It’s the early 1970s and Pepper Porter, the main character (and lead guitar player) in Barry Wightman’s novel “Pepperland,” is searching for freedom.
“Is it freedom from or freedom of?”
After leaving his job at IBM to pursue a music career, ex-Weather Underground member (and Pepper’s ex-girlfriend) Sooz resurfaces and needs his help with a top-secret computer project: the Internet. As Pepper’s band starts to make it big, the Feds close in on Sooz, forcing Pepper to make a life-changing decision.
Sections of “Pepperland” can be a bit dense and stream-of-consciousness-y, but the style often works:
“I try to imagine the song, newly recorded in eight deep tracks coming over somebody’s radio on a hipster station in real FM stereo with no static at all — somebody hearing the song for the first time through a big Pioneer, Sony, or Marantz receiver, the biggest stereo in the frat house with monster dorm speakers pointed out the open window serenading the green college quad on a warm and windy spring day, the exposed papery cones of the black woofers shuddering with bass and drums, silvery tweeters sparkling and kids stopping, staring, smiling, the guy with the big stereo is writing a paper on Chaucer, Aprill’s shoures soote and the swich lycour in his veynes, and he’s feeling the music, understanding, measuring and judging, wondering who the hell is that? Note: “The guy probably got a C on the paper. But he would’ve bought our album.”
The majority of “Pepperland is a rollicking ride through an unlikely pair of scenes: rock ‘n’ roll and the early computer industry. Wightman makes the case that despite outward appearances, both are remarkably similar: both exist on the fringes of society, are misunderstood, and are dogged in their pursuit of freedom.
“Pepperland” is thought-provoking and a lot of fun, packed with enough period detail to make any Boomer feel right at home: Siddhartha. Man from U.N.C.L.E. Long-distance AM stations that come in “out here on the banks of the concrete river that slices through the Great Corn Desert.”
Wightman perfectly places the optimism of youth against the crossroads of adulthood:
“I worry what’s going to happen when we’re in charge.”
“Us. Our generation … God knows what we’ll grow up to be … And I’m not all that sure about the world we’re going to inherit. It’s not like it’s mapped out or anything.” She swirls her coffee and says, “We’d better not screw it up.”“Pepperland” asks us to consider the people we were, and the people we’ve become, while also reminding us it’s never too late to chase our dreams of freedom.