A Groupie’s Ghostwriter: On Sarah Tomlinson’s “The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers”

By Jason M. ThornberryMarch 24, 2024

A Groupie’s Ghostwriter: On Sarah Tomlinson’s “The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers”

The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers by Sarah Tomlinson

SARAH TOMLINSON’S new novel The Last Night of the Midnight Ramblers is about a ghostwriter who wants to inhabit the “emotional viscera of others’ lives,” even as her own life circles the drain. Mari Hawthorn is broke and sleeping on her sister’s couch. Her Honda Civic is the only place where she can expect any privacy. She desperately wants the right client to rescue her from obscurity’s tightening grasp. Then she meets Anke Berben, whose life as a fashion model and international rock-and-roll groupie provided her with an estate in Palm Springs, California. Berben has a son from one of her three lovers in the rock dynasty “the Midnight Ramblers.”

Though she leans on a cane, Berben still radiates the detached beauty of her 1960s youth, like a “young Nico, without heroin’s aura-marring darkness”—a habit she’d long since put away with her bell-bottoms. When Berben appoints Hawthorn to write about the glory days of her life with the band, the hungry writer enthusiastically accepts. Hawthorn’s agent, Ezra, assures her that this story is her ticket out of D-list purgatory and could make her a contender for bigger assignments. Subsuming herself into another life has always come naturally to her. “Without consciously making the choice to do so,” Tomlinson writes, “Mari had put everything into these jobs of hers that remained invisible.”

Hawthorn’s latest subject regales her with hours of anecdotes about celebrity. She feels “no bitterness about the special respect given to celebrities in our culture—the truth was, they were different.” Berben only confirms Hawthorn’s stance that “[m]ost people [a]re imperfect, ugly even, in the banal moments of their day—driving, shopping, holding a fork—but it never grew old, watching someone beautiful at ease.”

The famous groupie, however, also has secrets, one of which might involve manslaughter. The drowning death of the appropriately named Mal, a physically abusive, drug-hoovering, drink-guzzling guitarist, is, in Ramblers folklore, its darkest chapter. Hawthorn assures Berben that “there are many ways to write what’s true and hide it at the same time,” but her attempt to unravel this truth eventually compromises her safety and that of her sister. The ambitious ghostwriter listens to her client, but more importantly, she reads her, “a skill she had obtained in childhood, as many children of addicts learn to read those with power over them.” Hawthorn devotes herself to Berben as she would to a wayward parent.

Beginning as a rock novel, The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers quickly comes to resemble a whodunit. Who had the most to gain from Mal’s death? Hawthorn struggles with this question. But she insists that Berben’s story takes precedence. “This will be a memoir,” Hawthorn says, “that illuminates, and improves the reader—what we all seek from the books we read. The memoir not of a groupie, but a teacher, an agent of insight and alchemy.” When Berben suddenly fires Hawthorn, she’s quickly hired to write the memoir of Dante Ashcombe, the Ramblers’ guitarist and father to Berben’s child. Reuniting later with the famous groupie, Hawthorn eschews sleep and food, swiftly writing both books and escaping the D-list like Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell.

After years working as a ghostwriter herself, Tomlinson finally got to tell her own story in the 2015 father-daughter memoir Good Girl. But like a bold red X traversing a white blanket, her memoir overwhelms The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers, shoving Hawthorn aside to retell Tomlinson’s story instead.

Tomlinson grew up with an absent father who was addicted to gambling. Hawthorn’s father is also a compulsive gambler. Tomlinson’s memories dominate her novel’s exposition as Hawthorn remembers her dad “corrupt[ing] his daughters’ values with his gambler’s fever dream.” Hawthorn says that family life hadn’t been her father’s style, “and he hadn’t cared to pretend.” These qualities made his affection more desirable. In Good Girl, Tomlinson says her father’s inability to relate to her made him a rock star in her eyes.

Tomlinson’s past, and her dependence on it, renders The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers a kind of sequel to Good Girl—one with an implausible ending in which Hawthorn inherits Berben’s celebrity, her wardrobe, and even her palatial estate. Hawthorn finds the urge to live beyond her work too strong to resist. She must borrow a new perspective: “It was possible—and fun—to live like a rock star. For starters, just decide not to give a fuck about the small stuff.”

Tomlinson’s eye for the unspoken includes a close attention to postures, gestures, and facial cues. However, her dependence on dialogue—and the frequent lack of dialogue tags—can be a hindrance at times. The reader loses track of conversations when, for example, characters use similar speech patterns, referring to each other as “dude.” The novel’s exposition is often lean, and Tomlinson sometimes describes her characters carelessly, saying of one that he resembles Jude Law, while another “look[s] like a young Cher on a curly-hair day.” Tomlinson’s narrator appears to justify this technique when noting in the prologue that “no one’s claiming to be Chekhov.” Indeed.

LARB Contributor

Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in the South Florida Poetry Journal, JMWW, Harbor Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. Jason teaches writing at Seattle Pacific University. He lives in Seattle.


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