In James Brubaker’s new novel, the titular Taxidermist’s Catalog is a long-rumored lost and final LP by folk musician Jim Toop, the sort of album that haunts fans’ existences, like a full-band recording of Springsteen’s Nebraska. The Taxidermist’s Catalog “is, famously, an album that was never properly completed” before Toop, at age 27, wandered into the desert to die — or was murdered, or, if fan sites are to be believed, was abducted by aliens. The “hardline conspiracy theorists” populating fan messageboards scrutinize Toop’s pre-disappearance records for contextual clues to support increasingly odd assertions, with his disappearance in 1977 the only certainty. The online Toop community’s many and sundried conclusions often include a woman named Angela, presumably of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, who is mentioned by name in his early work. A cottage industry emerges as Toop fans descend on the town, where “they go to restaurants and bars, acting all casual as they ask obtusely worded questions about UFO’s and cults and whatever other bullshit they’re interested in” regarding the swirling rumors surrounding the musician’s disappearance, and townspeople, much like those in Cornish, New Hampshire prior to the death of J.D. Salinger, do what they can to keep their secrets secure.
Music critic Daniel Morus ekes out a living writing music criticism, much of which revolves around Toop’s music and apocrypha. Unsatisfied with his lot in life, Morus weighs suicide often – until he receives a package in the mail from Folk! Magazine, one of his regular writing venues, containing a copy of the long-rumored final LP by Toop. Rather than listening, Morus buries the tape in his closet, initially afraid to either confirm or deny the tape’s authenticity.
That is, until someone breaks into his apartment. Morus apprehends the culprit, surprised to find a nerdy teenager named Fox Mulder, who is “obsessed with the truth” about the musician. Morus and Mulder listen to the tape. The work is undeniably Toop, but far cleaner than his earlier, lower-fi recordings, maybe angrier. Upon repeated listens, Morus discovers contextual clues that muddy the album’s appearance: Toop swipes lines from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and mentions New Coke. Both entered the world after Toop’s disappearance. Based on these discrepancies in the Toop timeline, Morus convinces Folk! to pay his way to Truth or Consequences (with Mulder as a sidekick) to find the truth about the tape.
I know Brubaker’s work from The RS500, where he (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I) wrote essays about great rock albums. He’s familiar with the language of rock criticism, and embeds Easter eggs to be found throughout. Immediately, Toop’s alleged alien abduction makes The Taxidermist’s Catalog the kind of book about UFO’s that would make the dearly departed Grant Hart smile; the rampant fan obsession with Angela is reminiscent of pre-reveal Jandek, whose early-ish records featured a woman named Nancy singing (leading to similar spates of fevered speculation).
Beyond the fanboy rock nods, Brubaker pulls off dazzling feats of narrative: the book’s third section finds Morus interviewing Jim Toop’s father William in a heavily footnoted passage published in Folk! Magazine. Morus inserts his own speculation about the veracity of William Toop’s claims through a series of footnotes casting him as the Charles Kinbote to Toop’s John Shade, further complicated by the editor of Folk!’s editorial notes. In the fourth section, the townspeople in Truth or Consequences speak in a collective we throughout, a first person plural, watching Mulder and Morus scour the town for clues with a detached by omniscient eye reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides and, more recently, Dave Kress’s Bubble Chamber. The effect of this narration is to cast doubt on fact: the stories surrounding musicians become legend with our endorsement – and despite endorsement. Rumors take on more life than documentation, earn more discussion.
Throughout, both Morus and Mulder are stuck in similar states of apophasis: Morus’s refusal to listen to The Taxidermist’s Catalog delays his decision to take his own life (or not); lingering questions from a failed marriage haunt him. Mulder, one of the founding members of a hacking collective named @mbiguous, tracks down flight manifests to help pinpoint the identity of his missing father, but lets them sit unread because “as long as (he) don’t look at the Records, (he) could continue not knowing.” By the book’s end, both characters find something resembling closure, though readers are left to evaluate the veracity of truths pitched forcefully (and in print) by Morus or less plausibly by Mulder.
It’s funny to think about rock critics finding, or seeking, truth, because a decent chunk of criticism is interpretation (if not outright bullshit). But it’s because of this contradiction that Brubaker’s novel is so successful, and such a joy to read: by deep diving into multiple vernaculars, those of the crowd, of the editor, the journalist, the essayist, the hacker, he’s able to triaulate not only a yearning to be heard but a desire on how to be heard. How the crowd sometimes knowingly withholds information, or distorts it, to protect versions of reality for personal gain, for the good of the group. How serious voices with real investments in their subject are left on the margins.
Any fan of music will find something to enjoy in James Brubaker’s The Taxidermist’s Catalog. But don’t making the mistake of thinking of this solely as a rock novel. Like Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street and Constance Squire’s Live From Medicine Park, this one uses the rock background as both springboard and funhouse mirror.
The Taxidermist’s Catalog
by James Brubaker
Braddock Avenue Books; 352 p.