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July 27, 2005

Book Notes - Tom Piazza ("My Cold War")

When I first heard that Tom Piazza had written a novel, My Cold War, I was excited. His collection if short stories, Blues and Trouble, is a personal favorite, and I was anxious to see him work in the longer format. It also didn't hurt that I am also a fan of his music writing, or that Bob Dylan has a blurb on the paperback cover of the novel that reads, "Tom Piazza's writing pulses with nervous electric tension--reveals the emotions that we can't define."

My Cold War didn't disappoint. The novel manages to blend nostalgia for post-World War II America with the current day. Piazza brings the narrator's world to life in a conversational writing style that fits the book perfectly.

In his own words, here is Tom Piazza's Book Notes entry for his debut novel, My Cold War (passages in italics are excerpts from the novel):

The first half of my novel is about growing up in suburban Long Island in the early 1960s, before there were trees, when kids had to do air raid drills on the polished wooden floor in the halls at school. The narrator of the book, John Delano, is supposedly trying to write a book about the history of the Cold War, but what he’s really writing about is the history of his own extremely messed-up family.

In the second half of the book John decides that he has badly mishandled things in his life, even though he has a successful career as a professor of Cold War history. He takes a trip to the deep Midwest to find his brother Chris, whom he hasn’t talked to in eight years, hoping to rebuild his relationship with his own past. But Chris has gotten hooked up with a group of white supremacists, and the visit doesn’t go as John planned.

I can’t listen to music when I write because I hear the sentences as I write them and I depend on that sound to let me know where I am and how it’s going. So I have to reconstruct some kind of hypothetical soundtrack for . Here goes.

Moody River – Pat Boone

John remembers his parents getting ready for a visit from an old friend of his mother’s, who is going to try and get his parents to join the John Birch Society. It is early 1963 and John is seven years old. Before Marie Kelso gets there, John is playing “Moody River” by Pat Boone on his little kid’s record player in his room and his mother tells him to turn it off. Later over dinner his father starts drinking and things start going wrong.

I noticed that my father wasn’t paying attention to the gossip about old friends. He tended to get edgy when he felt unincluded, and he almost always felt unincluded. I had become a keen observer and anticipator of his moods. When he was unattended, bad humor seemed to collect, generating pressure that would be discharged with greater or lesser force depending on how much resistance it met. I recognized this now; he seemed to be waiting for a lull in the conversation.

Sure enough, as soon as there was a pause he turned toward Marie with a kind of we-understand-each-other familiarity that I already recognized as a sign that he was getting tanked.

“We have this priest,” he said, abruptly, like a car changing lanes without signaling. “This son of a bitch named Hayden…”

At this I saw my mother’s face go blank; you didn’t call a priest a son-of-a-bitch. Marie Kelso saw it too, and I detected a flicker of quickening attention, maybe even some amusement.

“For God’s sake, Frank,” Mom said.

He turned to her with his eyebrows up and an “Innocent little me?” expression on his face. “ ‘For God’s Sake, Frank,’ ” he said, in a caricature of a high, hysterical voice. “ ‘How awful; you said a bad word.’ ” He looked at my mother squarely, as if they were having a staring contest.

Got The Blues – Blind Lemon Jefferson

John remembers making a road trip to Dallas with a college friend, to see where President Kennedy had been assassinated. They have a conversation about the assassination in a bar in Deep Ellum, a historic black neighborhood. Blind Lemon was from Dallas and the loneliness of the scene always made me think about him out there singing his blues on the streets for tips.

a large, dark room; a bright doorway. Outside, the afternoon flowed heavy, hot, and golden through the Dallas streets; the late sunlight clanged off the sides of buildings and filled the air, viscous and radioactive, like some kind of atomic beer syrup; through the open door it leaked into the cavernous bar where we were sitting and spilled across the maroon-painted cement floor.

I Feel Fine – The Beatles
Maggie’s Farm – Bob Dylan

John keeps getting calls from his editor, asking him where the Cold War book is. John hasn’t actually been writing the book, so when the editor calls he has to quickly improvise some stuff about the 1960s. On one of these calls John riffs on Bob Dylan’s decision to play with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He’s talking to his editor on the phone:

“In some ways, 1965 was the last year of innocence. Kennedy’s assassination was far enough behind so that you didn’t live with it every moment. But society wasn’t a big psychedelic theater yet, either. Almost everything was still under the surface. Like a soup with a skin on top. But if you looked closely, something weird had entered the mix. You know the Beatles’ record ‘I Feel Fine’?”

