Review: How the Mistakes Were Made by Tyler McMahon

Posted: June 27, 2014 in Reviews
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This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

Every now and then, a book comes along that, by the time you close the back cover, you know has changed you. It’s touched you in ways you hadn’t expected going in – or even halfway through.

How the Mistakes Were Made, written by Tyler McMahon, is one of those books. It’s now right up there with Fat Kid Rules the World as one of the best works of Rock Fiction. Ever.

I was desperate to read this book because of its similarities to the Courtney Love story. It’s set in Seattle, right as the grunge sound takes off. Laura had been in an influential, ground-breaking band with her brother, but something happened. It takes a long time for us to find out what.

That set her off, adrift in the world. She’s working in a coffee shop when the book opens, playing with a band called the Cooler Heads.

There’s a theme there. The Cooler Heads maybe should have prevailed, on both a literal and metaphorical sense. But, they don’t, and Laura quits the band and before she knows it, two kids she met at that final Cooler Heads show wind up on her doorstep. She takes them in and… before she knows it, she’s in a three-piece band called The Mistakes.

They’re the perfect combo, of course—if they weren’t, we wouldn’t have a book. So let’s overlook that coincidence and go beyond. Guitarist Sean has that disorder where you see colors, and that’s what powers his beauty and talent. Unfortunately, he’s also a lost soul with a self-destructive bent that first attracts Laura and then repels her. She’s got the same self-destructive need, after all, and it’s hard to tell if it’s rooted in her upbringing or just her general makeup. Or what she’s been through.

Nathan, Sean’s best friend and the other member of the Mistakes, is the conscience and the glue that holds everything together—although, on the surface, it’s Laura who does that. Laura with the experience and the know-how. Except… she doesn’t know how. Does she?

Three members of a band… there’s our triangle, right there. And a triangle it is, indeed. It’s not a static triangle, either. The players take on parts and change them, particularly Laura and Nathan. It’s an interesting transition, especially because it comes across as natural and seamless. As Sean’s self-destructive side emerges, Laura’s entire life is thrown into flux and she’s left wrestling with the legacy her brother left her: is it selling out if you have commercial success?

It’s Laura’s own need to self-destruct that causes the downfall of the Mistakes, and from the first page, she tells us that she’s the one to blame. I’d argue she doesn’t do this in the way she tells us she does. The basic problem with Laura is that she can’t commit. She’s got one foot out the door, and when you’re in that position, you really have nowhere to go but to follow where that foot’s led you. The idea of what you want becomes secondary to the tantalizing desire to escape.

If you haven’t caught on by now, this is one deep book. At the same time, though, it’s a book that’s super easy to read on the surface, for its story. Can you make comparisons to Courtney Love? Maybe. Maybe not. You’d need to know her story better than I do. Laura certainly lacks Courtney’s need to flip off the world; never once does Laura take the stage without panties on… that we know of.

The only spot in which the book stumbles is in the flashbacks. They are told in a second-person point of view. This is the hardest point of view to master—I say this as someone who studied points of view—and McMahon doesn’t quite pull it off. Just when we got to the point where I wish they’d go away and was wondering why they’d even been included, I get my answers. It’s both what I expected and much more powerful.

Laura’s been sitting on a secret, a big one, a haunting one, even as there’s something typical about it. I don’t think it shapes her the way she thinks it does; she’s managed to hide her sensitive, scared side with a foot-thick wall of Teflon before it happens. But once it comes out, an awful lot begins to make sense.

The other area I don’t completely buy is how and why the burden of the breakup of the Mistakes is put onto Laura. Things happen, and how that thing is immediately and widely connected to her is beyond me. Either I missed it in the reading or there was some logic gap I failed to make. I can’t say more without spoilers, and this isn’t the sort of book you want to spoil.

Rather, you want to savor it and its many lessons. The rich subtext isn’t something that reaches out and grabs you; I’d be surprised if many readers didn’t even know it was there.

Of course, this being Rock Fiction, I have to comment on the authenticity of the rock and roll. Whoa, Nellie. It’s there. McMahon did his research, and I’d wager a lot of it was firsthand knowledge. He gets it.

Wrap it up and put a bow on it, and then give it to all your friends. This one’s a definite West of Mars Recommended Read.

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