Dust jacket photograph by Lisa Law.
“Outside the Gates of Eden is a powerful piece of work. Shiner writes about music, and the making of music, better than anyone I know. He gets across the tremendous excitement of the early days of rock and roll, the peace movement, Woodstock and the Summer of Love—but also the heartbreak of failure, betrayal, and loss. The prose is terrific, and the sense of time and place is first rate. A brilliant requiem for our generation and all our dreams.”
—George R. R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones
What happened to the idealism of the 1960s? This question has haunted a generation. Outside the Gates of Eden follows two men from their first meeting in high school to their final destination in the twenty-first century. Alex is torn between his father’s business empire and his own artistic yearnings. Cole finds his calling at a Bob Dylan concert in 1965. From the Summer of Love in San Francisco to Woodstock, from campus protests to the SoHo loft scene, from a commune in Virginia to the outlaw country music of Austin, the novel charts the rise and fall of the counterculture—and what came after. Using the music business as a window into half a century, Outside the Gates of Eden is both epic and intimate, starkly realistic and ultimately hopeful, a War and Peace for the Woodstock generation.
“In Outside the Gates of Eden Lewis Shiner displays the panoramic historical consciousness of a Pynchon or DeLillo, and yet every page is suffused with a humble and scrupulous humanity, scrubbed of abstractions or grandiosity—you simply live with his people and know them and love them. Shiner’s interest in the way the world actually works—how people write a song, or learn to dance, or play cards, or write a dissertation, or raise a kid—reminds me of Howard Hawks or John D. Macdonald; this book’s vision is similarly rooted in a retrieval of those gritty, egalitarian virtues that can make you (still) willing to somehow get up in the morning and face it all.”
“A story of the sixties that is generous but unflinching, sweeping but intimate, fictional but true. For everyone who’s wondered how we got from there to here and also where we might go next. Hugely ambitious, simply beautiful.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
“Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses made me a lifelong fan. His new novel, Outside the Gates of Eden, is a page-turning tour de force. Anyone with a passion for rock and roll storytelling at its very best must not deny themselves the opportunity to read this tale. A masterpiece.”
—Iain Matthews, of Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort
“Few works of fiction are convincingly set in the world of rock music, and fewer still evoke coming of age in the 1960s with journalistic authenticity and painstakingly accurate detail. With Outside the Gates of Eden, Lewis Shiner not only pulls off these difficult feats, he also brings his characters forcefully into our present age, fearlessly probing their roads to blending their fiery idealism with the hard-gained wisdom of experience.”
— Richie Unterberger, author of Turn! Turn! Turn!: The 1960s Folk-Rock Revolution
“Absolutely bloody fantastic....This is Shiner's semi-autobiographical masterpiece about those dubbed the Woodstock Generation....Hugely uplifting, terribly sad, totally brilliant.”
—Jon Wise, Weekend Sport (UK)
“Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic, sprawling double gatefold concept album of a novel. It is a poignant and powerful swansong to the end of the twentieth century, to the demise of wide-eyed, often drug-fuelled innocence of the Summer of Love and Woodstock; an elegy to ideals and dreams lost. But through it all, like a pounding John Bonham stomp groove, the enduring power of music and love to redeem us all flows through the heart of the story....Lewis Shiner writes with incredible precision and feeling. With seeming effortlessness he captures the ecstatic joy of live performance, and the rush that comes when music and words slot together perfectly to produce something magical in song writing and recording. His passion for music oozes from every page, but above that, his compassion for the characters drives the narrative and makes the book difficult to put down.”
—Matthew Harffy, author of the Dark Ages historical novels
“From Woodstock to the age of Trump, this sprawling, ambitious novel straddles half a century....It is a seductive, effortless read and Shiner's brio as a storyteller never flags.”
—The Mail on Sunday (UK)
“An engrossing and realistic novel about such important matters as the passage of time, the disappointment of hope and the role of music in society.”
