Book Review: ‘Loud Is How I Love You,’ by Mercy Brown

The cover of "Loud Is How I Love You," by Mercy Brown.

The cover of “Loud Is How I Love You,” by Mercy Brown.

Loud Is How I Love You

Mercy Brown (InterMix Books/Penguin USA)

The author: Although Loud Is How I Love You is Mercy Brown’s first book, she’s already an established Jersey voice. You might know her by another handle: Under a different name, she’s fronted a couple of smart, ambitious New Brunswick bands that were active on the club circuit around the turn of the millennium. So when she writes about band politics, or Garden State clubs, or grimy practice rooms in the basements of suburban houses, or the joys of turning in and cranking it up, she does so with the authority that comes from experience. Given the immediacy of Brown’s writing for her bands and the power of the imagery she’s always commanded, it was virtually certain that she’d try her hand at prose fiction at some point in her public ministry. In 21st-century style, she built herself an audience by writing high-quality fanfic. Me, I’ve never read the Twilight books, but if they’re half as fun as Loud Is How I Love You, maybe I ought to check them out.

The format: Moderate-length novel, first person, strict realism, 220 pages. You probably won’t read it in one sitting, but if you surrender to the storytelling — not a hard thing to do — you could finish it up in a fevered afternoon.

The genre: Romance. That’s misleading, though: there are no swarthy dukes riding around on chargers or anything like that. This is the story of two young musicians in an active independent pop scene who are positively overcome with the hots for each other, and the obstructions to their happiness, and togetherness, that they face. As such, it may be interesting to roughneck rockers who wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to books written in this style. The sex scenes — and there are quite a few of them — are designed to steam up your e-reader; they’re both frank and explicit, so if you can’t handle that, you might want to steer clear. But you can handle that, right?; you might even be one of those people who consider sexual desire a natural and normal part of existence. Loud also falls into the young-artist bildungsroman category, and if you like books about the trials and thrills of shepherding a project through its tentative, formative stages, here’s one with the verisimilitude that can only be achieved by an author who’s lived what she’s writing about. It’s also something of a campus novel — the main characters are students at Rutgers, and even as they rock ‘n’ roll, they also jump to the rhythms of the academic calendar. Finally, Loud Is How I Love You is a genuine reconstruction of a demimonde that has mostly disappeared: late 20th century New Brunswick, which was once a great town for oddball strummers. That makes it good historical fiction, even if the history it describes isn’t all that far away in the rear-view mirror of the band van.

The setting: That embrace of New Brunswick past makes reading Loud Is How I Love You a long, rewarding saunter down Memory Lane for those who remember the period. Mercy Brown leaves many of the names of locations and institutions intact: the Court Tavern, the Melody Bar, Olde Queens Tavern, various restaurants, hangouts and scene-supporting radio shows. Besides one memorable sequence on I-95, the action in Loud never strays far from New Brunswick and Highland Park. The story is set in the late ’90s, which you’ll realize immediately given Brown’s proclivity for dropping the names of bands, labels and indie phenomena from the period (Mazzy Star, spinART Records, Henry Rollins as a sex fantasy, many references to Sonic Youth, etc.) That means the characters don’t have smartphones, and they don’t kill time on the Internet. But since they live on top of each other as college students often do, their degree of interconnectivity feels awfully modern. Brown also wins points for casting the proudly nerdy Mickey Melchiondo of Ween as a quasi-heroic scene elder; a lesser journalist or a garden-variety punk-rock pinocchio would have tapped somebody badass. Mercy Brown was there. She remembers correctly.

The characters: Brown’s narrator is 21-year-old Emmy, a rock ‘n’ roll true believer who is consumed by her determination to bring her writing to audiences and cover herself in the grungy glory available to independent musicians. Not coincidentally, the book catches Emmy in the throes of a full-scale sexual awakening, too, and this makes sense, because no college kid as passionate and purpose-driven as she is could ever manage to suppress her lustful appetites. The object of her affection is Travis Bean, her guitarist and muse, a levelheaded Midwesterner who everybody in Loud has the hots for, including Emmy’s with-it grandma. As this is a romance novel, Brown is obliged to star-cross these people, and the scenario gives her a rationale for doing so: Emmy spends most of the story consumed by not-unreasonable anxiety that her erotic fixation on her bandmate could screw up her chance at rock excellence. Emmy’s ambivalence — and the fickleness that results from it — might exasperate you, but her motives are so pure that it’s hard not to root for her. As for Travis, he’s (mostly) patient and balanced in a way that few 22-year-olds ever manage to be, but that’s why he’s the hero in a romance novel and you are not. His fascination with Emmy is understandable since she’s a human being overflowing with affection: not just for her bandmates, but also New Jersey, which she is quick to defend against its glib detractors, and also for the community of misfits who’ve found their refuge in the local music scene. Loud Is How I Love You is often at its best when Brown moves the action to the club floor, where her observations of social and sexual dynamics have room to resonate. Emmy’s sharp-witted descriptions of her peers on the rock circuit are often very funny, and they also give her an opportunity to explain why these people are willing to devote so much energy to hollering into microphones and banging on cans. For instance, the ageless and dyed-haired minor character Hanna Octane (the names in this book are a trip) appalls the traditionalist Emmy by running her guitar directly into the mixing board. Hanna doesn’t know what she’s doing artistically or interpersonally, but Emmy and her friends accept and celebrate her anyway: “Like a lot of us strays, she’s part of this scene because when Billy calls, she shows up. To be in this club, the bar is really pretty low. You don’t have to be a musician. All you have to do is show up, wherever we all are, whether it’s Carolier or the Melody or the Dead End. Just show up and don’t be a dick. But you can even be a dick as long as you have an excuse.”

