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November 30, 2006

Book Notes - Greg Downs ("Spit Baths")

The University of Georgia's Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction has proved to be a good barometer to my literary taste. I have read almost every honored book, and have yet to be disappointed. When Greg Downs' debut collection of short stories, Spit Baths, arrived, I read it in one sitting, directly after opening the parcel.

Downs' characters often straddle the old and new South, and wear their geographical location as a birthmark. These stories sit proudly on my bookshelf next to George Singleton's Drowning in Gruel and Sidney Thompson's Sideshow as evidence that the southern short story is alive, well, and evolving. Flannery O'Connor would be very proud.

In his own words, here is Greg Downs' Book Notes submission for his collection of short stories, Spit Baths.

The characters in Spit Baths listen to the radio compulsively while they fight with their ex-wives and eat bacon fat with their grandparents and plot their escape from central Kentucky, but they almost never listen to music. Usually, the radio is playing a Cincinnati Reds game, or occasionally news reports on assassinations and other national tragedies. I blame my wife, an attorney, who put a healthy fear of copyright violations in my heart, but even more my tone-deaf, tin-eared family.

I think they liked listening to sports on the radio because they didn't have to worry about a guitar lick or a drum beat getting in the way of their funk. By which I mean not James Brown-style funk, but the kind of morbid and gloomy mood that settled over our kind of people in Central Kentucky in the 1980s, as their towns continued to die, and a whole pantheon of deities like Johnny Bench and Tom Seaver and Tony Perez aged into mediocre, human form and then disappeared, and even closer to home our beloved UK Wildcats fell into mediocrity and then probation.

So these aren't songs the characters in the stories would listen to. But these are songs that get at the mood I was aiming for in these stories--small-town suspicions and family feuds and the sense that the world is rotting under your feet with no new world yet in sight.


1. "Adam's Curse" (audio reading): "Bastards of Young" (The Replacements)

This story is my version of Paul Westerberg's iconic, graceless scream, and of The Replacement's bitter mythologizing. In "Adam's Curse," a group of women decide to live without men, and so expel all their men from their lives, including the story's narrator. "No pacts, no summits, no negotiations, they simply exhaled the men like sighs." It's a story about turning family into myth, and about becoming an adult in the knowledge of your own limited fate. And it's also about speed chess, which is as good a way of learning the limitations of your fate as any.


2. "Black Pork" : "Pledging My Love" (David Allan Coe)

The prologue of this song is set in the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio, which is very close to the part of Ohio I was working with in this story. The main characters--a failed baseball pitcher, his dying grandfather, a softball coach who lives next door, and her prodigy daughter--are trapped in a forgotten part of Ohio, and yet they do sing in their chains like the sea. And I think the main character--a boy who is in love with his neighbor and who loves her enough to hope that she for her own sake will not love him--would sing this song, if he could.


3. "The Hired Man" : "Sure Thing" (Marah)

I heard this song live for the first time at the North Star Bar in Philadelphia. Marah are local Philly guys, mostly, and lead singer Dave Bielanko dedicated the song to his brother Serge, who had just married. It's a jarring song, about tough people opening themselves up to vulnerability. Not despite but because of the "blood upon my hands" and the "devil dressed up in my past," the singer tells a lover that he wants to "give myself to you," to be a "sure thing, that's for sure." "The Hired Man" is a story about similarly flawed and vulnerable and improbable lovers. An illiterate and toothless farmer who stands in for George Washington after Washington (fictionally) dies in 1777 and ends up successfully wooing Washington's widow. A history teacher who pretends to believe in the country that he doubts. A white man who covers up what he discovers about his wife's black family. It is, like the song, about love after the loss of the illusion of innocence.


4. "Snack Cakes" : "People Who Died" (Jim Carroll)

It's hard to imagine a song the main characters would like less than Jim Carroll's ode to dead friends, but it's a good match, even if they wouldn't think so. "Snack Cakes" follows an old man as he leads his grandson on a parade of his ex-wives. These encounters leave them with the kind of resignation that Jim Carroll's characters would have recognized. The story ends in the town cemetery, sitting on top of the plot that holds one ex-wife, and both the grandfather and his grandson dream of escape, not through the drugs Jim Carroll's characters use but through drugs much older than those, sugar and fat.


5. "Spit Baths" : "Look at Miss Ohio" (Gillian Welch)

In "Spit Baths," a woman wants to remake her life, "to do right but not right now" and to drive (though to Springfield, Missouri, not Atlanta) to "live out that fantasy" and in doing so she tears her young son from the grandmother who loves and lives for him. It's about the pain that comes with doing what you want to do or even need to do, with being a selfish dreamer, in Tennessee Williams' famous phrase.


6. "Field Trip" : "Chill Out Tent" (The Hold Steady)

"Field Trip" is a dream story, one of a couple in the collection. In this one, a teacher realizes that his school is taking a field trip to his old house, populated for the first time in decades by the father who abandoned him and by the girlfriend he abandoned. Like The Hold Steady's song, it's meant to be funny and claustrophobic and a little sickening. "Chill Out Tent" is also surprisingly moving, partly because it doesn't indulge any self-pity. That's a hard lesson to learn, and one I had to teach and reteach myself in these stories.


