war stories or morality plays, and that wasn’t what I was looking for. One is a lie, and the other is a hypocrisy. It’s hard to stay between those lines.”

To keep himself — and the novel — honest, Roberge assiduously avoids a false sense of closure, even as the book offers its own sort of treacherous faith. He builds Bud’s story around two relationships, with his wife and with his father, neither of which can easily be resolved.

“There’s this idea,” he says, “that when it comes to family, if we talk things out enough, they will work out. But they don’t.” That point-of-view infuses every human connection in “The Cost of Living,” even those involving the Popular Mechanics, who are, in their way, a family too.

“Fans like to think bandmates are all friends,” Roberge writes. “You start as friends — most bands do. But you live in a cage on wheels every day between two hundred and three hundred days a year. People start to hate the sound of other people’s voices, the way they eat, you name it. Tension grows in exponential ways.”

As for the connection between music and writing, Roberge goes back and forth. On the one hand, he says, “Music is music and novels are novels. They are what they are.” At the same time, he continues, “I think music’s effect on prose is more prominent than the other way around.”

Partly, perhaps, that’s because music is more accessible: “My first love was music,” he recalls. “I wasn’t from a house with books. There was no frame of reference until I got to college — whereas every kid in a garage band thinks being a rock star is an option.”

Yet more to the point is his sense of how songs work, how they resolve or don’t at the level of their chords.

John Cage said,” Roberge explains, “that no matter how melodic, if a piece of music doesn’t resolve, it leave you aching. And that’s what I wanted to do with this novel. I wanted to write a book where things don’t end, they just haunt.”

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