“Sure,” he said.

“It’s optimistic, and exhilarating, but there’s that weird feedback at the start, like a warning that something was about to blow… The flip side was ‘She’s a Woman,’ which was basically a blues, but stark and odd, with Paul singing in that slightly strangled voice, hysteria bubbling just underneath it… The record itself was straddling some line…
“Anyway, in 1963, they had closed out the Folk Festival with everybody holding hands, Dylan in the middle, singing ‘Blowing In The Wind.’ Now it’s 1965. Suddenly Dylan wants to do his Sunday night set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band backing him up. The year before the kid was still dressed like Woody Guthrie in his work shirt and jeans, and now he’s wearing Ray-Ban shades and a big polka-dot fencing shirt and tight black jeans and Cuban-heeled boots. Woody Guthrie had a sign on his guitar that read, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ But Bob’s electric guitar… nobody knew what that machine could or would do. That was sort of the point: let’s have an adventure without knowing the outcome, or even wanting to know it.

“The representative image,” I said, “would have to be Dylan practically lunging at the microphone, pouncing on the words, ‘I-I-I-I- AIN’T gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more…’ in his leather jacket. Sunday night, July 25. That was the real Declaration of Independence of the sixties. Not on your farm, and not on their farm. Three days later, President Johnson doubled the size of the U.S. troop commitment in Vietnam – the real start of the war, you could say.”

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) – Scott McKenzie

John’s father has a big breakdown in the summer of 1967, the “Summer Of Love,” and has to be hospitalized at Sand Hill Psychiatric Hospital on Long Island. He and his mother listen to “If you’re going to San Francisco…” on the car radio.

At Sand Hill we had to go through a couple of checkpoints in the parking lot. No trees around anywhere. Mostly I remember the blonde brick facade of the building, with its rows of barred windows flush with the aging walls, like a face with no eyebrows.

Inside, an orderly came to accompany us to see my father. He was a thin, hollow-cheeked youngish man with greying hair and a moustache. “Okay,” he said, looking at some papers in a manila folder. “Fran, and Johnny. You,” he said, looking at me archly, “must be Johnny.” I nodded. Walking ahead of us, he escorted us to the biggest elevator I’d ever entered. It had bare metal sides. Inside it as the doors opened were two women in hospital smocks, both wearing ribbons in their hair, holding hands, accompanied by a bored-looking orderly. One was short, with strawberry-blonde hair and girlish features and an unlined face, looking placidly into space; the other was a large black woman who stared fixedly at the top of the elevator, with an expression of fright and fascination that remained constant for the whole, slow ride. At the second floor the door opened, and I heard music playing from a transistor radio; just outside the elevator a smiling man with Asian features was bouncing up and down in place wearing a big blue felt hat and no pants; from nearby a woman’s stern voice repeated, “Elmo… Elmo…”

We got to the fourth floor finally and the two women got out before us and walked down the hall, to the right. We stepped out into the hall, which was lined with light green ceramic tile, and our orderly motioned for us to follow him. We passed a room where a few people were sitting, watching television, then we came to a chipped, orange-painted metal door, which the orderly opened. He said, “Frank… We have some visitors.” Then we were walking into the small room, which had bars on the windows and light green glazed cinderblock walls, a sickly bare beige linoleum floor, not even a little rug, and my father was sitting on the side of a cot, looking at us. He was wearing a white undershirt and pajama bottoms. His hair was uncombed and he was unshaven and his eyes were red-rimmed, as if he had been crying.

I felt my mother squeeze my hand; I hadn’t even realized until that moment that we had been holding hands. Dad looked from one of us to the other, as if he were having trouble placing us, as if we were waking him in the middle of a nap. On a small table in front of him were several sheets of paper covered with unintelligible scrawls, a pencil, and a small red pencil sharpener.

Get Back – The Beatles

John remembers getting high at a nighttime party on Long Island for high school campaign workers for Allard Lowenstein, who led the “Dump Johnson” movement in Congress.

