How The Mistakes Were Made [Review]

reviewed by Heidi Naylor

How The Mistakes Were Made
Tyler McMahon
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011
978-0-312-65854-0, paperback
339 pages, $14.99

A few years ago, award-winning graduate student Tyler McMahon taught a popular research writing course at Boise State University on the history of rock and roll, all the while refining his literary talents in fiction. Now, his musical interests, combined with his imaginative gifts, have culminated in a high-energy debut novel titled How The Mistakes Were Made. The novel details the rise and nearly immediate collapse of The Mistakes, a Seattle-based post-punk band of the 1990s.

The voice of The Mistakes is their drummer Laura Loss, who might have foreseen the band’s downfall. She’d been in a similar place a decade earlier, when she was lured by a reckless sense of authenticity into her beloved older brother Anthony’s hardcore D.C. band, Second Class Citizens. Anthony has long since been derailed by the fan violence he helped to incite.

Laura blames The Mistakes’ demise on its audience as well. The jolting shifts of a fan base are nothing new in the world rock music, especially in punk rock.  On the one hand, Laura notes, “all these strangers scream for you . . . you’re the first lady of hardcore” (39). But on the other? “Poseur journalists” (3) and the fickleness of fans. “There are good reasons to fear adoration,” Laura tells us (9). “It won’t take long for it to turn . . . ” (137). Yet, between gulps of a Cold War, Laura’s preferred mix of vodka and Coke, she’s compelled to explain herself to her turncoat fans, these “brain-dead sheep” (3).

Thus, the novel is largely a story of reaction. Hardcore punk is presented as a youthful early 1980s response to both the bleakness of suburban life and the horrors of the Cold War. The flannel-clad Mistakes extend this response to early Seattle grunge rock.  Given that time and culture span, the novel’s title has a triple-entendre, if you count President Reagan’s 1986 explanation for Iran-Contra: “Mistakes were made”—an unfortunate phrase that both acknowledges error and sidesteps consequence.

Mistakes were made in Laura’s band, too; and they’re the ones we often make when we’re young. But the difference is that the band’s mistakes, like its music, are more hardcore. For all her toughness, Laura’s frailty in love and blustering need for human connection are easy to understand, compelling, even devastating. She’s witty, self-aware, clear-eyed, and brave. But sidestepping consequence is one thing Laura cannot do, despite all her explanations.

How The Mistakes Were Made has a particular appeal for young adults, high school and college students as well as music fans.  The book is recommended for libraries that serve these audiences and for libraries with an interest in Idaho authors

Tyler McMahon received his Boise State MFA in 2007. His stories and features have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Passages North, The Minnesota Review, and other magazines. McMahon’s story, “A Pocket Guide to Male Prostitution,” was shortlisted for the 2009 Best of the West anthology.

Heidi Naylor teaches writing and literature at Boise State University.

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