There’s a live recording of a Bruce Springsteen song — “The River,” I think — with a long spoken introduction in which Springsteen talks about his difficult relationship with his father. The elder Springsteen, a veteran of World War II, didn’t understand what his son was doing with his long hair and his late nights and his rock n’ roll and all of that business. He tells his son just wait until the army gets you, they’ll make a man of you. Well, Bruce’s draft number comes up. By the time he’s supposed to go in for his physical, he’s too scared to say anything to his parents, so he takes off for a few days with his friends. When he gets back, his old man asks him where he’d been. Bruce said he’d been to the induction center for his army physical. “So what happened?” “They didn’t take me.” “That’s good, son. That’s good.”
Like Springsteen, Jeff Cole (“But everyone calls me Cole”) has a difficult father, a World War II veteran who came back to work as an accountant in the oil business. He’s moved the family around — Mexico, Egypt, Midland (Texas), “one armpit to another” as Cole puts it — and at home he always has the TV on too loud for conversation, but insists that Cole get up and change the channel if for some reason a music group comes on. Outside the Gates of Eden opens in 1965 on Cole’s first day at a new school, St. Mark’s, a pricey private school in Dallas, the latest oil-patch stop. Cole is a junior, and he’s paired for tennis practice with Alex Montoya — “small and wiry, light-skinned despite the Mexican name. Short black hair parted on the left. Good-looking and confident—hell on women, Cole figured.” (p. 3) Cole is new, and a scholarship kid; Alex is established at the school, and rich.
It’s the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Outside the Gates of Eden begins in 1965 and ends, not quite 950 pages onward, at an unspecified “Later” some time after 2016. Cole and Alex are still alive and still friends, despite some of their best efforts on both counts over the course of the intervening years. They bond over cars and sports and, most of all, music. Cole’s admiration for Alex is already visible in the sentence quoted above. Shiner shows what Alex sees as he brings Cole home for dinner the Friday after that first tennis set:
Alex was nervous despite himself as he parked behind the house. You could see there was something about “this Cole character,” as his mother already called him. Alex felt like his own attempts at coolness were transparently lame, whereas Cole was the real deal, standing outside looking in, not with hunger but with indifference.
They got out of the car and he watched Cole take it all in, the pristine driveway, the perfectly rectangular hedges, his sister’s red T-bird convertible, the privacy fence and the pool beyond it, the two-story brick house, less than ten years old. “Nice,” Cole said, “What does your father do to get this kind of bread?”
“Import-export, real estate, he’s got a piece of the Cuauhtémoc brewery in Monterrey, I don’t even know anymore where it all comes from. Once you get past a certain point, being rich is a full-time job all by itself.”
“You don’t approve?”
“It’s not that simple. I love my father. I just don’t want to be him.” (pp. 6–7)
It’s music that sets Cole’s heart on fire. From the first time Alex plays him one side of a Bob Dylan album, Cole’s head is spinning. A few weeks later, they see Dylan’s show in Dallas “and Cole snapped a mental picture to take with him for the rest of his life—blue lights washing the stage, the giant shadow of the bead of the bass guitar on the white backdrop, the drummer and the piano player both hunched over, Dylan wide open to the microphone, the lead guitarist watching him, as everyone in the audience was watching him, leaning forward into the song, as Cole was, and all of them, together, surrendering.” (pp. 33–34)
So much flows from that moment. Shiner has already introduced other major characters by then — Madelyn, a fiercely intelligent girl the same age as Cole and Alex, someone just starting to decide where her life desires were different from her family’s; Dave Fisher (born Fishel Dov Cohen), about ten years older, an engineer at a record company, someone who can see the culture shifting around him and wants to be a part of it — and their stories will eventually intersect with Alex and Cole, again and again. But the spine of Outside the Gates of Eden is what music does to the two boys, and what they are (and are not) willing to do for music.
One of the book’s great strengths is showing how “the sixties” unfolded in a place like Dallas. So many books and movies about the era concentrate on events in just a few places, particularly New York and San Francisco. Shiner shows how national trends intersected with local cultures, how bands in central Texas were building their own things, not just imitating what they heard coming in from somewhere else. Thanks to Alex’s central role, there’s a strong connection with Mexican music as well, which feeds into the band that Alex and Cole start. Bands, actually, since of course young people change quickly and young artists even more so.
Cole’s teenage conflict with his father does not end as well as Springsteen’s did.
Montoya [Alex’s father] nodded. “We’re both businessmen, and plain speaking is fine with me. I’d like to offer you a deal. The problem is that, for whatever reason, Jeff [Cole] is determined not to go back to living with you. You could get the police to drag him there against his will, but short of chaining him to the wall, there’s no way to keep him from running away again. If he didn’t run away to my house, then out of town, out of state, maybe out of the country. If he does that, he’ll never graduate from high school, let alone go to college. I know that’s not how you want things to end up for him, not after all you’ve done to give him a head start. I’m sure you’ve thought all this through yourself, still, I wanted to get it on the table.” (p. 185)
Alex has his conflicts, too.
“What’s so bad about your father?” [said Cole].
“I’m not saying he’s not a good man. But he’s invested in the system. Like I said, he delivers big envelopes of cash to los priistas, and he makes big political contributions in Texas. He fought to keep the union out of his factories and he’s got money stashed in overseas accounts. You know much he loves poker, and business is the same thing to him. He plays the game, you know? And he plays to win.”
“When you take over, you’ll change all that.”
“Not happening, man. That life is not for me.”
“For real? When did you decide that?”
“A while ago. It’s going to break his heart.
“He’ll get over it. He wants you to be happy. You can come be a star with me.”
“Maybe,” Alex said. “I don’t know if I want it bad enough.”
“That’s okay,” Cole said. “I want it enough for both of us.” (p. 196)
And all of those desires have consequences that play out through the rest of Outside of the Garden of Eden. They change and reverberate less in the way that plots have twists and more in the way that life is full of surprises, and people tend to become more themselves over time. This is not a book that a young person could have written. Its people have the wear and tear, the perseverance that comes from a longer life. There’s not just the big confrontation, there’s the morning after, and the month after, and the years after. It leads to a richness, a depth as people grow and change, and remain themselves.
There are worlds in this book, and they all have great music.