Sway: A Novel

By Zachary Lazar

The Short Take:

The Rolling Stones, the Manson Murders, a filmmaker devoted to death and the occult – sounds like a thriller, right? Not in Lazer’s hands. Alienation and angst hold sway in this novel, which revels in the dark side of the 60s. The degree to which you will like Lazer’s work depends on how you feel about that. Any familiarity with filmmaker Kenneth Anger makes this a must-read, however.


Consider this:

Bobby’s eyes were simply confused now. It was as if whatever he was trying to conceal from Anger had at last been concealed from himself.

If that short passage appeals to you, grab this book immediately. Eyes do a lot of talking in Sway, which is a good thing considering the characters also never want to talk about whatever actually is going on.

On one hand, this opens their motivations and actions up to your interpretation. On the other hand, it can leave you feeling as distant from his player’s as they are from you.

Powerful yet oddly cold, this is no historical novel. Lazer did do some research but admits up front that his work is a exploration of people who have disengaged from reality.

Bouncing through time and place, Lazer weaves together separate yet overlapping story lines into a darkened mirror vision of the so-called era of peace and love. The destruction of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, the seduction of Manson murder-minion Bobby Beausoleil, the erotic and startling films of Anger, the viciousness of Altamont all combine to paint a picture of mindless progression toward death.

Creating a background of more despair, frequent references to Vietnam, pollution, and the assassinations of the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds you of the fountainhead for people’s despair and disillusionment.

Knowing about Anger (the film maker, not the emotion – maybe) really adds to the power of the book. While you want to focus on the better -known story of the Stones, Anger is the central character around whom the darkness swirls. If you haven’t seen any of his work, a quick visit to YouTube will help and is highly recommended.

This is a book of great intelligence, but it’s not for everyone. As I finished, I found Anger’s supposed statement “but we all survived” to exactly echo my own thoughts. They did. And so did we. I don’t know which is more surprising.

Want Some Plot?

There are two main plot lines in this book, and one much smaller but pivotal tale.

One line focuses on Kenneth Anger, from his childhood to the very recent past. Most of the emphasis falls on his efforts to make several films and his relationships with his “stars.” He is the glue that holds the entire book together, as the ill fated Bobby Beausoleil is one of his stars, and he becomes involved with – and films – the Stones.

The other major plot line revolves around the gradual decline of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, as he loses control over his love, his band, and himself. Drugs, arrests, and the famous death in the swimming pool all play a part. Add to this, the Satanic influence over the Stone’s album Beggar’s Banquet and the horror and death at the Altamont concert.

Beausoleil’s involvement with Manson only appears at the beginning and end, but flavors the entire novel.

Not a lot of joy here. But still well worth investigating.

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