by Daniel DiFranco
Tailwinds Press, 331 pages
reviewed by Allegra Armstrong
Panic Years, Daniel Difranco’s debut novel, is a hyper realistic account of a band on tour. Told from the perspective of laconic Paul, Panic Years follows indie bandmates Paul, Laney, Gooch, Jeff and later Drix across the country’s dive bars and clubs. “I’d joined Qualia because they were a good band with a shit-ton of underground buzz,” Paul muses on page five, setting the band’s intention for the rest of the tour: build Qualia’s indie fame to a record deal, or some serious label recognition.
Touring is hard. The bandmates deal with Jeff’s budding alcoholism, the tight margins and schedules of touring, and the stress of remaining true to their artistic vision while staying in the black. Personality conflicts are magnified in this high intensity environment. As the tour wears on, tensions build between serious, hard working Gooch and hard-partying Jeff, exacerbated by the hyper-intimacy of life on the road. Laney and Paul do what they can to assuage tension between the two, as a serious argument between bandmates could jeopardize their whole tour.
Panic years is innovative in its specificity. Daniel DiFranco pays close attention to the minutiae of everyday life, and portrays the utter boredom of cross-country travel in all its grimy detail. The bad jokes, the smells, and the close quarters of touring life backdrop Panic Years. Often the four bandmates share one hotel room, which comes with its own set of challenges. Paul narrates,
I woke up in the middle of the night. Jeff was standing next to me in between the two beds…
“Dude, what are you doing?” I whispered.
A small arc of piss hit the floor.
I punched him in the leg. “Jeff,” I said.
He opened his eyes and stumbled away into the bathroom.
DiFranco shows, in skillful, sparse prose, the interconnected nature of the bandmates. Midway through their tour, Gooch, the drummer, leaves Qualia, citing the stresses of Jeff’s heavy drinking in his goodbye note. The three remaining band members have to scramble to find a new drummer, or else cancel their next show and risk losing money. As they barely have gas money to drive to their next venue, cancelling any show is a huge strain on the band’s finances. Jeff, Laney, and Paul have to work together to keep the band playing, show after show, night after night.
Panic Years is a close record of what it’s like to tour with a band, yet it’s also a deeply felt novel, about the power of friendship, and the dark pull of addiction that can come with the nightlife scene. In this darkly funny debut, Daniel DiFranco establishes himself as a unique voice in fiction.
The behind-the-scenes logistical work that goes into managing the band, done by Laney, Paul’s bandmate and later love interest, is astounding. Touring is frustrating. Laney painstakingly calls venues and runs numbers to make sure that they can make it to their next venue on time, that they can afford to. If Jeff strays too far from the band at an after party, it could cost Qualia a night of playing, or an interview if they can’t make it on time.
DiFranco highlights the camaraderie needed to get through weeks of too-intimate touring. When Jeff gets an infection in his foot, the money needed for his hospital bill comes out of the band’s coffers. A small accident like Jeff’s can undo nights of success for an indie band. In hard times, the band needs to rally together to keep morale up. Panic Years illustrates a tough truth of the music industry: after traveling fees, for many bands, they often hope just to break even on a tour.
The band’s greatest challenge comes with new drummer Drix. Drix, Paul’s childhood friend, graces the band with his talent, and attracts talent scouts and record labels to their shows. However, Paul finds needles in his apartment, and notices Drix disappearing from their hotel room at odd hours. As Drix and Jeff spiral into their respective addictions, Paul and Laney are left with a choice: try to help their friends stay sober on the road, or let them make their own mistakes. Panic Years is a close record of what it’s like to tour with a band, yet it’s also a deeply felt novel, about the power of friendship, and the dark pull of addiction that can come with the nightlife scene. In this darkly funny debut, Daniel DiFranco establishes himself as a unique voice in fiction.