Marketed as The Breakfast Club meets The Wonder Years, Rob Rufus’ Young Adult debut follows four teens grappling with the Vietnam War draft. Titled The Vinyl Underground, the novel is set in 1968 and weaves together grief, friendship and music.
You might already recognize Rufus from his band Blacklist Royals or his memoir Die Young with Me, which chronicles his teen cancer diagnosis and won the ALA Alex Award. The Vinyl Underground is his first novel, and here’s the scoop from the publisher:
During the tumultuous year of 1968, four teens are drawn together: Ronnie Bingham, who is grieving his brother’s death in Vietnam; Milo, Ronnie’s bookish best friend; “Ramrod,” a star athlete who is secretly avoiding the draft; and Hana, the new girl, a half-Japanese badass rock-n-roller whose presence doesn’t sit well with their segregated high school.
The four outcasts find sanctuary in “The Vinyl Underground,” a record club where they spin music, joke, debate and escape the stifling norms of their small southern town. But Ronnie’s 18th birthday is looming. Together, they hatch a plan to keep Ronnie from being drafted. But when a horrific act of racial violence rocks the gang to their core, they decide it’s time for an epic act of rebellion.
Flux will release The Vinyl Underground on March 10th, 2020. But you can get an exclusive look at an excerpt as well as the cover illustrated by Jake Slavik today!
Check out the excerpt below, and click here if you’d like to listen to a Blacklist Royals’ live session.
EVE OF DESTRUCTION 1968
“Free Love” is bullshit. Nothing is free. But I was too distracted to see it that summer. My brother was, too. All those new rock-n-roll records were too good for our own good. They hypnotized us, man. They psychodelicized us; they baptized us in the shiny and ever-changing sounds of ‘67. They made it easy for heavy topics to sink to the bottom of our consciousness.
Whenever I’d mention the war to Bruce, he’d change the subject by dragging me into his bedroom to play me whatever his new favorite record was—The Grass Roots, The Yardbirds, maybe Otis Redding’s live LP—it was always something different, something righteous as hell and truly exciting.
“Why talk about the future when we can listen to it?” he’d say.
Whether he meant our future on the radio or that of our country, I’ll never know. Because that was before he shipped out. Before the beaches emptied and the school bells rang and the Summer of Love got divorced.
Now it was winter. Now it was cold.
Now it was a new world.
Now it was New Year’s Eve and my brother was dead and the sky was a gray slab of granite. I stood at the window of his bedroom, looking out at that dead sky. It seemed to stretch bigger than the whole wide world, hard and indifferent, a lot like the God who had organized this shitshow in the first place.
The gloom of winter didn’t mesh with North Florida, and our neighborhood looked strange beneath it. The Southern homes with their bright pastel panels, the willows and red-berried hollies—in this new world their colors were dull.
I imagined the strange cold front had occurred in homage of Bruce, as if the atmosphere itself was in mourning. I visualized his last breath leaving his body and soaring up into the heavy sky of Vietnam and over the black waves of the Pacific, across the deserts and cities and plains until it finally reached Cordelia Island, Florida—a cloud made up of nothing, a cold front that blew him home.
I shivered and turned away from the window.
Dad said I spent too much time in Bruce’s bedroom, and I knew he was probably right. But it was the only place I still felt like myself. Ever since Bruce died, the rest of the world made me feel like a jack-o-lantern—hollow and out-of-season with an unconvincing smile. But in his room, I could turn the music up loud enough to drown my new world out.
I could live in those old songs for a while, like we used to. So I walked across the room to his record collection, which consisted of seventy-seven LPs and over three hundred 45rpm singles. Bruce stored the LPs in milk crates and organized the singles on his shelf by genre—pop, soul, rock-n-roll, folk, girl groups, Brit rock—labeling each with a thin strip of duct tape.
I took a single from small stack that I’d tucked in the corner of the shelf. It was the only unlabeled group of vinyl. The others sat exactly as they had when Bruce shipped out. Same with all his things—wrestling trophies still sparkled on the dresser and pictures of girlfriends still hung beside his bed. Bruce’s bitchin’ 409 Bel Air still sat imprisoned in the garage, guilty of a crime that it didn’t commit.
That was my parents’ thing—keeping what little remained of Bruce exactly as it was. They worked as meticulously as museum curators, tending to everything but his stereo—a Marantz SLT 12-U turntable, which was fancy looking and had a tone arm that protracted straight from the cradle. This unusual design flagged it as an object of concern: dormant but dangerous, like a neighborhood stray or an old stick of dynamite. So my parents never touched it. They left that job to me.
I flipped on the stereo. The speakers popped into consciousness. I placed the adapter onto the center of the turntable so it would fit the bigger hole of the 7” vinyl. I turned the speed to 45rpm, and then took the single out of the sleeve.
I sat it on the turntable. Then I reached back into the dust sleeve and pulled out an envelope. Inside the envelope was a piece of paper folded twice down, three times over. I opened it up, smoothing it on my thigh. I held it before me like I was about to give some kinda proclamation. Then, with the other hand, I put the needle on the record. The vinyl crackled, and the song began.
