Thu Jan 3 2008
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
A few pages into Zachary Lazar’s dark swirl of a novel about Charles Manson, the Rolling Stones and Kenneth Anger, a childlike pleasure of hearing a story you already know takes hold. But it’s also unsettling, because this is not cozy bedtime fare: Tell us, we say, the story about the demonic cult leader who brainwashes all the kids and then goads them to murder, and the one about the rock star who sings while the bikers stab a man to death in front of the stage. Less well-known is the story about the avant-garde, gay filmmaker who made movies with Mick Jagger and Bobby Beausoleil, the would-be musician who committed the first of the Manson murders. It’s Anger’s travels and passions that bind Sway’s disparate threads into one hypnotic tone poem.
To hold sway is to assert power, and the novel draws on the heady mix of aggression, seduction and domination at play between bandmates, a cult leader and his followers, a filmmaker and his muse, a musician and his audience. Lazar develops these tensions against the backdrop of Vietnam and the assassinations of the late ’60s. After Robert Kennedy is shot, a disembodied narrator reflects: “It is as if the decade itself knows that it can never return, that it has only these few years to live out its own extremes.”
It is not the now-historic acts of violence that make Sway so riveting, but its vivid character portraits and decadent, muzzy atmosphere, all rerndered with the heightened sensory awareness associated with drugs and paranoia. The near miniaturist precision with which he describes Keith Richards’s attempts to master his guitar, Brian Jones’s acid trips and Anger’s obsessive desire for Beausoleil bring this large-scale tableau into stunning relief.