Over the last two weeks I had the opportunity to read a book by Alex Austin called, The Red Album of Asbury Park. For my New Jersey readers, you’ll immediately recognize the name of the City by the Sea as it is listed in the title. For those of you who are not from New Jersey – hey, that’s your loss! Anyway, as the title suggests, this story is set in the heart of Asbury Park’s music scene.
At its core, The Red Album of Asbury Park is a story about a young man and his dream to make it big. Don’t think of the “American Idol” type of dream to make it big; rather the story’s protagonist seeks the type of success that is achieved by a local celebrity. On his journey, Sam (the young musician protagonist) is jolted by the grim reality that confronts him in the Asbury Park music scene.
Much like the troubled history of Asbury Park, Sam is wound around the drifting tides of a city in flux. He enters the city with the stench of death (albeit an animal’s death) which serves to set the foreboding tone in the rest of the book. But there is hope, though. In the last few pages of the novel there is a distinct feeling that good times (as defined by the reader after you’ve completed the book) are ahead. In this respect, Austin does a good job of bringing the story to an adequate conclusion.
For some more on the details of the story…
As stated above, Sam is an aspiring musician in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s when the Vietnam War is the international political topic du jour and race relations are running wild. Austin does a good job of describing the intricate, yet painfully true race relations as they existed during that time period – especially in the Monmouth County area. As an aside, I’ve spent a good portion of the last five years working to help revitalize many of the areas that are referenced in this novel, so that was sort of fun for me as a reader. Springwood and Cookman Avenues are referenced (I used to work on both streets) as well as Monmouth College (my alma mater) and the many shore communities. This is the first piece of fiction that I’ve read that was based out of an area that I was intimately familiar with and I enjoyed it.
Back to the story… Without giving too much away in this review, Sam is confronted with the dark underbelly of the Asbury Park music scene during the late 1960’s where everyone is “connected” (think Sopranos). In fact, one could suggest that Sam’s full-time entrance into this world is precipitated by the desperation that he feels as a struggling, young musician in a city that is known as a birthplace of amazing music. Others might argue that Sam is thrown into the wrong crowd because of his choices, but the theme that constantly came back to me as I was reading this book was that of desperation. Sam’s dreams are constantly put on hold or halted in their tracks due to one depressing event after another. From a personal injury to a crime that he witnesses which he carries on his conscience to being rejected by family members to ultimately losing those that are close to him, the theme of despair is well utilized by Austin.
Like I said before, as someone who has spent the last ten years living in the area of the Jersey shore that Austin covers in his novel, it was fun to hear the street names that I’ve been up and down so many times in the past. From a literary sense, though, Austin expertly captures the desperation and despair of a young, struggling musician living in a regional hot bed of artistic activity. The Red Album of Asbury Park is an excellent story of a young musician’s perpetual hope, routinely marred by the reality of his surroundings. The book is a fun read and keeps a steady, advancing pace throughout. If you can get your hands on this book, I highly recommend giving it a read.
It might be the perfect book to read on the beach in Asbury Park this summer…