—Robert Drapers, Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“The 800+ pages flow effortlessly, and I can't recall ever having read such a lengthy book so quickly. The characters breathe and bleed, make love and make music, and become altogether real....I hesitate to single out any single work of fiction as 'the voice of a generation,' but what Shiner has done here comes as close as anything I've ever read to capturing the spirits and the stories of those of us who grew up during that time. A classic.”
—Chet Williamson on amazon.com
“Lewis Shiner's Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic read about the United States' society from the mid-1960s until now, seen through the lens of a long friendship. It covers the '60s music revolution and explores changes in American values since then. It's been compared to the work of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon and I stayed up far too late over many nights to finish it. A truly great American novel.”
—Jan Smedh, Qantas Magazine
“By far the biggest book on the list, it needed to be to tell an epic, personal novel of the rise and fall of idealism across 60s and 70s music and society. Shiner is one of the few writers to get this right.”
—Kevin McVeigh, The Books of 2019
“Shiner’s characters and intertwined stories are remarkable and irresistible from the first page, and his ability and knowledge to hit every major and minor cultural moment along the tumultuous parade route of the darkening American Dream is uncanny, heartbreaking and, ultimately, full of soul and resilience… This is a masterpiece that will haunt you for a long time.”
An interview with Lewis Shiner
Gwenda Bond: Tell me a little about the genesis of this book and how it came together for you. Did it start from a place of personal history? Did you know what a massive undertaking it would be from the start?
Lewis Shiner: I'd just finished writing DARK TANGOS and, at the same time, had just finished reading ANNA KARENINA for the first time. I wanted to tackle something really big, so I asked myself, “What would Tolstoy write about if he were alive today?” (Note that I'm not claiming to be in Tolstoy's league, here, I was just looking for a Big Idea.) The answer to my question felt obvious: “What happened to the idealism of the sixties?” Part of my motivation for writing the book was that I didn't know the answer and I wanted to find out.
GB: And did you?
LS: I think so. To my own satisfaction. And I don't want to be coy, but I think it takes the length of the book to explain the answer, and it's more right-brained than left. As soon as I had the idea, I came up with the main characters and the story arc within a few minutes. I figured it would run a thousand pages or more in manuscript. I knew there was at least a chance that I'd end up like Ralph Ellison, pottering around with an over-ambitious book until I died of old age.
GB: Was there a lot of research or is this all stuff you know in your bones?
LS: I knew the broad strokes, or at least most of them, but it was a huge effort to get the details right. Practically every page I was searching for photos of Haight Ashbury or set lists for bands on a particular date or what was on TV at a particular time. Plus I had to filter anything I found on the internet through my bullshit detector, because inaccurate history propagates as fast as accurate history. And that's not even counting the dozens of books I read and videos I watched for background. I love research, so part of the appeal was getting to track down all these minutiae.
GB: I’m curious—this book feels so right, all the way through. I don’t think there’s ever a moment where it feels like you lost your footing. Did you get stuck while writing at all? Was there a lot of revision? Or did this flow out of you like the characters playing music?
LS: Well, first off, thank you. And I think music is an apt metaphor. I was winging it, jazz-style, for much of the writing. I started out with just a few key scenes or events that I knew had to be in there—some of them historical, like Woodstock, some from my life or my friends' lives. They were like the chord changes that I was trying to solo over. In the end I even gave up a couple of those because they no longer fit. I had a kind of an idea of what the ending was going to be, though I wasn't sure, and I ended up giving that up as well. That said, I somehow never took any turns where I had to retrace my steps and start over. I wrote detailed outlines for my earliest novels, but over the years I learned to trust my instincts more and more, and EDEN was the ultimate expression of that.
I did revise a lot—both rewriting in place and, once I had a first draft, I printed the manuscript and retyped it from scratch. The biggest changes I made in the second draft were adding a few scenes that readers of the first draft had suggested—like introducing Madelyn earlier in the book.
