(Reviewed by Stephanie Velasco AUG 4, 2008)
Joey Goebel once played in a punk rock band called The Mullets, so it’s only fitting that the protagonist of Joey Goebel’s third and longest novel is none other than the mullet-headed Blue Gene Mapother. After all, Goebel’s already written his punk rock novel (The Anomalies).
Despite Blue Gene’s shabby exterior and blue-collar tendencies, he actually comes from one of the wealthiest families in America. While Blue Gene spends day after monotonous day selling his old GI-Joes at the local flea market, John Hurstborne Mapother, Blue Gene’s brother, runs for Congress at the behest of his fanatical Christian mother’s prophetic dream. The Mapothers welcome the formerly estranged Blue Gene back into their life, hoping he can lend some common-man appeal to handsome, preppy, and exorbitantly rich John’s campaign. Blue Gene agrees at first, happy to feel included again, but when he meets Jackie Stepchild, the outspoken lead singer of a local punk band, he begins to see the Mapothers’ values and priorities in a different light. And when Blue Gene runs into an important figure from his past while campaigning for his brother at Wal-Mart, he questions his family’s motives even more closely. Blue Gene, who has always felt like an alien amid his family’s wealth and pretensions, discovers that he has even less in common with the Mapothers than he once thought, and he eventually seeks out his own niche separate from them.
The setting of Commonwealth is Blue Gene’s beloved hometown of Bashford, a small industrial city “of about fifty thousand inhabitants, or three McDonald’s” “somewhere in the middle of America.” Though the descriptions of the town sound authentic enough, the descriptions of the monster-truck-and-pro-wrestling-loving citizens of Bashford sound more like caricatures in the vein of Larry the Cable Guy than genuine characters. Goebel tries so hard to portray Bashford and its inhabitants as being of a certain socio-economic class that some scenes and dialogue sound over-written and forced. No scene is complete without a Kenny Chesney song playing in the background or a crude reference to genitalia. At times even Blue Gene seems to be trying too hard to fit into the redneck stereotype.
Goebel’s fascination with the culture of Middle America is clearly present in this novel, as it has been in his past novels. As Commonwealth progresses, however, it transforms from an allegory of Middle American culture to an outright diatribe against the more conservative politicians who tend to represent these regions. Jackie Stepchild, the politically-minded punk rocker, becomes the mouthpiece for Goebel’s invective against conservative political policies, while Henry Mapother, Blue Gene’s father, acts as the ruthless, hypocritical, family-values-touting politician one can’t help but hate. Even the Mapother name leaves a bad taste in the mouths of left-leaning readers curious enough to Google it. (Mapother & Mapother is a law firm “nationally known for its representation of creditors” in Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and Goebel’s home state of Kentucky – just the kind of law firm Henry Mapother might be heading, were he not in the tobacco business.) Goebel’s novel has a definite agenda, and it is no coincidence that the book was intended to be released on July 4th of an election year.
Commonwealth is not so much a novel to be read for the compelling plot or character development (though the book is not completely devoid of said elements) as it is for the not-so-underlying message. Goebel’s assertion of his political views upstages even the conspicuous, mullet-headed Blue Gene and his struggles with his love life, his family, and his past. Readers looking for light summer reading should steer clear of Bashford and the Mapother family, but those bookworms looking to whet their political appetites with allegory (and a dash of humor) will find just what they’re looking for in Joey Goebel’s Commonwealth.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 reviews
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte OCT 21, 2003)Perhaps, there is a reason why a certain online bookstore chooses to package Goebel's The Anomalies with the latest Harry Potter tome. One thing that is strikingly similar between the two is the central protagonist's disillusionment with everyday, boring old Muggles or as in Goebel's book, the "humanoids."
Luster is an African American male, the middle born of seven boys, the rest of whom all deal in drugs and are named Jerome. He lives in Kentucky spending much of his life at his job as a commissary runner at the local dog-racing track. Luster, as he puts it, is just "biding time" until he makes it big. "Some call what I am doing now 'paying my dues,' he says, 'others call it building character. I call it 'suffering.' My dream is to one day not suffer as much as I suffer now. I hope to be a rock star, a famous orator, a television personality on the Labor Day telethon, or poet, a philosopher king, a leader of men, and/or a rock star supreme. I want to rock it like Chuck Norris on the tilt-a-whirl."
Luster hopes to realize his dreams of rock stardom with his band-The Anomalies. About the one thread uniting the band's freaky members is their hatred of the humanoids. Each of Anomalies' members is colorful to say the least. There is 80 year-old Opal, a sex-crazy chick who is this close to being permanently being put away by her nieces. Then there is eight year-old Ember who happens to trot along because Opal baby-sits her while Ember's parents become increasingly non-existent. The band's drummer is Satanist, hot babe, Arora, who openly rebels against her minister father. Finally there is Ray, an Iraqi who is here in Kentucky only because he wants to seek forgiveness from the man he unintentionally wounded in Gulf War I. The soldier he wounded wore a Kentucky sports logo, which helps Ray narrow his focus somewhat.
Together the band tries to make their first break and make a name for themselves in the rock world. Goebel, a young 22 year-old, himself an ex-lead singer of a punk band, The Mullets, seems to know a thing or two about the rocky road to celebrity. His prose is incisive yet often witty and he tells the story in brief spurts through the eyes of the band members. Other perspectives as related to the original members (boss, father etc.) are added and they add even more color to the situations.
Sometimes Goebel's prose slips into pure youth angst: "A humanoid is what you are. You are another pretty face in the ugly crowd. You are a cop in a doughnut shop. You are programmed to the end. You can be read from start to finish in one sitting." Eight year-old Ember's parents abandon her with her babysitter, Opal, and head off to Cancun. Such events have to be taken with a suspension of disbelief especially for us "humanoids."
Barring a few bumps however, The Anomalies is a promising debut for Goebel. The book will draw eager readers from the early twenties set. Despite all the angst, Goebel is smart enough to know that like The Anomalies, he has to make it in the real "humanoids" world. He knows just how far to push the envelope to achieve a critique of boring middle America. After all, humanoids or no humanoids, as one character in the novel puts it, "their cash all looks the same."
- Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Joey Goebel
- Wikipedia page on Joey Goebel
- Tastes Like Chickent interview with Joey Goebel
- Short Story: Surrealist Party by Joey Goebel
- January Magazine review of The Anomalies
- Indie Workshop review of The Anomalies
- Baltimore City Paper review of The Anomalies
- PopMatters review of Torture the Artist
- CityPaperOnline review of Torture the Artist
- PopMatters review of Commonwealth
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About the Author:
Joey Goebel was born (1980) and raised in Henderson, Kentucky. His parents were both social workers and his older sister is a social worker, as well. He has a BA in English from Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky and his short stories have appeared in two anthologies. He is the former lead singer of the punk band The Mullets (Higher Step Records) that toured for five years in the Midwest. After he was the singer & guitarists for the band The Novembrists.
He lives in Henderson, Kentucky with his wife Micah.