A nighttime party, in Massaquogue, the next town over. Mid-July; I was about to leave A-ville for good, for college. A little more than a year after the shootings at Kent State. Evening crickets going, the sense of something just around the corner that you couldn’t anticipate…. Light spilling out into the backyard, claiming a few square feet of lawn before dissipating in the deep shadows under the pin oak and sugar maple trees. From speakers in the windows came that high voice, McCartney’s, “Get back… Get back… Get back to where you once belonged…” with that humid, hazy, muted guitar riff, the night and summer stretching out before you
Corey talked to me as he prepared the pipe. “Did you hear what he was saying about guilt and the Cold War? That’s a lot of bullshit. We’ve got no guilt about anything. Americans are ruthless, which is why we came here to begin with. Anything we can’t control we kill. Here,” he said, holding the pipe out to me.

In my hand the bronze pipe was heavy, as if it had been made out of a Chinese gong. Ceremonial. I held a match over the bowl, circled it around as I inhaled, the taste in the back of my throat. We passed the pipe back and forth. After the third hit I began to feel a distinction between my head’s presence in the air, and that of my legs and feet on the ground. In the spirit of science I lifted up one foot, which seemed as if it were at the bottom of a giant scaffolding on top of which I sat, directing things.

“Contact,” I said. Corey was coughing.

“Have you been inside yet?” he asked.

“Inside what?”

“Inside the house.”

I thought about inside the house; it seemed like a large concept. Very definitive. You were either inside the house or you weren’t. The house was bulging with light – it seemed to want to expand – yet it was only a small part of the world. Too small, actually, to be half of such a large equation. There was inside the house, which was this, and then outside, which was everything else.

“How do they do that?” I said to Corey.

Flamenco Sketches – Miles Davis

At the midpoint of My Cold War John heads out to Iowa to visit Chris, and his feeling about driving through the country after years in the East is both excited and elegiac.

I drove for five hours across heavy iron Pennsylvania under a bright early winter sky, the hills and mountains painted a brownish grey, bare trees like stubble along their long, humped arcs, blanketing the iron ore, the heavy, dense minerals. As the day softened toward evening, I passed Cleveland and the winking lights of Lake Erie, and dusk fell on western Ohio as the country started to flatten out a little. Driving amid the evening lights and trucks was like swimming in the warm water of a bay at sunset. The trucks passed me, heavy-shouldered, gears muscling them forward ahead of the mouth of night. The air hadn’t been terribly cold in the afternoon, and I’d been driving with my window half-open and the heater on; but as evening fell I put up the window and turned down the heat. I drove past the green interstate exit signs, the other cars, and was passed in turn, with a feeling of extreme warmth and comfort.

Iowa is too far to drive comfortably in one day from Connecticut, and somewhere east of Toledo I pulled into a motel just off the interstate and settled in for the evening. Is there anything more pleasant than the feeling of being in a clean, warm motel room, in a king-sized bed, while outside on the highway the cars rush past like a river? I’m not one of those who condemn the big highway interchanges, the clusters of fast-food places and chain motels and stores. It’s fashionable to be superior to all that, to see it as a blight, but my feeling is of being incredibly well insulated by it. How fine to know that if you got hungry you could walk out of your room and not be on some windy forlorn urban street with shadows lurking in doorways, but in the middle of brightly colored winking signs, plenty of company, travelers like yourself, a desk clerk, coffee in the lobby, a market, 24-hour gas station with bottled water and snacks…. You are buoyed up on a salt lake of goods and activity, the howling prairies and mountains and sad animals and owls pushed back into the darkness, while around you electricity sings and color and energy pulses, telling you that all is well.

The second half of the book is harder to pin down for musical selections. As the pressure gets turned up on John it seems more as if you would have to play a couple of very different songs at once at any given time to capture what was going on. If you wanted to really do it up correctly, you could play the following selections simultaneously on 12 boom boxes:

Mahler’s 9th Symphony – Jascha Horenstein conducting (BBC Classics)
Fall – Miles Davis Quintet (Sony)
Shostakovich string Quartet #11, Borodin String Quartet (Melodiya)
I’ll Lead a Christian Life – Golden P. Harris (Shanachie)
What Love – Charles Mingus (Candid)
Catalogue des Oiseaux – Olivier Messiaen (Haakon Austbo version, Naxos)
Train On The Island – JPNestor (Anthology of American Folk Music – Smithsonian Folkways)
Rolling Stone, Parts 1&2 – Robert Wilkins (Yazoo)
Roll Call – Hank Mobley (Blue Note)
Foot of Pride – Bob Dylan (Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, Sony)
Brakeman’s Blues – Jimmie Rodgers (Bear Family)
Toccata in G minor – J.S. Bach (Glenn Gould piano version)

see also:

52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)


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