Oddly, I kind of felt like this book would be grimier than it is. It’s still pretty grimy, but not as much as I thought.
We begin this trilogy with our title character, Vernon Subutex, kind of coming to. He’s older middle-aged and has always been around the music scene, specifically as running a record shop for years. He’s well-known, not particularly well-liked, but has generally been in the mix of things. He’s not so much anymore. Upon waking up, among looking for enough money to buy some coffee and scrounging as much as possible for some cigarettes, he finds out an old friend has been found dead. Old friend is too easy a term here. This friend was a kind of benefactor in a way, and also a rival. He was also one of the most famous rock musicians, but now he’s dead, at 46, found in a hotel room. This is vexing for Vernon because of that complicated relationship, but also because he was helping Vernon pay rent. Looking through his belongings, he realizes that he has a recording of him interviewing the now dead star and realizes that this kind of thing, last words and all that, might be a way to make some money. This launches his kind of journey of the novel. Through this first novel we find him more or less on this question while also bringing us several additional characters along the way.
The book is decently plot-driven, but mostly it’s movement from one character to the next, where we get a longer character driven study for each interaction. The novel reads like a blend of Nell Zink, William Gibson, and Michel Houellebecq.