Utopia Avenue comes into Dean Moss’s life at just the right time. He’s broke and newly homeless when Levon Frankland approached him at a bar and offers him a job. Levon needs a bassist for a rock group that he’s putting together. Dean’s so desperate he joins in despite the fact that there’s no one else in the band. Soon he’s joined by Pete “Griff” Griffin on drums, Elizabeth “Elf” Holloway on vocals and piano, and Jasper de Zoet on lead guitar. They are four wildly different people with different styles to boot. Griff has been playing jazz most of his life, Elf is a folk singer, while Jasper (whose last name should be familiar to fans of Mitchell’s other novels) is a Hendrix/Clapton style guitar god.
Mitchell follows Utopia Avenue through the rough and tumble worlds of ’60s London and rock-and-roll. From the disastrous first gigs in front of small audiences who don’t know who the band are to the excesses of stardom and the perils of fame. Sex, drugs, protests, violence, revolution are all in the air, leading to a dizzying amount of creativity and an equal amount of heartbreak.
The story of Utopia Avenue is told in four parallel narratives, one for each of its members. Dean Moss tries to leave the rough and tumble of his native Gravesend behind him, with mixed results. He’s still holding on to his anger at his abusive father and struggles to strike a balance between helping the people who helped him when he was down and getting taken for a ride by people looking to take advantage. He’s also a little too keen on free love and good drugs. Elf Holloway must deal with the disapproval of her upper-middle-class parents and their implicit comparisons between her and her more domestic older sister. Getting over a bad breakup with a terrible boyfriend, Elf is also coming to terms with her sexuality. Griff, in perhaps a meta-commentary about the status of drummers, gets far less space than his bandmates, though a family tragedy does briefly threaten his place in the group.
All of this is fairly standard rock-and-roll stuff, though written with Mitchell’s characteristic depth and verve. It’s in the story of guitarist Jasper de Zoet that Mitchell indulges in his penchant for the strange and ridiculous. If you’re a Mitchell fan, you’ve no doubt spotted that Jasper is a relation of the title character of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. That plays out in ways that are both fascinating and infuriating, and eventually loops in characters from a different David Mitchell novel in a way that I don’t want to spoil.
Mitchell takes the reader on a joyride with the band as they climb the charts both in their native England and in the States, but eventually the ride ends much as the ’60s ends. With a lot of broken bodies, shattered dreams, and lots of people waking up with a serious hangover.