Author ~ Amy Lane
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 17th October 2014
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
In a town as small as Tyson, CA, everybody knew the four brothers with the four different fathers-- and their penchant for making good music when they weren't getting into trouble. For Mackey Sanders, playing in Outbreak Monkey with his brothers and their friends—especially Grant Adams--made Tyson bearable. But Grant has plans for getting Mackey and the Sanders boys out of Tyson, even if that means staying behind.
Between the heartbreak of leaving Grant and the terrifying, glamorous life of rock stardom, Mackey is adrift and sinking fast. When he's hit rock bottom, Trav Ford shows up, courtesy of their record company and a producer who wants to see what Mackey can do if he doesn't flame out first. But cleaning up his act means coming clean about Grant, and that's not easy to do or say. Mackey might make it with Trav's help--but Trav's not sure he's going to survive falling in love with Mackey.
Mackey James Sanders comes with a whole lot of messy, painful baggage, and law-and-order Trav doesn't do messy or painful. And just when Trav thinks they may have mastered every demon in Mackey's past, the biggest, baddest demon of all comes knocking.
Beneath the Stain almost defies description. I’ve been a sometime-fan of Ms. Lane’s work. Some of it I really like; some I could live without. But this book simply and plainly blew me away. In fact, when I realized I’d neglected to write a review when I’d first read the book, I took a quick look to refresh my memory, and broke my cardinal rule – I read it for a second time, cover to cover, word for word. I hate reruns, but this time I made an exception, and I’m oh so glad I did.
After reading just the first few lines of the first paragraph, I was hooked anew and couldn’t stop until I’d gotten to the very last page of this long, brilliant, profoundly moving novel. Ms. Lane’s book really is long – almost 500 pages – but, to be perfectly honest, I’d be glad to read another five hundred. I didn’t want it to end.
I’m not sure you can call Beneath the Stain a gay romance. There is gay romance in it, but it’s a book about much larger themes. It’s a book that delves deeply into bigoted small towns, supposedly Christian towns that are quick to judge anyone who’s not like everyone else, while hiding its own deep and dirty secrets. It’s about the stifling boredom and low expectations of small towns, content to let the world pass them by as they demolish the high expectations and hopes of their young people. It’s a book about the music industry, and the way it chews up young, promising talent with the lure of impossible riches, lubricated by a constant stream of booze and drugs.
Beneath the Stain is a book about families – the families we are born into and the families we create, the people we love and those who stand by us, the ones who love us even when we’re ugly, impatient, unkind, hung over and ill.
But above all else, Beneath the Stain is a book about love, learning to love and learning to be loved - the latter often the more difficult of the two.
There are two main characters and tracks throughout the book. Trav is a former military MP, battle-hardened and disciplined to a fault. He comes from a loving family, but spent years under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, hiding who he is, walking away from any possibility of affection (or even lust), just to keep his secret. And his secret is not just that he’s gay, but that he’s almost fatally attracted to creative men, artists, men who live the passion of vision and emotion, pretty much the opposite of Travis, himself. The book opens on his breakup with his current boyfriend of several years, Terry. He comes home to find him shacking up with a younger man, oblivious to the fact that he’d just abandoned Terry for several weeks while he went off on an assignment, without even a call or text message. Trav can’t quite understand why Terry would be angry with him, or lonely enough to find solace in someone else’s arms. Everything in Trav’s life is black-and-white, and betrayal is betrayal, period.
The other main character is Mackey (real name: McKay), a young, unbelievably precocious and brilliantly talented boy, a musician, a songwriter and performer of the type who only appear once a generation, if that. One of four brothers of a single mother and four different fathers, he organized his brothers and a close friend of theirs into a killer rock band at the age of 14. He trained the others, as musicians, arranged their covers, wrote their new material and drilled them mercilessly until they were first-rate, all without a clue as to how special he was. He’s always known he was different. Gay and too smart for his own good, he hid it all behind aggression and attitude. His bigger brothers often had to defend him, which they were glad to do, even though they knew very well that everyone who knows Mackey long enough wants to punch him in the head at some time, including themselves.
What none of them know is that Mackey is not a virgin. From the age of 14, until he was forced to move on at 19, Grant, best friend of his oldest brother Kell (and lead guitar in the band) had been his lover. Furtive, stolen moments in parked cars or dark corners were all they were able share. Perhaps an hour or two on a blanket, at night, in a deserted park provided a few moments of touch, affection and some pale intimation of love, but left Mackey in despair of ever having a real life or relationship. Grant and the music were the only things that kept Mackey alive. And the music was where he lived, where he went to be himself. The music was his heart and his soul, and he was the music. Only with a guitar in hand, a microphone in front of him, the young, insecure, lonely Mackey became a god – and more important, was truly happy.
That all came crashing down when a record company executive caught a performance by their band, Outbreak Monkey, that had been arranged by Grant. A short time later, they gather to sign their very first record deal. It’s only then that they find out that Grant won’t be with them. His “girlfriend” is pregnant, and he’s succumbed to the family pressure to stay in Tyson and take on a “normal” life with wife, child, and his father’s car dealerships. Mackey is crushed. So crushed, in fact, that he never really gets over it. The only intimate love he’s ever known, snatched away from him, leaving him alone, vulnerable, surrounded by the secrets he has kept from his family and everyone else. Though his brothers will still protect him, even they don’t really know him. There is no one left who knows him. No one.