Eric Burton crooned above the walking bass line as I read the words my brother wrote me all those months ago.
Listen to: “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” by The Animals
How’s the weather, Raspy Ronnie?
Hope your summer’s been righteous. Believe it or not, little brother, boot camp isn’t as tough as I figured it’d be. Hell, Paris Island is a laugh compared to Dad’s wrestling practice workouts!
I think some of the boys in here with me came outta the womb with itchy trigger fingers. But I guess I should feel lucky to be surrounded by psycho killers like this, am I right? I know it’s only been two weeks, but
“Ronnie!” Dad called from downstairs.
I sat the note on the speaker and dropped the volume to a whisper. I opened the door.
“Yeah?” I yelled back.
“Your mother says come set the table.”
I flipped the turntable off and slid the needle arm back into the cradle. The Animals made a silent cool-down spin, then stopped. I picked up the record, then slid it gently into the dust sleeve.
I didn’t bother finishing the letter. I already knew what it said. I knew what all of his letters said. So I folded it into the envelope, slid it into the dust jacket, and put it back in the unlabeled stack at the end of the shelf.
Then I switched off the lamp and walked out, shutting the door behind me. It was New Year’s Eve and my brother was dead and I went down to set the table.
Pork loin. Red potatoes. Green beans. Biscuits.
It’s what Momma made for dinner every New Year’s Eve. We passed the steaming plates around after Dad said grace. He was sitting at the head of the table, drinking a bottle of Jax.
Momma and I sat facing each other. The end of the table was empty, as was the high chair—Roy, my two-year-old baby brother, was in his playpen, chewing on some toy or other.
Wolfman, our cockapoo, was asleep in the backyard.
The absence of dog and toddler allowed me a thankful moment of silence. I enjoyed the sounds of dishes clanking, knives cutting, and teeth chomp-chomping…enjoyed it while it lasted, anyway. Silence never lasted long at our dinner table.
“Hey Ronnie,” Dad said, “guess how many bodies our boys bagged this year.”
“Cronkite said we killed a hundred and forty thousand of those bastards,” he pronounced, slapping his heavy hand on the table like a punctuation mark.
“Can you believe the Packers won this afternoon?” I asked, changing the subject. “The radio said it was negative forty-eight on the field. Imagine playing in that—”
“I wonder how many Bruce got,” Dad mused, not speaking to anyone in particular. “They had ten times the KIAs, so he musta killed at least ten of ‘em, mathematically speaking…plus, when you factor in how athletic he was, his natural reflexes, he must’ve got twenty or more—at least twenty.”
“Can we talk about something more pleasant?” Momma asked.
Dad blinked himself back to Earth. He nodded to her and smiled. “Hey Ronnie, whadda’ ya say you have a beer with your old man, since it’s New Year’s Eve and all?”
“Just this once,” he said. He looked at Momma and winked.
Momma went into the kitchen and returned with two bottles of cheapo male bonding. She handed him a fresh bottle of Jax and gave me the other.
“To you, my boy,” Dad said, “though you won’t be a boy much longer. We’re so proud of ya, Ronnie, and all the glory your future holds.”
I blushed. We clinked our bottles together. I gulped down a mouthful greedily.
“Easy,” Dad said, “don’t rush. The taste’ll grow on you.”
I guess he assumed it was my first beer.
“Jeez, I hope so,” I said, and took another long swig.
“That blazer looks good on you, honey,” Momma said.
“Any reason you’re all spruced up? Is there a special girl we should know about?”
Before I could respond, there was a knock at the front door. Momma went to answer it. I chugged the rest of the bottle, then let out a baritone belch.
“Well hello, Milo,” I heard her say as she opened the door.
Milo Novak was my best pal, partner in crime, and next-door neighbor. It was only he and his mom in the house now; his older brother had just moved to Miami, and his dad—one of the thousands of troops killed in Korea—was an eternal resident of the same boneyard my poor brother resided in.
“Happy New Year, Mrs. Bingham!” Milo yelled in his squeaky voice.
“Happy New Year,” she said, shaking her head at his tiny frame. “You’ve gotten so thin! It’s not healthy for a boy your age. “
“I have an overactive metabolism,” he said, adjusting his thick glasses as he followed Momma into the dining room.
“Happy New Year, Milo,” Dad said.
“Same to you, Coach. Hey, wait a minute, is that a beer I see Ronnie drinking? You expect me to show up at Rachel Harris’ party with a drunkard on my arm?”
“Afraid so,” Dad grinned.
“Well,” he sighed comically, “if I gotta I gotta, but I don’t gotta like it.”
Milo made his eyebrows go up and down like Groucho Marx, and both my parents laughed. I hated when he did that.
But he loved to yuck it up with adults, and the dumber his jokes were the more they seemed to enjoy them.
“May I be excused, Momma?”
She nodded. I got up from the table.
“You knuckleheads be safe,” Dad said. “I don’t wanna hear about any jackassery tonight, you understand?”
