Several years ago, I took my now-11-year-old son to see Dan Zanes in concert. The show was at a venue where I had previously seen concerts by some pretty big names in indie music, and it was sold out for this concert aimed at preschoolers. The place was packed, and although I only knew a few of Zanes's songs, I was definitely in the minority. As little kids spun and danced in the aisles, their parents rocked out and sang along with all the lyrics. Needless to say, my mind went back to this slightly surreal scene several times as I read Wesley Stace's WONDERKID, about the rise and fall of a fictional 1990s band who, intentionally or not, became for a while the biggest thing out there for the littlest rock fans.
Wesley Stace, who has performed under the stage name John Wesley Harding and organized the series of musical variety shows known as the Cabinet of Wonders, certainly has the musical and literary chops to write convincingly about a band like the Wonderkids. He traces the band's genesis to the childhood of two English brothers (known as Blake and Jack). Jack was always the quieter, less academically ambitious but perhaps more musical one. Blake, who was well on his way to a PhD before he decided to write his dissertation not only on nonsense but also in nonsense, becomes the charismatic, slightly off-kilter heart and soul of the band.
"WONDERKID is loud, funny and entertaining in the extreme --- perhaps exactly like some of their legendary shows."
The band's story is narrated by Sweet, a young teen at the novel's opening who almost literally falls into the band's lap as he tries to make a getaway after shoplifting a record. Sweet is miserable with his foster parents, and Blake soon adopts him (eventually literally), bringing him on board to sell merch at some of the very first Wonderkids concerts. Of course, this was when the band was still known as the Wunderkinds, before they made their big debut in America and before they were repackaged by the label (thanks to Blake's whimsical, nonsensical lyrics) as a band for kids, much to the band members' surprise.
Not only does Stace hit this A&R nail right on the head, he also offers a real insiders' look into life on tour, including (along with the sex and drugs) the sheer tedium of life on the road in a tour bus. WONDERKID is getting a lot of comparisons to the movie Almost Famous, portraying as it does Sweet's often awkward coming of age amid the rock and roll shenanigans and dramas playing out around him. Stace also clearly has a lot of fun satirizing the band as a kids' band, as in this description of an early show: "I pushed my way through the seething scrum, avoiding abandoned prams as best I could while drinks spilled and crisps crunched like eggshells under foot. Halfway across the room and I'd seen it all: laughter and tears, nudity, even a full-on fight. And the band hadn’t even gone on yet."
Like all successful bands, though, the Wonderkids are in danger of becoming victims of their own success; Stace illustrates how the very thing that made them famous --- their appeal to kids and families --- is also their downfall. A final section, in which the band reunites years later and is acknowledged as the pioneers of today's wildly popular "kindie music" scene, goes on a bit too long perhaps. But overall, WONDERKID is loud, funny and entertaining in the extreme --- perhaps exactly like some of their legendary shows.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 28, 2014
- Publication Date: March 10, 2015
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Overlook Books
- ISBN-10: 1468310089
- ISBN-13: 9781468310085