A year with their aging, addicted manager builds the band into a huge success, with a top-selling album, a world tour and millions of fans. Most of that is accomplished on the back of Mackey’s prodigious output as a songwriter, band director, singer and performer. He’s only 5’ 6”, but he’s an incredibly powerful and sexy giant on stage, touching his audience in ways that few other performers can. Each song he sings becomes their song. His pain becomes their pain, his lost loves, their lost loves, his hopes and dreams, their own.
How does a 20-year-old who’d never been out of the tiny town of Tyson cope with sudden international fame, huge amounts of money, running a band, writing the music, touring, performing as frontman, and dealing with everyone else’s problems? Xanax. Uppers, downers, cocaine all provided by the band’s well-meaning, but totally addicted manager. Yes, the old man really does have the band’s best interest at heart, but he’s killing its lead singer and songwriter, the energy behind Outbreak Monkey, the glue that holds it together.
The manager dies, victim of his own medications. Mackey finds his body. The whole thing begins to fall apart. Mackey spends his nights wedged between his bed and the wall, beneath a mountain of bedding, the only place he ever feels safe enough to sleep. He still wakes up in the middle of the night and pens new songs and arrangements in his ever-present notebooks, and almost never sleeps through till morning. Then he drops from exhaustion, wakes up, pops some pills, picks up a stranger, brings him back to his room in a desperate attempt at human contact and medicates himself back into oblivion.
Heath, the owner and founder of the record company, is a true mentor of musicians. He doesn’t run the label for the money (he has family money), but for the love of music and young musicians. He sees the band falling apart (he didn’t know quite how bad it had gotten) and calls in his closest Army buddy, Trav, to whip them back into shape and perhaps, even save their lives.
Trav arrives at the band’s hotel and finds Mackey hidden in his pile of bedding between the bed and the wall, semi-conscious, unwashed (he hadn’t bathed in days), skinny as a rail (hadn’t eaten, either), suffering from malnutrition and drug addiction. He tosses him over his shoulder and carries Mackey into the shower where he bathes him like a baby, dresses him in clean clothes, grabs the rest of the band and lays down the law. Drugs are over. 24/7 partying is over. Exercise is in. It’s time to get real or lose it all, including, possibly, their lives. The drill master is on board, and everyone will shape up. Period. No questions asked.
This auspicious meeting begins the core of the story – how Travis, the black-and-white-only, military man comes to understand and care for his young charges, respect their unlimited talent, commitment and energy, and fall in love with Mackey.
But more important, this is the story of how Outbreak Monkey changes Trav and how he changes them. He is the rock, the foundation on which all the boys depend for their sustenance and survival. Through him, they have the first “father” any of them has ever known, a man who they can depend upon, who loves them unconditionally, who catches them when they fall. But this is also the story of how loving Mackey, the difficult, deep, extraordinarily talented and beautiful young man, changes Trav, makes him cherish family more, adds a million shades of gray to his core of black-and-white, and most important, opens up his heart to love and commitment, as never before.
It is a beautiful journey, but not an easy one. It includes three bouts of rehab, reconciliation with the ones they loved who got left behind, and a million lessons on dealing with the pain and joy of life and love. Ms. Lane has populated this journey with exquisitely rendered people, even when they’re neither good nor nice. She brings the band back to Tyson to deal with tragedy, a tragedy that forces all the players to grow up, to deal with reality, to acknowledge their love and forgive old trespasses.
And every moment of this is wrought with tears, pain, enlightenment and, sometimes, self-awareness.
In the hands of a lesser author, Beneath the Stain would have been melodrama. The ups, the downs, the joys, the depression, the addictions, the successes, each one tugs at your heartstrings without even a shred of manipulation. What impressed me and moved me most, however, was Trav’s gut-level understanding of the relationship between Mackey and music. There are some real insights there. Mackey is the music, the music is Mackey. Where others see pictures and words, Mackey sees melodies and lyrics. It is his language, the beat of his heart, the resonance of his soul made real and naked, for all the world to see.
There is much, also, about what coming out really means – about the corrosive secrets and infernal loneliness that define the closet and destroy the soul – and the freedom to finally be yourself, to be truthful, to stop hiding, to come into the light, despite the dreadful religious bigots who wish you nothing but harm and destruction. Grant is destroyed. Mackey survives. Trav discovers what love really means, and the brothers find a new depth and a more open appreciation for each other and the bonds that keep them together and make them a great, successful band, not to mention a strong, loving and unbreakable family.
Beneath the Stain is a masterwork. The emotional moments (and there are many), might have been maudlin, but in Ms. Lane’s deft hands and with her undeniable sincerity, come across as authentic and powerful. You can’t read this book without being profoundly moved. The characters reach out and demand your empathy, which you gladly give as you begin to root for their triumphs against the terrible odds of damaging childhoods in a dreadful environment filled with hate and discrimination of all sorts. Ms. Lane forces you to invest your time, concern and compassion in these beautifully-written characters and it doesn’t stop until the very last words on the very last page.
If you’re looking for a moving, exciting experience with some attractive, innocent, naïve, but truly talented musicians - if you’re looking for a great read, top-flight prose, perfectly believable dialogue and a unique and special reading experience - if you’re looking for a truly beautiful book, you must not miss Beneath the Stain.
It is nothing less than absolutely stunning.