The cover of Fender Benders, the fourth novel by Bill Fitzhugh, shows a skeletal hand on an electric guitar, a visual reminder of the title’s double meaning. It’s a foreshadowing of what’s to come: murder, romantic betrayal, revenge, drug use, power struggles and shady business deals set against the backdrop of the country music industry.
With a cast of more than a dozen characters, Fender Benders invites comparisons to Nashville, director Robert Altman’s 1975 movie. Both successfully juggle multiple storylines and feature a violent climax with a twist in Music City.
Fender Benders centers on Eddie Lang, a struggling singer-songwriter who rises to superstardom with a hit (“It Wasn’t Supposed To End That Way”) inspired by the suspicious death of his wife Tammy. Jimmy Rogers is a journalist and early champion of the singer, now at work on Lang’s biography. He uncovers a series of poison deaths that suggests his subject may have killed his wife.
Megan is an upwardly mobile disc jockey who leaves Rogers for Lang. Producer Big Bill Herron and lawyer Franklin Peavy are the management team who hold each other in contempt but see Lang as the ticket back to the top. Fame and personal problems dog Lang as he tries to begin work on his second album.
Fitzhugh is a skilled writer who keeps the narrative moving briskly and can turn a phrase, such as his description of Peavy being grilled by Lang over a questionable phrase in a management contract: “He’d begun to sweat like a pedophile in a playground.”
The author spares no targets in his work, taking on music journalism, book publishing and alt-country. “You might just as well go play on the sidewalk for all the money you make with that stuff,” Herron advises a client considering a move into that last field.
Fender Benders isn’t all one-liners. Fitzhugh explores the changes affecting country music, such as the advent of SoundScan, the rise of the internet, and increasing reliance on new recording technology (Pro Tools). That technology plays a key role in a plot twist that sets up the climax. The unambiguous resolution is mildly unsatisfying, but Fitzhugh generally delivers the goods on a topic worth tackling. The conclusion isn’t a fatal flaw, just a literary fender bender.