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Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

  1. October 20, 2019 at 6:42 am

    Because I’m so old, and a country boy, I grew up on 1950s white rock n roll (and crooners, who were unfortunately unavoidable). Later I drove on ephedrine rather than benzedrine while my musical tastes remained much the same, though a little expanded, from Fats Domino to Roy Orbinson, say (and a bit of King Crimson). I like the idea of this book, though, like you, I dislike reading descriptions of hallucinations (or dreams). One song for a road trip? Roy Orbison’s She’s Leaving. Though my actual playlist for driving encompasses maybe 100 albumns of old rock, Australian rock, punk, and singer-songwriter stuff (and, don’t tell anyone, some Gilbert & Sullivan)


    • October 20, 2019 at 8:28 am

      Family music was mostly Brassens and Renaud and other French stuff I’d rather forget. My parents didn’t want to listen to music whose lyrics they couldn’t understand. And since they don’t speak English…
      Did you know that we have a singer named Hugues Aufray who sings Dylan’s repertoire translated into French?

      Then I branched out on my own. Each time I hear or read “Roy Orbinson”, I hear the song Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen.
      Talking about Australian rock: it took me my visit to Australia to finally understand the lyrics of Beds Are Burning. (Or I think I understand them) 🙂

      I liked the idea of this book too, so I was a little bit disappointed. I would have liked him to meet more Donnas and less weird preachers and salesmen.


      • October 20, 2019 at 8:43 am

        I wouldn’t like you to think my parents ever listened to rock n roll! In fact I was quite old, 16 maybe,before they would let me wear blue jeans (which I haven’t worn for 25 years, since my father bought some to wear around the house)


        • October 20, 2019 at 8:35 pm

          You’re like Zazie dans le Métro, you wanted blue jeans.


  2. October 20, 2019 at 7:36 am

    Definitely prefer the French cover, much more stylish. The other one is a mess. Yes, these soul-searching road trips can get wearisome, especially if the emphasis is on the person doing the journey rather than the people he meets.


    • October 20, 2019 at 8:29 am

      The French cover is more stylish but you have no clue about the Benzedrine-induced parts. At least the American one is honest. 🙂
      I have read a few road trip books, if I had the time, I’d make a best-of.

      If I had to recommend one, it’d be 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev.


  3. Jonathan
    October 20, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    Yeah, I’m not too sure about this one. I have had a copy of Stone Junction by Dodge for years but haven’t got close to starting it. It has an introduction by Thomas Pynchon which puts me off reading it as I’ve grown to despise Pynchon’s work. One day though.


    • October 20, 2019 at 8:34 pm

      I’m not tempted to read another one and I couldn’t finish the only Pynchon I tried to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. February 7, 2021 at 10:40 am

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