Milo and I nodded in unison.
“And you’re sleeping over at Milo’s?” Momma asked.
“If that’s still OK.”
“Just get over here and give your Momma some sugar, first.”
I laughed and went around the table. I wrapped my arms around her petite frame. She hugged me with desperate purpose and kissed me on the cheek.
“It’s a new year, sweetie,” she whispered.
I nodded, knowing full well what she meant. In our family, grief and healing were spoken of in code, if they were spoken of at all.
Mothers can be sweet enough to break your heart, I thought.
Then I let her go and turned away.
Live oaks loomed on each side of the street, enveloping us in a canopy of Spanish moss. Milo and I hustled down the gravel road as the shadows turned the gray sky a shade close to black.
There were no sidewalks in Cordelia Island. I never did think to ask why. I never did think to ask a lot of things, like why Cordelia Island was called an island—because it wasn’t, not really. The town was on an inlet south of Jacksonville. There were beaches on the east and the south ends of town, and a marshland to the north. But most of the town—our neighborhood included—was miles away from the sand.
“Sorry I interrupted dinner,” Milo said.
“Don’t be,” I said, “I was glad. If I had to listen to my dad anymore, I woulda taken a butter knife to my wrists.”
“Poetic,” he grinned. “He died how he lived—slow and dull.”
“Shut up,” I laughed.
We turned right onto Elwood, and the wind caught me off guard. I shivered as we walked against it, wishing I’d grabbed Bruce’s bomber jacket instead of my stupid twill blazer.
“Coach wearin’ ya out again?” Milo asked. By now, he knew about the perpetual topic of conversation at the Bingham dinner table.
“It’s all he talks about. Vietnam. Vietnam. Vietnam. He was listing off body-counts like they were baseball statistics.”
“Once a Marine always a Marine, I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“On this particular evening,” he said, “I may’ve joined in with him. We’re finally kicking ass over there. If things keep up this way, maybe…I dunno, maybe this war will be over sooner than later. It’s sure lookin’ like ol’ Big Ears Johnson is gonna pull the troops out before we graduate. If he does, then we’ve got no draft to worry about. I’ve really got my fingers crossed this time. Toes, too.”
I shrugged in response. Milo nodded.
Silence was the only way to let the subject of Vietnam drop.
We continued on to the party, our fists buried deep in our pockets and shoulders clenched from the chill. A few blocks later, we saw Rachel’s place—a big Southern home with a bright-red door and an immaculate veranda. A dozen cars and bicycles were parked in the driveway and on the lawn.
“I can’t believe her parents let her have a party,” I said.
“They didn’t. They’re still visiting family in Tuscaloosa. Not sure how she convinced them to let her come home early. Must be a late Christmas miracle.”
“God bless us, everyone,” I scoffed.
Then Milo stopped walking. I stopped, too. He looked at me.
“Hold up,” he said, “I gotta talk to you about some stuff.”
“Best Friend Shit.”
“Yeah,” I said, “OK.”
“OK,” he said softly, “are you OK?”
I looked down at my loafers. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.
“I think so,” I finally mumbled.
“I just don’t want you to be hurting more than you’ve gotta be, man. I mean with the draft goin’ on, and school, the everyday shit hurts enough.”
“I know,” I said, “and Bruce’s death doesn’t hurt the way it did, anymore. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it, because now I just feel numb all the time.”
“Numb,” he mused. “Well shit, that’s an easy fix.”
He clapped his small hand on my shoulder, and we continued toward the house. He led me down the side of the Harris residence, past the porch and up against the trashcans, out of sight. He pulled a poorly rolled joint from his jacket.
“We’ve just gotta get you double numb, that’s all.”
“You think that’ll work?” I asked.
“For a few hours, maybe.”
“Cool.” I nodded and took a matchbook from my pocket.
I handed it to Milo. The wind blew the first match out.
Suddenly, muffled rock music shook the house, signifying that the party had kicked into gear. Two matches later, the joint stayed lit. Milo took a long toke, working his eyebrows over his frames in that stupid Groucho Marx way that I hated. But I laughed in spite of myself.
“Shhhhhh,” he hissed as he exhaled.
But then he began coughing loudly, which made me laugh harder. He put his finger to his lips, choking down his coughs as he handed me the joint.
I hit it with purpose, inhaling until the back of my throat caught fire and my eyes dried up. I held the smoke inside like that, there with the quiet pain. As I exhaled, the wind picked back up. The smoke whisked away like a tiny tornado and the tip of the joint blew out.
“It’s almost 1968,” Milo said with wonder.
“I know. It’s the eve of destruction.”
“Nah, man, it’s the Year of the Monkey.”
“The what?” I asked, clearing my throat.
“Every twelfth year is the Year of the Monkey. The monkey represents cleverness. It’s, like, a year for smart people to thrive.”
“What’s that mean?”
“That we’re fucked,” he said. “Majorly, majorly fucked.” And we laughed and we laughed and we laughed and we coughed and we laughed and we laughed and we laughed.