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April 11, 2006

Book Notes - Kris Saknussemm ("Zanesville")

Choosing books and authors to feature in this "book notes" series sometimes feels a bit daunting. Besides the books I myself enjoy, publishers, readers, and even authors often offer suggestions. When Kris Saknussemm e-mailed me about his debut novel, ZANESVILLE, I vaguely remembered a bit of controversy surrounding the book. Then I asked a friend, a big science fiction fan, if he had read ZANESVILLE. His enthusiastic response, along with the Powell's review he attached that said the book, "reads like 'Gulliver's Travels' as seen through the eyes of Terry Gilliam," encouraged me to read this fine book. The experience left me thankful for two things: good friends and authors like Saknussemm that are willing to take on big social issues while retaining their eloquence and charm.

In his own words, here is Kris Saknussemm's "book notes" submission for his novel, ZANESVILLE:

One of the things my novel ZANESVILLE is about is the secret language that lies under the surface of popular music. Not surprisingly, I listened to a lot of different kinds of music while writing it—from the doo-wop vocal groups of 1950’s Brooklyn to the thrash metal of today’s Midwest—Hank Williams to Cypress Hill, Nina Simone to Neil Young, vaudeville and old minstrel show tunes to MTV.

The novel specifically mentions and quotes from several songs. But rather than spoil the surprise of how they fit into the story here, I thought I would share the deeper “theme” music behind the book. These are the musical influences that I felt were too important for me to reference too directly.


ZANESVILLE introduces a new kind of Messiah and comes out of my life interest in Millenarian Religious movements like the Ghost Dance Religion, begun by the Paiute prophet Wovoka in 1890. The movement’s fervor spread quickly through Native American culture, from the shores of Pyramid Lake in Nevada to the massacre-stained snow of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Patti Smith, the punk poet and pop culture survivor captures some of that contagious longing and dark, proud hope on the album Easter in the song Ghost Dance. “We shall live again…shake out the Ghost Shirts…”


For more than 30 years, Tom Waits has given us a carnivale of music and folklore. He’s a chameleon, a magpie and a Scarecrow who told the Wizard to shove it. As great a fan as I am of his own compositions, I especially admire his collaborations—in particular with Gavin Bryars on Jesus Blood. Based originally on a chance recording of an old bum in a train station, this plaintive, childlike, drink-induced fragment gently morphs into a swelling, soaring hymn of individual survival in a swarming, alien world.


One of the many disgraces of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe is that when Fats Domino went missing, many people, including many African-Americans, didn’t realize he was still alive—or even who he was. Nothing can ever destroy New Orleans’ place in American musical history. It has so many great traditions, and my favorite is the Mardi Gras Indians—black neighborhood “tribes” pitted against each other in musical and costumed competition. Pick up the Rounder CD The Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday Showdown featuring Bo Dollis & The Wild Magnolias. Dr. John is on it too.


Little Richard Penniman’s roots run deep in 20th Century American culture. Depression Era Georgia, a Seventh Day Adventist family (recall the Adventist link to the Millerite Movement of the 19th Century), church gospel, medicine show huckstering, sexual ambiguity. He’s a key figure in the mythology that underlies ZANESVILLE. There has never been or ever will be again a performer quite like him, and though Pat Boone and the white establishment tried to sanitize his flamboyant and debauched playfulness, they couldn’t do it. Years ago, when I worked as an orderly at a hospital psych ward, I found a Little Richard album in the rec room and put it on. The effect on the patients and staff was instantaneous and changed ward policy. Try to find a later Greatest Hits album recorded live in LA and produced by Larry Williams. On True Fine Mama, Little Richard has one foot in church and the other in a brothel. The piano is reinstated as a percussion and rhythm instrument; and that voice! It’s old riverside barrelhouse and backwoods pulpit mixed with Bandstand fingersnap (back when Dick Clark could still recite his Fuller Brush pitch). Throw in a bit of drag queen camp and you’ve got not just great maverick American music, but source code for a lot of the weird stuff that’s happened in the last 50 years.


Appropriately enough, one of the fans of ZANESVILLE is The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (Norman Carl Odam), who said “Fantastic book!” (bless his crazy heart). The first time I ever heard his proto-punk-psychobilly classic “Paralyzed” I fell on the floor laughing and hit my head. I later saw him play live at a pub in Melbourne, Australia with beer vomit on the carpet and people shooting up in the restrooms and I stopped laughing. He was backed (if that’s the right word) by a local band called Shower Scene from Psycho, and it forever redefined live music for me. Radio show host and author Irwin Chusid’s excellent Music in the Key of Z has more information about this Outsider Pioneer.

That said—with the possible exception of Porter Wagoner’s “The Rubber Room”—my nomination for the all-time Number One over-the-edge anthem is a thing called “Good Times” by a long forgotten and probably prosecuted / institutionalized Texas garage band called Nobody’s Children. I found it on a Rounder Records vinyl called “High in the Mid Sixties Volume 11” and it is a MUST have. A large shot of Thorazine and a net are waiting for the vocalist when the song’s over, and he knows it. He hears voices—and it ain’t the studio engineer. Then there is that behemoth guitar riff that sounds like some radioactive monster on a rampage in the desert. Find this record.


Finally, ZANESVILLE is not only a tribute to certain strands of music, it’s a salute to those mysterious ministers that introduce the choir—the DJ’s. When I was a white teenager growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d listen to Nick, the High Priest of Soul, the late night DJ on KSOL. Like the enigmatic Super Soul character that Cleavon Little plays in the movie Vanishing Point, he was a guide for me. He’d play the smooth soul hits of the day, and then intermingle more obscure work by people like Richard “Dimples” Fields and then some South Chicago blues guitar of Albert King.

From Wolfman Jack to the remote authority figure that Bruce Springsteen conjures in State Trooper, pleading to be “delivered from nowhere,” the late night DJ is a deep part of modern American mythology. Alternative and student station DJ’s introduced me to Portishead and Eels, and a host of other artists I might never have really heard—because timing is everything.

Whenever I think of the effect I would love my writing to have, I flash back to a Florida to California run—coming into Huntsville, Texas, 92 degrees at midnight, all the windows in the car down, air conditioner busted, girlfriend asleep. And then someone calling herself “Queen Mona,” on a chickenbone and copper wire radio station out in the piney woods, puts on Little Bobby Parker’s “Blues Get Off My Shoulder.”

That’s what we’re talking about.

see also:

The novel's website
The author's website
Drinks With Tony interview with the author interview with the author

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


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