The Armageddon Rag is the book that almost destroyed George R.R. Martin’s career. It was meant to be the work that put him on the map: he’d been getting bigger and bigger advances for his previous novels, and this was the planned bestseller that would make Martin a household name. It didn’t sell. In fact, it was such a monumental commercial flop that Martin couldn’t even get a small advance for another book, let alone the six-figure deals he’d been seeing up until then. It’s hardly worth saying that A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE has pretty much achieved world domination. But what was it about this early work that fell short of Martin’s genius?
The book centres on Sandy Blair, an ex-hippie novelist who is disillusioned and going through a midlife crisis if his flashy new sports car is anything to go by. He receives a phone call from the Hedgehog (or the Hog as it’s referred to from here on out *shudder*), a magazine he’d initially founded with the current editor, who kicked him off the publication decades ago. The Hog wants Sandy to write a piece about Jamie Lynch, promoter and ex-manager of the rock band the Nazgûl (and good to see one of Martin’s greatest influences, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, getting a little nod) — and I say ex-manager because Lynch has, regrettably for him, been murdered.
And it’s not a straightforward murder at that. Lynch was found dead on the tenth anniversary of the Nazgûl’s legendary concert in West Mesa, during which the lead singer, nicknamed Hobbit, had been shot in the head on stage. Jamie Lynch’s heart had been cut out whilst he lay splayed across a Nazgûl West Mesa concert poster. Thus Sandy begins to interview the surviving members of the band whilst also tracking down his old friends from the ‘60s.
The allusions to THE LORD OF THE RINGS are fun to spot and impressively included, even when Martin’s writing about a bunch of ex-hippies and their lacklustre life choices. But. (And it’s a pretty big but.) The novel is less a story and more a homage to an era of music that had seen an utter decline in the ‘80s, when the book was published. Whilst it’s impressive that Martin recounts a detailed history of the Nazgûl (including albums, track timings, lyrics and concert set lists), it seems more of an indulgence on behalf of the author, rather than something that would necessarily hook a reader.
Another issue was the mix of genres the book was straddling. Was it a dark fantasy? A mystery novel? Horror? Alternate history? I don’t believe that every book should be pigeonholed into a particular genre, but The Armageddon Rag was such an odd hybrid that it was difficult to keep track of where it was coming from. Or where it was going, for that matter.
It was also frustrating that the all-time master of character produced Sandy Blair. I just didn’t care about the guy. He didn’t even have the human contradictions that both likeable and unlikeable characters in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE have. He was just a forlorn middle-aged ex-hippie on one never-ending sixties nostalgia trip.
The mood of the novel is pretty much summed up when Sandy meets Lark, an old friend, once a hippy radical and now a conformed businessman:
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you all about my life and you’re supposed to tell me all about yours. Then after we are both suitably bored, we order a few more rounds of drinks and get into the part about the good old days and all the crazy things we did … We get thoroughly sloshed and walk home arm in arm, and as we part we promise each other fervently that this time we will keep in touch. We don’t of course.
Just like the meetings with Sandy’s old friends, the novel left me feeling a little flat. Stephen King commented The Armageddon Rag that it is ‘The best novel concerning the American pop music culture of the ’60s.’ Unless that’s all you’re after, readers are bound to be disappointed.