You might expect a Gen-X book about an indie-rock band called the Exes (the X-es, get it?) to be pretentious. Consider the ominous jacket blurbs: Someone called "Poppy Z. Brite" (author of Courtney Love, The Real Story) says Pagan Kennedy "just might be a spokeswoman for our generation." Yet, as it turns out, Kennedy is not ambitious enough for the reader to resent properly. She's an adequate writer doing her best to tell a small story. Kennedy, it seems, earnestly cares about characters who are more stereotypical and far less intriguing than the casts of MTV's The Real World (pick your season). The reader probably does not.
The Exes contains two former couples: Lilly and Hank, Shaz and Walt. Kennedy uses predictable signifiers to mark these characters as cool: They're young alt-rockers in Boston who work at used-record stores, ride bicycles, live in old houses and lofts. (Think Singles, Reality Bites, Details magazine circa 1994.) The girls wear dreads and combat boots, and the guys--well, you know the type: "Hank wanted to belong to a band so obscure and brilliant that just knowing the name of this band would be like saying a password that got you into the secret brotherhood of the ultracool indie guys."
And so we plod farther along in this stereotype of a stereotype, as the cute, sweet characters lead their simple lives while stumbling through Kennedy's humble prose: "He kissed her, sending a whiff of whiskey into her mouth like a flame"; "She needed a man who would wrap her up in fantasy like the finest mink."
Page to page, it's an engaging and enjoyable read. Like Tales of the City, Kennedy's book constructs an inviting alter-existence where everyone is just slightly more innocent than in real life. Yet the Tales books that preceded AIDS were genuinely oblivious to the coming disaster, and upon the disease's onset, Armistead Maupin was quick to chronicle its effects. While a single suicide bears no comparison to an epidemic, it was the death of Kurt Cobain that marked a turn in the path for the indie-rock community. Yet Kennedy's book, and her band, skirt this shift in the zeitgeist, failing to question the commercial system and self-centered values that lead to disillusionment for so many musicians.