MUSIC JOURNALIST AND fantasy novelist Lewis Shiner's 1993 book, Glimpses, was a rock lover's wet dream set to type. In that novel, an alcoholic stereo repairman named Ray Shackleford enjoys the ability to imagine mythic albums whose makers either died or cracked up before they were finished--the Doors' Celebration of the Lizard, the Beach Boys' Smile, Jimi Hendrix's First Rays of the New Rising Sun--and to channel the results to tape, creating virtual bootlegs. The book's meat lay in its impressively detailed descriptions of songs, like the Beach Boys' "Elements Suite," that have never been heard except in tentative fragments on haphazard, underground pressings.
In a similar vein, Shiner's new novel, Say Goodbye, chronicles the brief career of a completely fictional rock musician, Laurie Moss. But where Shiner effectively highlighted the charisma of Glimpses' musicians--Brian Wilson's big-kid vulnerability, Hendrix's stoner mysticism--he has trouble establishing an identity for his own invention, a 27-year-old singer/songwriter from small-town Texas. The book's framing device recalls Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine (and Citizen Kane before that): An obsessed music journalist tracks Laurie Moss's story after she flickers in and out of public view. The problem here is that the reader feels disinclined to join this game of hide-and-seek, as the rather uncompelling Ms. Ross doesn't seem worth finding.
Glimpses' most glaring weakness--Ray Shackleford's self-pitying boomer pathos--distracted from the novel but didn't deaden its pulse. But it's this same cloying sentiment that's at the center of Say Goodbye. Our unnamed journalist narrator--what do you know--is trapped in a bad marriage and nurses a mean crush on his subject. This might be interesting in itself if Shiner had the self-deprecating comic sensibility of fellow pop-fandom chronicler Nick Hornby. The closest Shiner's book gets to that, unfortunately, is its endless litany of stale rock-drummer jokes.