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May 23, 2006

Book Notes - Kevin Guilfoile ("Cast of Shadows")

I keep a list of books to read in my messenger bag, and whenever someone suggests something or I read a promising review, I add to the list. Before I started my 52 Books, 52 Weeks project, the list was already unmanageable. Since then, I have begun this Book Notes series, and multiple recommendations are made daily (all of which I am grateful for). As the list begs to be digitized for searches that do not involve page turning, sometimes books get overlooked.

I remember hearing that Kevin Guilfoile, frequent McSweeney's and Morning News contributor, had written a novel. Cast of Shadows, and that the premise was simply amazing. Fifteen years in the future, a fertility expert's pregnant daughter is raped and murdered, and the father uses DNA from the perpetrator to put a face on the man. From the brief plot line, I was skeptical that Guilfoile could pull it off, but the story is crisp and the characters credible. Guilfoile takes on the nature vs. nurture debate and its ethical quandaries, and in the process produced an intelligent thriller. Still, the book is not nearly as harrowing as his previously published effort, My First Presidentiary (which he co-wrote and still scares me over five years since its release).

In his own words, here is Kevin Guilfoile's Book Notes submission for his novel. Cast of Shadows:

There are two different Chicagos in Cast of Shadows, the real one where the story is set and a virtual one where many of the characters lead a parallel online existence. Last fall, a review of the Chicago Noir crime anthology commented that some of the contributors had lived in Chicago and moved on, but that Guilfoile “will probably die there.” I’ve never met that reviewer and I don’t know how he knows that but hell, he’s probably right.

More than half of these songs are by Chicago bands I was listening to and going to see while writing Cast of Shadows. All the songs have some sort of thematic connection to the story or the characters, but there’s nothing more tedious than a writer’s unsolicited explanation of his own work so I’ll try to leave most of those dots unconnected.

God’s Children, The Kinks
One of the things I love about Ray Davies is that I never know when he’s being ironic or sentimental or sarcastic or nostalgic or ambivalent or sincere. Maybe other people can figure it out, but I never can and that’s why I still listen to my Kinks albums again and again, while I can’t even remember the last time I listened to a Beatles song that wasn’t on the radio.

Sometime in the early seventies, The Kinks did the music for a British film called Percy about the world’s first penis transplant. God’s Children is the lead song on the soundtrack and it’s a hummable rant against the unrelenting excesses of modernity. I don’t know if Davies meant it, nor do I care.

Chicago, Sufjan Stevens
I made a lot of mistakes/All things go, all things go. Sufjan Stevens' Illinois album is the kind of thing I’m a total sucker for—an unabashed novelty project executed with such sophistication and intelligence that it knocks you flat on your back. I assume his attempt to make a concept album for each of the 50 states is only half-serious, but his second in the series (after 2003’s Greetings From Michigan) was one of the best records of last year. I suppose the haunting folk track John Wayne Gacy, Jr. would be a more obvious pick to accompany a book with at least two and possibly as many as four killers in its pages, but Chicago is such a perfect song I can’t bench it.

Visiting the Clean Family, Exo
Exo was one of my favorite Chicago bands. Loud, fast, big hooks, smart lyrics, expert playing. Doug Meis could play the chrome off the drums, and when you went to see Exo it was impossible to take your eyes off him. He looked like he was happily possessed by this kinetic, frenetic, chaotic, delirious spirit. Last summer, Doug was killed in the kind of random event that so resists any attempt to give it meaning that it completely exposes the futility of being a fiction writer. Here’s the way reality works: a 21-year-old swimsuit model, apparently trying to commit suicide, drives her Mustang at 70 miles per hour into the back of a Honda Civic in which Doug and two other gifted Chicago musicians are waiting to make a left turn. She lives. Everyone in the Civic dies. It just makes you angry, angry, depressed, and angry.

Last Night On Earth, The Mekons
Legendary Jon Langford adopted Chicago as his home some time ago and he shows up in a bar almost every week as part of one of his many projects—The Waco Brothers, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, The Mekons, I’m sure there are others. Each of them is beyond good. This song makes a pair of cameos in Cast of Shadows, providing a minor clue to the mystery along the way.

Complicated, Poi Dog Pondering
I’m not afraid of death, I’m scared of going through this thing twice. Another Chicago band that was in its prime when I first moved to the city in the early nineties. The irresistible mantra at the heart of this song—wanna get it right this time/wanna get it right this time/wanna get it right this time/wanna get it right this time/wanna get it right this time—is one of the most infectious performance riffs I know.

Son of Sam, Elliott Smith
Sometimes I wonder if Elliott Smith would have been more popular if all of his songs weren’t so damn good. I think the occasional lousy song from your favorite band forces you to reflect on the reasons you like their good songs so much. I heard about Smith’s suicide just after I’d finished writing Cast of Shadows. Like a lot of people I went back through my CDs and started listening obsessively to him, wondering as we always do if there might be some connection between an artist’s talent and his troubles. It’s a stupid exercise, but maybe it helps us cope with the nevertheless painful loss of a person we didn’t actually know.

Inside and Out, Feist
I love that moment when I hear someone interpret a tune I don’t like and it makes me palm my forehead and think, wow, this is actually a good song. Liberated from the Bee Gees’ numbing disco cliches this really is a good one (Moxy Fruvous freed another Bee Gees track a few years back with a terrific a cappella version of I Gotta Get A Message To You). I think it’s for this same reason that I love really smart and well-written genre fiction. When a writer is thinking ahead of me and is able to manipulate my own tired expectations, it can be a genuine head-smacking thrill and surprise.

