Novel: Outside the Gates of Eden by Lewis Shiner

January 31, 2021

If you’re looking for an epic historical novel about music and the counterculture, look no further than Lewis Shiner’s Outside the Gates of Eden (2019). It’s a remarkable feat, a massive (over 850 pages!) saga that chronicles the lives of multiple protagonists across six-plus decades. It begins with a simple friendship in mid-sixties Texas, when 15-year-old Jeff Cole — the primary protagonist and something of a symbolic stand-in for an era — makes fast friends with Alex Montoya, the son of a wealthy Mexican immigrant. Together, th two become obsessed with the infinite artistic and social possibilities of music, start their own band, and begin an enthusiastic pursuit of rock-and -roll stardom. But as Cole moves from high school to college to a career in the music industry, his starry-eyed, idealistic dreams — musical, personal, sexual, and more — increasingly butt up against reality, which seems hellbent on foiling both his selfish personal ambitions and his hopeful, well meaning ones. First growing up, then growing old, Cole struggle through the decades, constantly adjusting his sights and modifying his artistic, professional, and personal expectations, as life carries him inexorably into an ever-more-uncertain future.

Outside the Gates of Eden possesses a stunning scope, packing whole lifetimes worth of story into its many pages. As a primary protagonist, Cole — charming, talented, selfish, libidinous, prone to addiction and depression — is a problematic figure, sometimes difficult to rally around. But this seems calculated, his personality a match for the countercultural backdrop he’s navigating. Cole’s journey takes him from the Texas oilfields to Austin, from San Francisco to Woodstock, from a remote Virginia hippie commune to Guanajuato, Mexico, with many and various stops in between. And each of those stops covers important territory in its examination of the era, from the early sections of musical passion, to the fragile, deceptive freedoms of the Summer of Love, to the political cynicism of the 1970s, to the triumph of capitalism in the 1980s, and beyond. It’s an engrossing personal journey, from hopes and dreams to prgamatism and compromise, which makes it somewhat tragic, but also powerfully relatable for readers reckoning with the world’s darkly shifting geopolitical landscape.

Shiner strategically diverts to other viewpoints as well, most frequently to Alex, who grows out of music and follows in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps, and the diligent, hard-working Madelyn, one of Cole’s many love interests and the one who suffers the most for his erratic and self-absorbed behavior. Additional strategic diversions crop up from time to time to provide a side-angle perspective on things. Shiner keeps it all interesting and brisk, and it reads much more quickly than its length might suggest. If I was concerned that my esoteric musical tastes would clash too much with Shiner’s (which tends more toward folk, classic rock, and Latin-inspired music), those concerns were assuaged quickly by the passionate and infectious way the rehearsals and concerts and recording sessions and festivals were depicted. Overall, a rich, detailed, and engrossing novel.