Vaporized by Victor Levine follows the exploits of up-and-coming/down-and-out musician Jon Cells who’s looking for his big break in the New York music scene of the early eighties. In the meantime, he’s working at a perfume factory, which is under investigation by the FBI for possible drug connections. John Cell gets caught in between the rivalry between two familes, the Iranian Monsouris and Italian Pecorinos, when all that he wants to do is make music.
What makes Vaporized shine over other rock and roll novels is its authenticity. Jon Cells himself was an actual musician and the record he’s working on in the book actually exists. This is almost not necessary, as Jon Cells works as an effective archetype of the struggling artist. Real or not, he’s very real on the page.
Levine himself is the owner of a music studio that recorded the likes of Tom Petty and Michael Jackson, so he definitely knows his terrain. I played in rock bands in New York City – albeit a decade later – and found that Levine captures the sights, smells, and feelings of the New York music scene perfectly. Jon Cells sees himself as both the center of the world, and forsaken, a true rock star in the making. Cells never really made it, and died at the very young age of 44, so it’s as if Levine’s trying to keep Cells’ career alive. Even though Cells is disgruntled and violent at times, there’s a tenderness to his portrayal, as if the book’s an ode to all the talented people who never made it.
The weakness in Vaporized is its sometimes cluttered sentences. Levine is a wizard with language, but at times the rich vocabulary is overused with some very long sentences. Ironically, it’s a bit less rock and roll for the prose to be this purple, but if we’re talking the New York music scene, the book is more Talking Heads (or Television) than Ramones.
Another issue is the book switches between characters too frequently. Jon Cells is the most fully-realized and entertaining character of the lot and when the book veers away from him it loses some momentum. Unfortunately as well, Cells is only tangentially connected to the central mystery of the novel. While he works at the perfume factory, it’s a job he hates and only keeps to pay the bills. As such, even though Jon Cells is the most interesting character in the novel, he’s not entirely necessary to the plot. It’s almost as if two concurrent books are being written at once.
Vaporized could have been a very effective portrait of the NYC music scene without the mystery. But then, Vaporized isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense. It’s as much a portrait of a time and place. It’s about character and energy, not about solving crimes. So this is where the novel is most effective, not in its plot arc but in its evocation of a moment in time. For mystery lovers, there’s enough here to keep turning the pages, but this is a rock and roll novel first and foremost, so anyone interested in the New York music scene will enjoy this careful and complex portrait of an important time in music history.