Readers shouldn’t go into Leslie Stein’s, Brooklyn’s Last Secret, expecting dramatic plot developments or character revelations. Instead, they’ll find a quiet, diary-like portrayal of a band that has been together—more or less—for some time, and yet they’ve never broken through to any type of typical success. That’s not a critique of the work, as that seems exactly what Stein has set out to portray. Much in the way that some writers want to show the importance of everyday life, Stein has done that here, but with a band rather than someone who has an office job, for example.
Stein follows the band—Major Threat—through a month-long tour that crosses the US, beginning and ending in their hometown of Brooklyn, as the title conveys. The band has a new lead singer, but, otherwise, they have traveled and played together for quite some time, as the oldest member of the band, Paul, is 47. The new lead singer, Marco, on the other hand, is 26. Lilith, the guitarist, and Ed, the drummer, are both on the cusp of forty. They all have lives back in New York, but those lives seem irrelevant on the road, so much so that Stein doesn’t really mention them save for some passing references to calling a girlfriend or doing work on the road, until an epilogue.
Major Threat is a misnomer, as the band isn’t a threat to much of anything or anybody, as they’re not pushing the boundaries of their music, nor is the band even such a demand on the characters’ lives that it threatens to take over their lives. When a comedian who opens for the group asks Lilith if they’re a cover band, based on their name, she responds simply, “It’s really hard to name a band these days.” Stein creates several other bands who manage just fine ($SHH! and Earl Jam are great fun).
Stein’s artwork mirrors the structure of the novel, as it appears to be a sketchbook of the cross-country tour. There are no frames or gutters, just small sketches that vary in size and location around the page. The characters aren’t detailed or realistic, at times drafted without details, such as one’s eyes or mouth. Such an approach gives the reader the feeling they are traveling with the band, reading a visual journal of this trip and the mundanity of it. Readers follow the band from one city to another, as they find interesting places to eat, go to a barcade, or simply go shopping in a new city when they have some free time.
There are moments of stereotypical band behavior, as at least a couple of the members end up sleeping with fans or members of other bands they meet along the way. Lilith goes through CBD lollipops like they’re only candy, and other, more serious drugs abound at various times. However, they’re just as likely to get excited over specific flavors of Red Bull as they are any other types of intoxicants. Even the rock and roll doesn’t get much coverage, as the focus in the book is on their lives together off-stage. That’s not to say that music isn’t important to this band, either their own or others’. They talk about the bands that open for them or vice versa, commenting on the quality of those performances, and, like most of us, they feel jealous when they see bands better than they are.
It’s in the smaller details, though, where Stein shows the joys of a band on the road, not in dramatic fashion, again, but in the little moments. To pass time between cities, not only do they talk about and listen to music—Neil Young, Paul McCartney, free jazz, Nirvana—but they also play a game where somebody will toss out a category, such as “best rock riff ever,” and they’ll compete to see who can come up with the best answer. When Marco finally does, it feels as if he has become a full-fledged member of the band. They get pulled over by a police officer in Montana, and Marco and Paul take off their hats and adjust their hair (Marco more than Paul, as Paul is balding), making themselves look more like police officers, as locals told them in a bar, so they get away without a ticket. At one point, rather than going to a bar or hanging out with other people, Lilith and Ed get excited because they see a laundromat.
There are moments where Stein hints at ideas that come up in the rock world on a regular basis. For example, Lilith plays guitar for the band, but everybody assumes she’s the bassist. Stein even includes a montage of flashbacks where people have stereotyped Lilith throughout her career. Lilith also admits to Dani, their manager, after the tour that she was struggling with her recent break-up more than she admitted, even commenting that she almost revealed that to the band, but she knows you’re not supposed to do that on tour: “Like, it’s completely okay if you break shit or piss on a hotel floor or whatever but God forbid you ever talk about your feelings.” There are also places where it’s clear the members of the band don’t really connect with people outside of their world. Lilith’s sister-in-law doesn’t understand what she’s doing, nor do Ed’s co-workers in the tech world, and Marco’s mother died when he was younger and he’s estranged from his father. Though they have lives outside of the band, this group of people (and others on the tour) seem to understand them in a way others don’t. They need both in their lives, but they especially need the band and the road.
Despite their obvious enjoyment of each other, though, they also clearly enjoy time away from one another, as most of us would on a twenty-nine-day cross-country trip in a van with three other people. Nearly halfway through, Stein splits the novel into four brief sections, following each character as they separate for an evening they have off. It is in these sections that the reader sees the characters as the distinct individuals they are, as they can drop any pretense they have had to keep up around the other members of the band. Ed takes his job quite seriously, and he could advance in the tech world, but he likes it in New York where he can keep playing with the band. Marco is estranged from his father, but he seems constantly in search of that connection. Lilith is still dealing with a break-up with her boyfriend. Paul, the most enigmatic of the characters, as he never speaks (there are some mumbles that Marco can interpret), seems to simply enjoy whatever he finds to do with his time, whether that’s lounging in a pool or playing pinball.
Stein’s work reminds the reader that there is joy in these mundane experiences, in being part of a band that most people will never hear of, in pursuing one’s craft for its own sake. These characters are worth spending time with because they’re so much like us. Their days are not filled with exploits that will find their way to a tell-all celebrity memoir at some point. They play games and do laundry and eat too much food (and, yes, do too many drugs) and play music, then they go home to their even more mundane lives. And they seem to enjoy doing so.
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