The story arc: Straightforward. Mercy Brown doesn’t indulge in too many digressions — this is a story about a young woman who is obsessed with her music and productively distracted by her desires, and her life is roaring along at a pace that makes rumination unfeasible. Like many novels that take place on or near a college, the linear storytelling is underscored by the demands of the school year: tests, graduations, the annual field day. There’s a small subplot about Emmy’s late rock-guitarist father, but by the end of the book it’s so seamlessly integrated into the main narrative thread that it hardly feels like a diversion. Brown makes Emmy a bit of an unreliable narrator: most of her friends and collaborators realize she’s sweet on Travis Bean long before she does. Yet when Emmy talks about the music that inspires her or the joys of creation in the practice room or the importance of band unity, she’s entirely self-possessed. It’s only the interpersonal stuff that occasionally leaves her flummoxed, and she’s too much of a team player and a believer in band unity ever to indulge in competitive behavior. Thus there’s a creeping, unspoken suggestion in Loud that Emmy is actually the class of the scene — a musician who outpaces her bar-band peers more than she realizes — and that everybody, including Travis, is both convinced and worried she’s ticketed for bigger things.

The writing: Funny and direct and profane when it needs to be; lots of short paragraphs and punchy sentences and a nice, brisk pace. Emmy’s voice is consistent throughout: she does indeed sound like a talented 21-year-old rock maniac whose world is her band and whose band is her world. I do hope Mercy Brown will forgive me for saying that the writing in Loud Is How I Love You often reminds me of that of another New Jersey author with sex on her mind: Judy Blume. Today they might seem tame by comparison to say, Young Thug, but in the ’80s, some of Blume’s books were considered too racy for young readers. A censor might be inclined to slap a big red X on parts of Loud, and I can’t deny that the descriptions of various acts in this book are lurid. For what it’s worth, I found the sex scenes in Loud Is How I Love You extremely sweet — wholesome, even. Even on their worst behavior, Emmy and Travis truly care about each other, and their intimacy reflects that. The creepy violence, head games and coercion that has recently infected some of the popular titles in adult romance? None of that stuff is welcome at Brown’s party. The sex encounters in Loud are 100 percent consensual and enthusiastic, and I applaud Mercy Brown for keeping the b.s. capitalist power dynamics out of the bedroom. Given the present climate and current narrative conventions, this must have taken some real restraint.

What’s not so great?: Compared to the indiepop scene in New York City, which could be pretty cutthroat, New Brunswick’s turn-of-the-millennium underground was a genuinely welcoming environment. People in bands were mutually supportive — Hub City camaraderie really was exceptional, and since Mercy Brown herself had something to do with setting that tone, she’s well within her rights to wave the flag hard for her underappreciated town. That said, she lays it on pretty thick in Loud Is How I Love You, and sometimes the behavior of a few of her scenester characters is too good and too generous to be true. Even when Emmy doesn’t treat the people around her very well, they never act vindictively or take advantage of her weakness to further their own goals. One character in particular — a legitimate rival — not only chooses not to stay angry at Emmy after she learns she’s been misled, but she goes out of her way to be nice to her and help her out of a tight spot. (No, this isn’t exactly a breach of realism akin to a spaceship landing on the quad, but let’s just say that wouldn’t happen in Brooklyn.) The two other members of Emmy’s band arrive straight from the Fred and George Weasley school of undifferentiated comic relief characters; though they’re funny, their lack of depth feels like a missed opportunity to explore the complex four-way marriage of a rock quartet. This is something that may be addressed in a future book: Stay Until We Break, the next Hub City romance, focuses on Cole, the group’s bassist, and his relationship with Emmy’s roommate. Brown is prepared to expand this universe, and for those who’ve read and enjoyed Loud, it’ll be revealing to see Emmy and Travis through the eyes of some of the minor figures in the story.

Recommended?: Those who know Mercy Brown’s music, which can be bleak and harrowing in its intensity, might be surprised by the sweetness of Loud Is How I Love You. With a six-string in her hands, Brown is much like Emmy, who wants her music to be angsty and combustible and full of marvelous, dangerous collisions. Loud is something else altogether. This is a project that feels motivated by love — love for the characters, for New Brunswick and the Garden State, for the rock scene, and for guitar music in general. Every part of this book is suffused with warmth. Brown knows what a thrill it is to be young and creative and an object of desire in a pop scene, and she never lets the reader forget it. Nor does she ever misplace her understanding that boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl) is still the greatest story ever told. Romance may not be your scene, but c’mon, you need a little more love in your life, don’t you? Who would you be if you didn’t? Not a Hub City rocker, that’s for certain.

Where can I get a copy?: Amazon ought to do you fine. You could head straight to the InterMix website, too. At the moment, it’s available as a $2.99 e-book. That’s cheaper than the latest version of Minecraft and quite a bit less glitchy, too.

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