On Air by Robin Stratton
published by Blue Mustang Press, 2011
On Air is narrated by Eric Storm, an aging DJ who is angry that he’s micromanaged at his classic rock radio station. He’s now being told exactly what to say and what music to play. He remembers back in the day when DJs were trusted and mattered, an attitude that gets him fired after 25 years on air in Boston. Eric has been divorced for three years, so he spends a lot of time with his Ma, a woman who maybe talks too much, but who raised Eric alone. Things start to change when Ma begins getting dizzy and falling down. Around the same time, Eric sees a young musician more than half his age, playing for donations on the street. She’s mesmerizing, so he lies to say he can help her get discovered, hoping life will change in his favor. But things take a more dramatic turn when he reads his mother’s private diary, as he braces for Ma’s imminent death.
Eric can be selfish at times, and he knows it. I enjoyed the genuine emotion in the book, even if it is the kind of emotion we might scoff at. For instance, when Eric is in the hospital with Ma, he wants a Diet Coke: “The machine doesn’t have Coke, it has Pepsi. A feeling of defeat chokes me. Will nothing ever go right for me again?” Out of context, this line seems so…whiny. But in the story, it makes sense. And don’t we all just want one thing — one thing! — to go right every so often?
By the time I read the line about the Pepsi machine, I had laughed many times. Ma is a Jewish woman, so she has some traditional behaviors, such as feeding her son to show love. She’s also terribly thrifty, a result of living through the Depression. Both aspects of her personality make her do wacky things sometimes. Eric arrives to take his mother out to dinner, an event they had planned, only to discover she’s made soup:
“Or we can take some soup with us. You’ll have a little nosh on the way.”
“Ma, how can I eat soup and drive?”
“What about the time you ate a salad, with me in the car? You steered with your knees. I was sure I was going to be killed. I saw my life flash before my eyes.”
“Which is why I’m saying you’ll have some now, before we go.”
I sigh. Happily, she serves the soup and sits down to watch me eat. “How come you’re not having any?” I ask.
“I had a big bowl before you got here.”
“But I told you I was taking you out to dinner!”
“I knew you would suggest pizza or Chinese food, and I didn’t want any, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
And on and on it goes. I love interactions between Eric and Ma. When Ma has to be taken to the hospital by ambulance, she immediately befriends the paramedics. She asks the paramedic’s name (it’s Dave) and if he can’t just give her a shot instead of taking her to the hospital. The scene continues:
Dave tells the other paramedic to prop open the door and get the gurney, then asks Ma, “Kinda shot?”
“Vitamins or something.”
“You belong in the hospital, ma’am….”
“Get my robe,” Ma says to me, “and my purse. And my slippers — the new ones I just bought on QVC.” To Dave she says, “The old ones are so ratty looking.”
“We can’t have that,” says Dave.
Not only did I find this scene terribly funny, but it also endears Ma to the reader. She’s a self-conscious person, but she also is quick to meet people and find out what they’re all about. You can tell she’s the kind of lady who would help anyone. And she really, truly loves her son. Every one of their interactions end with “Okay, I love you” and “I love you, too.” Since Eric calls Ma a lot, we read this exchange 10 times (yes, I counted). Not only does it give a sense of familiarity (don’t we all say the same goodbye every time we speak with a parent?), but it also gives the story rhythm, like a giant poem broken into stanzas by the ends of conversations. I came to expect the exchange and felt comforted by it. I felt the same way about knowing Eric would always drink Diet Coke.
I thought it was interesting that On Air and Eric Storm engage in mild metafiction. If you don’t know, metafiction is when a book “knows” it’s a book. You know how Ferris Bueller talks to the camera? That’s metafilm. Eric visits his best friend’s mother, who is on her deathbed at home. She tells him:
“Glamour isn’t worth much at the end of the day…” and it feels like a piece of wisdom [he] should cling to and accommodate the rest of [his] life to, but at the moment [he has] trouble applying it, and [he knows] it will wind up in the slush pile in [his] brain along with all the other stuff that [he] should think about at some point but probably won’t.
Okay, maybe this isn’t quite metafiction, but where do we hear people openly using and believing truisms? It’s movies and books. Eric knows that such truisms don’t apply to real life, no matter how badly we want them to.
Near the end of the book is a better example of metafiction. Eric has met up with his ex-wife, Kelly, to talk, but he’s got that gorgeous young singer staying at his house because her boyfriend is abusing her. The singer makes it clear she’s going to sleep without panties, and to the reader she obviously wants to exploit Eric’s connections in radio. Will Kelly and the hot singer accidentally run into each other, one of them sans panties? Eric imagines the scenario, how both women would storm out angrily, and thinks, “the audience will laugh and say, Oh, he was so close to being happy!” Here, Eric knows the tropes of love triangles and how easy it is to fall into one and look incredibly guilty.
I had a lot of fun reading On Air. I didn’t quite understand why the DJs already had DJ-type names. From my husband’s time as a DJ, I learned almost everyone changes their name, either to something “cooler” or to something easier to pronounce. Eric Storm and Steven Even, for example, sound terribly made up. Finally, the ending left me hanging a bit. When things finally smoothed out and had a chance to shoot forward into new territory, the book ended. Perhaps some of you will think differently!
I’d like to thank Robin Stratton for sending me a copy of On Air in exchange for an honest review. You can learn more about Robin in her Meet the Writer feature.
This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.