There was a point in the mid-2000s where Pete Wentz was rock royalty. As bassist and lyricist for the pop-punk outfit Fall Out Boy, Wentz helped the band skyrocket to double-platinum status with the earworm single “Sugar, We’re Goin Down.” The band routinely filled stadiums, but it burnt out early, going on hiatus in 2009. [Update: The band announced its reunion the same morning this review posted. —ed.] Wentz has other solo projects, but nothing that’s approached Fall Out Boy’s height.
Now Wentz has transformed his experiences on the road into a novel, Gray. With the help of James Montgomery, a staff writer for MTV News, Wentz uses a tragic love story to discuss the perils and monotony of touring across America. Gray’s unnamed narrator, who resembles Wentz in several ways, is on the cusp of making it big with his punk band, but his yearning for a girlfriend back home in Chicago continually threatens his plans, leading to a series of fights, breakups, suicide attempts, one-night stands, and drugged-out phone calls. Gray tracks the narrator’s relationship with a woman only identified as Her, exploring how the rock-star life can both unnaturally extend and maim the relationships that preceded fame. It’s a cliché that rock artists usually write terrible fiction, and Wentz continues the tradition. The book’s faults are innumerable, but overall, Gray fails at style, plotting, and emotional resonance.
The book reads a bit like the discarded notebooks of an emo teenager. Throughout, Wentz strives for a poetic style with trite lines like, “I am a corpse bored with my own funeral.” “I’ve got ringing in my ears, but not on my fingers,” the narrator says, though it’s clear he’s unaware that the line is a terrible pun, and grammatically confusing. Wentz is smart, but by the millionth bit of florid prose, it’s obvious he wants to show off his cleverness instead of have it serve the story. He tries too hard to impress, and it shows.
Gray doesn’t have much of a storyline. The narrator and Her fight, have sex, or talk about their collective future, but there’s no sense of progression. Every time the narrator reaches a moment of clarity about his situation (and there are many, each one usually contradicting the last), Wentz undercuts it by having him fall back into his previous behavior. As the narrator’s band becomes more famous, his career trajectory serves as an afterthought to the romance. Wentz clearly believes the most interesting part of his story is the relationship with Her. But the relationship is a static, endless cycle of fights and making up.
There’s something to be said for a narrative that accurately depicts a romance neither member can break free of, although it’s destroying them. But such stories need sympathetic characters. Wentz purposefully keeps his protagonists as vague as possible; they’re too nebulous to seem real. He may have denied them names to universalize their situation, but because they’re so underdefined, it’s impossible to relate Her to real life, or understand why the narrator has any interest in her, much less loves her to the point of self-destruction. She’s a bland cipher who causes another cipher some generic problems.
Gray isn’t even an enjoyable train wreck, since it lacks any levity, unintentional or otherwise. The book is partially based on Wentz’s personal writings while on tour with Fall Out Boy, and it shows: It’s an entirely insular narrative, focused on a relationship Wentz doesn’t flesh out enough to make interesting. He seems more interested in staying in his own head, creating pretty, meaningless sentences. A story of being on tour with a band just about to hit it big would be interesting, and it’s unfortunate that Gray ducks that narrative in favor of a tale only Wentz could care about.