Even in the wake of the 20-year-anniversary drooling over Nirvana’s classic Nevermind, Tyler McMahon’s debut novel, set within the fledgling grunge scene in early-’90s Seattle, waits almost 100 pages before making a tentative name-drop. And it might be easy to write off the first reference to Nirvana as simply “those guys from Aberdeen” as snide. But a closer look at the typography of How The Mistakes Were Made shows that the chapter headings use Nirvana’s famous logo font. That unassuming name-drop isn’t for attitude or posturing, it’s for time-period accuracy.
A fictional combination of books like Heavier Than Heaven or Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, How The Mistakes Were Made has a plain narrative conceit: a tell-all confessional, part memoir and part history—of the “this is how it really happened” variety—in a direct voice that’s compelling enough to make this book hard to put down. Laura Loss is a late-twenties multi-instrumentalist who grew up in the trial-by-fire world of hardcore punk in the early ’80s. Now she’s struggling at a coffee shop in Seattle with a band of hacks, going nowhere. During a gig in Missoula, Montana, she has a chance meeting with Nathan and Sean, two fans of her teenage band. When the two of them show up in Seattle, looking to start a band, Laura fills in on drums, and The Mistakes are born. Nathan, the bassist, lyricist, and vocalist, has a surprising business acumen, while lead guitarist Sean commands a unique power over his instrument due to synesthesia, which causes him to see colors while he plays. The band’s meteoric rise is practically predestined, as is their catastrophic meltdown.
The chapters alternate between adult Laura’s narration of the brief history of The Mistakes and second-person vignettes that detail how a teenage Laura got sucked into playing bass in her older brother and idol’s band, Second Class Citizens, which takes the ’80s hardcore scene by storm. She grows up on the road, losing her virginity in a ditch next to a Texas highway, and watches as SCC’s riotous fan base destroys her brother. Laura’s narration is her attempt to exonerate herself from the never-ending scorn of fictional fans who blame her for the destruction of not one, but two highly influential but short-lived bands.
The book achieves small amounts of beauty during moments when Laura picks apart Nathan’s lyrics to determine their significance within The Mistakes’ flashpoint existence. Literature about music, especially more modern subgenres of rock, rarely contains those flashes of insight and tenderness within the chaos. Better still is McMahon’s ability to convey precisely how The Mistakes sound as in the studio, and feel in live performance.
Laura does get a bit cloying, especially when McMahon has her stumble through many direct addresses to the audience. She also comes off as slightly predatory and immature, unable to learn from the mistakes of her youth that she should resist 21-year-olds as romantic possibilities. That weakness even borders on sexist, as though the group’s sole female member is the only one unable to put music before relationships.
In spite of those drawbacks, How The Mistakes Were Made avoids reveling in either the grunge or hardcore eras as golden ages, though it isn’t as insightful or chilling in its fandom damnation as something like Eminem’s “The Way I Am”—middle fingers to the audience rarely are. Instead, it shows how the influential foot soldiers of cultural change can be revered and trampled by the same people who profess to love them, and that for some people, even 15 minutes of fame may be a painful overestimation.