Uno, Julio Sosa
Marilyn Grandi, the Spanish translator of Cast of Shadows (in Spanish it is titled El Hijo de las Sombras) once said to me, “All the love affairs in the novel seem rather hopeless. They all seem condemned to fail. It hit me as something very postmodern. Even tango-like. Tango lyrics are darkly existentialist: love is hopeless, mismatches inevitable, passions doomed, endings always tragic.” Later, she said, “Actually, it’s this tango called Uno (One/Oneself) which reminds me most of your novel. I’m convinced Discepolo, the author of the lyrics, was thinking of Davis (Moore) when he wrote it.”

Marilyn translated the lyrics for me, which say in part:

One is so alone in his grief,
One is so blind in his sorrow...
But a cruel cold
Worse than hate
Dead end of the soul,
Cursed me forever and stole
All hope...

HIDDEN TRACK: Paint It Black, Los Borrachos
Los Borrachos was kind of a Chicago supergroup which included members from maybe a dozen different bands. They used to play every Wednesday night at the Elbo Room, which was just a few blocks from my apartment. They played classic rock and disco from the seventies and eighties, but the lyrics and stage banter were in Spanish and each song was reinvented with a Latin rhythm. The fact that few if any of the members were fluent in Spanish always gave the evenings hilarious tension, but the music was undeniably terrific—jubilant and danceable. Piecing together a word or two and a piece of melody here or there, it would often take the uninitiated a few moments to realize what familiar song they were playing, and that moment—several bars in, when the crowd roared in recognition—would force a smile this wide across every face. As far as I know, there aren’t any recordings of their tangofied Paint It Black, but on rare occasions I think they still might throw a gig together, just to help you get your existentialist groove on.

Ironsides, Red Elephant
Another defunct Chicago band, with the musicians having moved on to other projects and jobs and, in some cases, other cities. The psychedelic songwriting on this disk is really superior, and even though I have no idea if the title refers to the USS Constitution or Raymond Burr, this will always be one of my favorite songs.

Level on the Inside, Dovetail Joint
I think you can/Reach a place/Where the impetus is pure/You'll understand/A disgrace/Is the thing that makes us feel… This song was a modest hit, climbing up past the middle of one of Billboard’s rock charts, if I recall. It should have been bigger, in my opinion. Just a slick and terrific radio song in every way.

Commie Drives a Nova, Ike Reilly
When I was writing Cast of Shadows I was a Creative Director at the design and advertising firm Coudal Partners and every day I would drop my wife at her office downtown and in the fifteen minutes it took to drive to my office on the west side, I would play the first five songs of Salesmen and Racists, which, if we still lived in the LP days, would constitute one of the great album sides of all time. Reilly’s another Chicago guy and one of the few songwriters of my generation that I’d put in Elliott Smith’s league, although he also seems like the kind of fellow who would punch you in the teeth for comparing him to Elliott Smith or anyone else. Nobody stitches together the clever and the profane better than Reilly and his guitar hooks are roaring beasts. This song makes the list for the line I’ve never seen nothin’ baby better than a commie in a Nova with her panties in her pocket for the ride, which is, unquestionably, a first-ballot Sexy Lyric Hall of Famer.

Whip-Smart, Liz Phair
Phair was raised in the north shore suburb of Winnetka, which was one of the models for the fictional town of Northwood in Cast of Shadows. She became a rock star in the clubs of Wicker Park, where much of the novel’s second-half takes place. Many of Liz’s original fans have turned on her since she’s embraced melody, but I like every one her later albums more then Guyville, which would be evidence enough for most people that I lack credibility on the subject. Liz and I are both in our late thirties, however, which means, in geological terms, that our deaths are imminent. As a result, if we’re going to spend four-and-a-half minutes on a song we want it to be, at minimum, a fun four-and-a-half minutes. On this record, Liz sounds like she’s having fun to me. She probably wasn’t having much fun, considering the pressure she must have been under, but it sounds like it.

Oh Lately It’s So Quiet, Ok Go
Whose house, are you haunting tonight?/Whose name you hiss/Whose clenching fists/Whose house, are you haunting tonight? I’m such a nerd that the first time I became aware of OK Go was when they performed the theme music to a midday arts discussion program on Chicago Public Radio. I love this song, though. Like much of their catchy catalog, this tune would have been comfortable on the radio back when I was in sixth grade sitting next to the radio on Saturday afternoons rooting for the latest Queen and Cars hits to move up the Top Forty.

A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left, Andrew Bird
You’re what happens when two substances collide/And by all accounts you really should have died. I’ve really enjoyed watching and listening to Andrew Bird experiment and evolve over the last decade or so, in and out of jazz and folk and pop and hillbilly swing and whatever else he plays. This song is from his excellent, latest album The Mysterious Production of Eggs. I’m not really sure what it’s about, but it’s the kind of song the younger me, not so close to death, would have listened to again and again, lying on my bedroom floor in the dark, which isn’t to suggest it sounds anything like Pink Floyd, but rather that it’s the perfect song to fade out on—ambiguous, thought provoking, and an odd, eerie kind of beautiful.

see also:

The book's website
Kevin Guilfoile's website
An excerpt from the book

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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