GB: Let’s talk about your characters—there’s Alex and Cole, who end up taking different paths. Did you have a favorite to write? How did you build these characters and their stories? I also want to highlight how essential the women are in the book—was that something you knew you wanted to make sure to incorporate right from the start?
LS: I had a lot of trouble with Alex at first, even though he's based in many ways on one of my best friends. I just kept working until I could finally see him clearly and hear his voice. Madelyn is also based on a longtime, very dear friend, and I could hear her voice so perfectly in my head that it was easier to write her segments. She was definitely part of the plan from the very outset because one of the uglier aspects of the sixties is the way women were dismissed and silenced and relegated to trivial tasks.
Many of the characters are based on people I know, or are composites of people I know, and some are complete inventions. For all of them, though, I had to walk a very fine line between the way that each of them represents an aspect of the generation and trying to make them living human beings who were capable of surprising me.
GB: Was it daunting to write a book capturing and assessing this generation’s experience? How did you settle on the title?
LS: I wasn't really daunted. I like a challenge. With each of my books, I knew at the outset that I wasn't good enough to write it, but I hoped I could learn on the job, as it were.
As to the title, I had that right from the start. I had actually misremembered Dylan's lyrics to “Gates of Eden”—in every verse but one he talks about being insidethe gates. But it didn't matter. The title was very evocative for me and helped me keep focused during the process.
GB: How long was that process?
LS: Eight years. I took some breaks to write other stuff, and I was also working day jobs the whole time, but it was a really long gestation. Pleasurable, though. It was a place to escape from work and politics and bad weather.
GB: You may actually be the best writer I’ve ever read when it comes to capturing the way music feels and here you tackle an epic era (or eras) in music history. How do you approach writing those scenes? Any insight on what goes wrong when music is described unsuccessfully?
LS: Again, thanks for the praise. I think people go off the rails writing about music when they try too hard to come up with elaborate metaphors to describe their inner feelings while listening. Because I have a background as a musician (well, a drummer, anyway), I tend to focus on the way people talk about music who play it for a living.
GB: What are some of your own favorite albums from this period or novels about music or musicians?
LS: Novels about rock tend to lose me when I feel like the author doesn't really know enough about what it's like to be in a band. Like EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS, for example, where he's got a band with four guitarists, a sax player, a drummer, and no bass. My favorite rock novel is George R.R. Martin's ARMAGEDDON RAG.
Albums from the period? One of the things about the sixties is that there was so much great music being made that we are still discovering it. In the course of writing EDEN I found that I had missed the boat on Moby Grape at the time—they were great, especially on their first record. There's an obscure New York band called Autosalvage that I loved then and love now. The Buckinghams. Paul Revere and Donovan. Love. The Lovin' Spoonful, the Doors, the Hollies, AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER'S by the Airplane. I could go on for hours. Though let me quickly say that as much as I love sixties pop and eighties pop, the seventies were even more fertile, and the reason was world music—the Wailers, War, Malo, Osibisa, Fania All-Stars, on and on.
GB: Thanks so much for talking to me.
Outside the Gates of Eden
Friday morning, August 15, 1969, JFK airport. A guy in a beard and mirrored sunglasses met them when they got off the redeye from San Francisco, holding a sign that said QUIRQ. When Cole asked him if he was their limo driver, the guy laughed as if it was the funniest thing he’d heard in days. He hustled them into a golf cart and drove them to a helipad at the far end of the airport.
Once they were in the air, Cole got the joke. The main freeway headed north from New York City was a parking lot, and when they banked to the left and followed a smaller road, it was also at a standstill. Soon Cole saw cars abandoned by the side of the road and a continuous stream of human beings trudging northwest on foot.
