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Obsessed Britpop fan's tale hits a few flat notes

I suffered a near nostalgia overdose a few days ago, as I bought an import special edition of MOJO magazine -- think of it as Rolling Stone, if RS limited itself to music coverage, and was run entirely by men over the age of 40 -- and finished Tim Thornton's debut novel, "The Alternative Hero." The MOJO covered "Britpop," the glorious anglophile's wet dream of '60s-influenced, guitar-drenched British rock that ruled the U.K. charts between roughly 1994 and 1997, while Thornton's novel is the story of a thirtysomething bloke obsessed with a fallen Brit rock idol from roughly the same time period.

To be blunt, all of this could not be more "me." I've been a Britpop obsessive since hearing Oasis' soaring "Live Forever" in 1994, leading to boatloads of cash spent on singles from the British Isles at the sadly departed Home of the Hits (this was the '90s; online music thievery was still in its infancy), years and years of concerts, an ideal topic for my master's thesis in college (seriously), and many, many happy times.

However, unlike Clive Beresford, the protagonist of Thornton's "Alternative Hero," I've never been particularly interested in meeting my musical faves. I'm not sure what I would say to these pop icons, other than, a Chris-Farley-meets-McCartney-ish " 'Champagne Supernova' is awesome --"

If I ever did spot one of my Britpop faves wandering down the street, I would likely not turn stalker, as Beresford does in the hit-or-miss but mostly enjoyable novel. But stalk he does, and his intent -- on finding out exactly why Lance Webster, former lead singer of the nicely named Thieving Magpies, berated an audience and committed career suicide in the mid-'90s -- forms the crux of this story by an author who "plays the drums for the alt/blues band Fink," according to his bio.

Webster, you see, changed Clive's life: "Unless you were a boring, unadventurous middle-class teenager living in a boring, unadventurous middle-class southern English town during the latter half of the 1980s, it seems almost impossible to conceive the seismic impact a man like Lance Webster and his band of Thieving Magpies could've had on someone like me."

It was at his first Magpies' gig that Clive met his soon-to-be best friend Alan, discovered the power of music, and felt, for the first time in his then-teenage life, a sense of belonging. "I am still -- some 18 years later -- astonished to report that when the band left the stage for the third and last time I staggered up to a similarly soaked Alan Potter, put my hand on his shoulder, and burst into tears." I've been there Clive. Most of us have, actually; at least, those who found music a gateway into another, far cooler world.

After Clive's initial spotting of Webster, he hatches a stalker-esque plan, and soon comes face to face with his idol for reasons involving a sick cat. The two become fast friends, thanks to the fact that our protagonist pretends to never have heard of the Thieving Magpies, or enjoy music at all. (There's a wonderful scene in which Clive must feign ignorance at everyone from Syd Barrett to Kurt Cobain.)

Predictably, Webster catches on before too long, and Clive must look in the mirror at what exactly is behind his obsession, and why the dissolution of the Magpies seemed to have left a gaping hole in his life.

Ironically, Clive despises Britpop -- "Everything about the effect it had on me was wrong, or at least at odds with what everyone else seemed to be feeling," he says -- but Thornton brings to vivid life the rush of that era in U.K. rock. It was a time when the latest edition of New Musical Express and Melody Maker seemed life-altering-ly important, bands could wind up on the radio before releasing a single piece of music, and many groups like the "Thieving Magpies" found themselves on the outside looking in.

"It's not as if we're doing something completely contrary to what's happening now," shouts Webster on the day of his career-destroying mid-'90s festival set. "We use guitars. We're British. We write real pop songs about real life. And we still rock harder than f------ anyone. A lot of the new bands rock about as hard as Simply Red." (No offense taken by this Britpopper. It's a good line.)

But musical cycles have their own lifespans, a fact it takes Webster -- and Clive -- years to grasp.

Just as Nirvana closed the door on bands like Poison (let's forget Bret Michaels' new role as reality show darling, shall we?), so, too, did Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede, etc. peg groups like Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and Jesus Jones as instantly irrelevant.

Thornton was smart to turn his eye to what happens afterwards for such musicians. Oftentimes, that "Where are they now?" story is more interesting than the initial burst of fame. That Webster's explanation is not all that interesting, then, is a big disappointment, and a first-time author's failing.

"The Alternative Hero" tries hard to make one think of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," but it falls prey to the same problem of much of Hornby's more recent output: too much plot, way too much coincidence, and not enough payoff.

The end, especially, is simply not strong enough, and way, way too sudden. But the novel is good-natured, occasionally quite funny, and a sign of good things for Thornton.

And really, it's impossible for me to find too much fault with any piece of fiction that mentions My Bloody Valentine, Gene, the Bluetones, Primal Scream and the La's.

D'you know what I mean?

Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo critic.

***

The Alternative Hero

By Tim Thornton

Knopf

416 pages, $24.95

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