Book Review: THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (Dan Greenberger)

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by Vaughan Edwards on May 27, 2021

in Books


Hamburg, Germany, November 1960. Licensed sex workers are displaying their wares in shop windows on Herbertstrasse, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is playing at the Kino, and German youth are discovering rock ‘n’ roll at that lowest of dives, the Kaiserkeller.

Into this den of iniquity comes Alan Levy, nice Jewish boy from the Upper West Side, Columbia University student. In the argot of the day he’s a square, sure of his values, convinced he has his future all mapped out. But getting dumped by his high school sweetheart on the eve of his departure for Germany is the first clue that his life is not quite as on track as he thought.

Arriving in Hamburg, he finds himself rooming with the boys next door of the title, a rowdy group of musicians from Liverpool. They’re in a band — a band called The Beatles. Not yet Ed Sullivan’s adorable mop tops, these are The Beatles Raw, in bad-boy leather jackets and greased-back hair, before Brian Epstein got his hands on them and dressed them in suits and skinny neckties.

The boys have a habit of trying out new material at three in the morning, and Alan needs his sleep — he’s writing an epic poem on “deformity, death and decay”. But The Beatles are poets too, and their more visceral brand of poetry is destined to deprive a lot more people than Alan of their sleep.  Initially appalled, he’s soon drawn into the lads’ chaotic world, and is finally talked into seeing them perform.

The scenes of The Beatles playing at the Kaiserkeller are among the most evocative in the book; one can almost inhale the odor of stale tobacco, spilled beer and inadequate toilet facilities.  It’s only been fifteen years since World War II ended and there’s frequent tension between the locals and British clubbers, egged on by John Lennon’s taunting jibes, sometimes ending in fist fights. Between all that and the ear-splitting volume of the music (ear plugs notwithstanding), the place is way outside Alan’s Ivy League comfort zone. Yet he keeps coming back, mainly because of the presence of Astrid, the beautiful photographer whose early shots of The Beatles helped establish their image. Needless to say, Alan falls for her in a big way, and… but you’ll have to read the book.

As the book jacket says, this is a bittersweet tale. Sweet in its evocation of adolescence and its yearning to belong — somewhere, anywhere. Bitter because, sixty years later, most of us know what happened to these people, and it’s no spoiler to say that only a few of them lived happily ever after.

In this heady mix of fact and fantasy, Alan Levy is the only fictional character, though I suspect he’s a lot like his creator; there’s the ring of truth in his journey from Ivy League nerd to party animal. Of the real-life characters, John Lennon is perhaps the most fully realized; his driving ambition and unshakable belief in the power of music are vividly brought to life. And Astrid Kirchherr, The Beatles’ first photographer, is beautifully portrayed as the quintessential music-mad, culture-mad European girl of Alan’s dreams.

The Boys Next Door is a coming-of-age novel in the grand tradition; Alan is Voltaire’s Candide, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, wandering wide-eyed through Hamburg’s red light Wonderland. But it’s November 1960, Election Year in the U S, and Greenberger uses the bildungsroman form to explore a larger theme; his hero’s transformation parallels America’s often painful progression from the Eisenhower fifties to the Kennedy sixties. At first the boys next door are simply an annoyance, but ultimately they’re the voice of a new era shaking two continents out of post-war apathy.

The birth of The Beatles is an oft-told tale, one that’s achieved an almost mythic status, but by telling it one more time in his young protagonist’s voice, Greenberger gives it an immediacy and freshness which, whether we know the ending or not, allows us to experience it again, maybe more vividly than ever before.

The Boys Next Door
by Dan Greenberger
Appian Way Press | July 18, 2020 | ISBN: 979-8655706583
Paperback | 323 pp | $9.99 | available at Amazon

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