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September 12, 2006

Book Notes - Patrick Somerville ("Trouble")

Patrick Somerville's debut collection of short fiction, Trouble, gives insights into the lives of seemingly ordinary boys and men. The protagonists are generally contemptible, but perversely charming, funny, and always interestingly drawn. Somerville's dark humor always rings true in this collection.

In his own words, here is Patrick Somerville's Book Notes essay for his debut collection of short fiction, Trouble:

I'm what you might call a sloppy music person, and I usually invite the disdain of dedicated music fans by my piles of scratched CDs, frequent confusion of song lyrics, and density regarding music references. But I'd like to think that whatever I give up in panache and coherence, I make up for in fierce dedication to particular songs, artists, and albums that have nothing whatsoever in common. When I was in college, my car only had a tape player, and this meant—because of aforementioned sloppiness—I would end up listening to the same tape months and months on end. I had a serious relationship with a girl for most of my junior year, and yet somehow, Marvin Gaye's greatest hits album outlasted us. Driving from Green Bay to Madison, I once became what I can only call hypnotized by Thelonious Monk's Underground and missed my Fon du Lac exit; I drove about twenty miles in the wrong direction—this on a drive I have probably made fifty times in my life—humming along and wondering whether it was possible that deep down, Charlie Rouse hated Thelonious Monk.

I listened to a lot of music while writing Trouble, and a good number of songs made it into the stories, too. Here's a quick and sloppy rundown:

'Round Midnight, Thelonious Monk
I understand that this is perhaps the most pretentious musical reference possible, and now I’ve done it twice. (In my defense, I didn’t even considering saying just “Monk.”) Jim Funkle, the narrator of “Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow,” has a preoccupation with what he considers to be high culture, and he not only recognizes “’Round Midnight” coming from the PA system in a banquet hall, but recognizes his own inferiority in it—something like God’s voice saying: “You will never achieve this level of expertise.” It sounds pretty, but it hurts, too. This is my experience whenever listening to super-talent or reading super-talent—basically, what is obviously more talent than I have.

Blue Breakbeats, Grant Green
Grant Green is my favorite guitar player, and I think that it has something to do with his sense of humor. Of course it’s possible he wasn’t funny at all in real life, and I’m only wishing and hoping (is it possible that your sense of humor and your personal aesthetic are the same thing?), but if that’s the case, he’s still my favorite guitar player. No one else can get away with playing two notes seven-hundred times in a row without becoming boring. And I’m telling you, it’s funny that he plays those notes so many times in a row. And funky. Crisp, clean, and still raw.

In “Black Earth, Early Winter Morning,” the narrator’s father plays Grant Green at a holiday party and comments on Grant Green’s sad trouble with heroin. I had been waiting to mention two things in a short story for some time: Grant Green and the Packers’ 4th and 26 debacle against Philadelphia in the 2003 playoffs. In “Black Earth,” I got to do both.

One other interesting note about Grant Green and the book. I wrote “Crow Moon” and “English Cousin” in the fall of 2002, while living in the most rancid, horrible, disgusting little apartment ever constructed. I won’t get into the details. But I lived below a man named Oscar, who had some kind of sleeping problem, and he used to keep me up at night, walking around his living room. One afternoon, outside in the snow, he asked me about the version of “My Favorite Things” that I sometimes listened to, which he’d heard through the floor. This was Grant Green as well. I immediately burned him a copy of the song, thinking that if I did something nice for him, it wouldn’t be so bad for me to go up and ask him to stop making so much goddamned noise at night.

This plan didn’t work at all, but still, the results were kind of nice: a few times in the spring, he played it, and while he played it, he danced, shouted, and clapped. He was still loud, but at least he was listening to my song.

Things Fall Apart, The Roots
This album came out my sophomore year of college, and my roommate and I both bought copies on the same day; I came home from class and heard it playing in his room, and so instead of opening mine, he and I sat out on the balcony and smoked cigarettes and listened. I was worried it didn’t sound enough like Do You Want More. Little did I know it was destined to take over my car for eight months (in cassette tape form) and become one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all time. Yes I’m white and from the suburbs.

Things Fall Apart never makes a direct appearance in Trouble, but by the time I was twenty-four, when I was first writing the book, the tracks from the album had become so burned into my brain that I could listen to them as a kind of noise-filter and not get distracted by the music.

Maybe this is an inauspicious place for your music to end up. Sorry Roots. Let me say it another way: it made me comfortable.

One Note Samba, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz
You’re beginning to see how much I like notes repeated again and again in interesting ways. But beyond that, I just love Jobim, and listened to him a lot in college; Stan Getz playing the Getzaphone is his musical soul mate. One of the scenes in “The Future, the Future, the Future” ends with Dan and April, who are living together in a small New York apartment, dancing. In my head, they were dancing to this song, even though I didn’t write it into the story. I was, however, remembering a moment I had with an old girlfriend, when some spontaneous “One Note Samba” dancing erupted in my living room in the middle of the afternoon. In college, things like that happened frequently. I had no idea how to dance appropriately. She kind of did. It’s a fond memory.

Shady Grove, Doc Watson
Back in 2001, Alexis, who is still my girlfriend today, made me a tape to listen to as I drove from Wisconsin to California, on my way to live in San Francisco. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s version of Shady Grove was on the tape, and it sparked a memory of a Doc Watson CD I owned but had not listened to. Once I got to California, I became obsessed with Doc Watson, and, of course, he took over my car stereo. When I moved to Ithaca, I kept listening to him, and I think it’s a safe bet that every single story in Trouble got a little dose.

I mention “Shady Grove” in particular because 1) I like to play guitar when I’m finished writing for the day, and most days in Ithaca I kicked off the session by playing along to the Doc Watson version, and 2) the lyrics are so f*cking weird. “When I was a little boy/I wanted a Barlow knife/Now I got little Shady Grove/To say she’ll be my wife”? Really? What is the relationship between those two things?

Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd
Now I have truly revealed myself to be a backwater fool. But I don’t care. I loved Pink Floyd when I was a teenager, spent many days and many nights listening to and thinking about The Wall. I can’t say it taught me anything about life, but it did teach me about the dangers of stoned conversations regarding the size of the universe. You’ll find this very thing happening in “So Long, Anyway,” long before the narrator has learned that being cool and not being cool are social fabrications, and dumb.

see also:

The author's website
Reviews of the book
"The Unrealized Subversive Fantasies of a Medium Pizza" (short story)

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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