The scene was eerily familiar, and Cole flashed on a nightmare from his childhood, refugees from a nuclear war lining the roads as they fled their irradiated cities. That thought, in turn, made him realize that everything he had assumed about the festival was wrong. Even the most wild-eyed predictions of a hundred thousand people were clearly and hopelessly low. Something that had been building since the Beatles set fire to the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 had reached critical mass, and if it wasn’t an atom bomb, it looked to be nearly as devastating.
At the Holiday Inn in Liberty, Cole slept for a few hours, then caught a ride to the festival site. Unlike the copter he’d ridden in that morning, this one had a spherical glass front, like the one in the WhirlybirdsTV show from Cole’s youth. The seat next to the pilot was open. Country Joe sat in back, wearing a sergeant’s green military fatigues, his dark, shoulder-length hair held by a headband.
The combination of Joe’s uniform and the sound of the idling rotors gave Cole a jolt of Vietnam terror at the base of his spine. He strapped in and set his guitar case on end in front of him. It blocked at least part of the disorienting view through the Plexiglas floor.
“Hey, Cole,” Country Joe said, and Cole reached through the gap between the seats to shake his hand, movement style. Most of the musicians that Cole knew were searching for something. Joe seemed to have found it and tired of it and given it away a long time ago. He’d been a red-diaper baby, had spent three years in the Navy, was highly literate and political and always kept a level head, even when he was tripping, which was a good deal of the time. He had the best deadpan comic delivery of anyone Cole had ever met, and as with so many truly funny people, the humor was fed by a wellspring of bitterness.
Joe gestured vaguely at their surroundings. “It’s like being in the fucking USO, isn’t it?”
“Luckily,” Cole said, “you’re already dressed for the part.”
The helicopter lurched and lifted off and Cole watched the motel and the city fall away, replaced by a landscape of rolling hills, lakes, and trees. Straight lines and pale olive colors where the land was cultivated, a darker, textured green for the woods. Narrow roads cut the abstract canvas into interlocking pieces. These were working farms with tractors that needed to be moved around and produce that needed to get to market. Even from hundreds of feet in the air, Cole sensed something peaceful that emanated from the countryside itself.
The helicopter banked downward and Cole felt a rush of excitement. In a matter of seconds they began to see barns and fences and abandoned cars and then, all at once, throngs of people. In the distance a half-finished stage, a giant framework of raw white pine and a flapping sail of white canvas strung above it. Everywhere else it was a pointillist painting in daubs of pink and white and tan that Cole understood to be a continuous sea of human flesh.
“Incredible,” Country Joe said. “They’re saying three hundred thousand by tonight.”
The number was meaningless to Cole. What he saw was an area the size of a small town that consisted of nothing but one person sitting or standing next to another, and another, and another, in all directions. When he thought there couldn’t be any more, thousands more rolled into view, and thousands after that.
The helicopter circled the site. Pale green canvas tents clustered at the far end of the field, next to a board fence that extended from both sides of the stage. Half a dozen towers of metal scaffolding held spotlights and speakers. A row of portable toilets, not nearly enough. Behind the stage, trailers and a giant tepee. Mostly he saw kids, mostly male, mostly white, mostly teenaged.
Cole remembered the crowds at the Haight two years before. At least three times that many kids had come for the fair, all at once instead of over a period of months. His earlier vision of refugees was wrong. They were here as an affirmation, not a denial. He thought of the way Dylan’s songs, more than anyone else’s, had created an “us” and a “them,” and that he was looking at the culmination of all the songs like them. Hundreds of thousands of kids who saw themselves as part of that “us” had answered the call that they read between the lines of the festival posters. The revolution had happened, invisibly and bloodlessly, in the endlessly repeated acts of packing a knapsack or grabbing a sleeping bag and hitting the road.
“Joe?” Cole said. “I think we just won.”
“You think? That would be nice. We’ve still got a war to end and a few details like that.”
“Look at all those people,” Cole said. “They can’t ignore us now.”
- Lewis Shiner