7. "A Comparative History of Nashville Love Affairs" : "For You I Will Pretend" (Farmer Not So John)

Like some of the Nashville deities this story describes (Hank Williams, Frank Goad Clement, Andrew and Rachel Jackson), this Music City band is defunct. Knowing that pessimism proves out in the long run, but struggling to be optimistic anyway is the single most difficult aspect of love, at least for me. The story's narrator feels the presence of doom, yet does not want to let that despair color his love for his wife. The song catches this feeling perfectly: "I'm not optimistic, but for you I will pretend."


8. "Indoor Plumbing" : "Berks County Boy" (Frog Holler)

"Indoor Plumbing" describes the painful and complicated way love and hate get tied together in ways that don't make sense. A man remembers with affection and also discomfort the way his grandfather taught him to piss in stalls, not urinals, to separate himself from black people. The story is also about the impossibility of conveying those types of mixed feelings to the people you love, particularly to the main character's wife, who is disgusted by the tale. There is a part of the old Rust Belt that is now more Southern than the South, if by Southern we mean what we used to mean: A life grounded in the presence of defeat. Reading, Pennsylvania, is only about 60 miles from Philadelphia, but the hometown boys in Frog Holler play some of the best Southern music around. It isn't Southern just because they use banjos; it's Southern because it's about taking pride in places that don't necessarily deserve it, because it's about loving a place that's not only flawed but defeated.


9. "Freedom Rides" : "Labor Day" (Dead Milkmen)

"Freedom Rides" is one of two stories about field trips gone nightmarishly wrong. They are also the only two truly unrealistic stories in the collection, and yet they are the two that people--especially teachers--most often tell me ring true. During my first field trip as a teacher, I forgot to read the description of our undertaking, dressed normally, and ended up trudging my only good pair of shoes through knee-deep mud while rain blasted a miserable island off of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where we had ventured for the noble purpose of showing our students a movie set. I spent hours wringing rain out of my slacks (one of two pairs that I owned.) The shoes I threw away. The rage at hating something that is allegedly a holiday, and the recognition that this rage was ludicrous, is what I have always liked about "Labor Day."


10. "Ain't I A King, Too?" : "Puttin' People on the Moon" (Drive By Truckers)

Like the narrator of "Puttin' People on the Moon," the main character in "Ain't I A King, Too?" knows that he is no one. But then he encounters a group of people who think he is someone, because he resembles the just-assassinated Louisiana kingfish Huey P. Long. As he accompanies a motley band of rednecks to Baton Rouge for Long's funeral, the narrator knows what they don't: that despite his looks he still is nobody, and this gives him a certain freedom to lie to them, and to escape. The certainty that no one cares about you and your kind is something that the Truckers get at in song after song. That alienation doesn't produce outrage or any kind of organized politics; it makes for a kind of hard-edged nihilism, a sense that you should live life on your terms since no one will notice anyway. If being Southern means living with the constant awareness of the presence of the past--the real past not the Dollywood version--the Truckers at times seem like the only Southern band the South has left.

11. "Domestic Architecture" : "La 'Elima" (Israel Kamakawiwo'ole)

In "Domestic Architecture," a boy is yanked out of one past-drenched place in Tennessee to a place where the past is even more troublesome, the islands of Hawai'i. This song by the late, great Iz is the story of a tragedy and a miracle: The destruction of a famous old Hawaiian fishing village in 1868 by an earthquake and tsunami, and the unexpected survival of the town's children when they hid for five days in an upland cave. The boy in "Domestic Architecture" is trying to find his own path out of the storm.


12. "Hope Chests" : "Buckeye Mile" (The Junkers)

Central Kentucky, where I lived as a boy, and Middle Tennessee, where I went to high school, may be the only places in the world that construct a mythology around Ohio. The glamour of Cincinnati, the power of the Reds, the whispers about the beer-drinking Germans made Ohio a strange and magical place when I was a child. I could not imagine that I would ever live in a place as extraordinary as Ohio. Boy, was I surprised. In this story, I got my revenge on the Buckeye State by exiling a character there into almost exactly the kinds of doldrums that we Kentuckians knew all too well, and then bringing them back, defeated, to Kentucky. Apparently I wasn't the only one with an Ohio complex. In this song by the now-defunct Madison band The Junkers, an old high school classmate of mine sings, "Baby forget Ohio/Remember me." I'm all about forgetting Ohio.


13. "Between States" : "Nashville to Kentucky" (My Morning Jacket)

In "Between States," a woman returns to her hometown on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee after decades away. Finding that everything about it has changed--not just the stores and population but even the street names and numbers--she sets about trying to change it all back personally, and in the process goes crazy. My Morning Jacket, good Kentucky boys, describe the conflicted views of home in many of their songs, but particularly in "Nashville to Kentucky." My book is about the reverse leg of that trip, Kentucky to Nashville, the flow out of the old towns of Central Kentucky into the city we not always so lovingly called Nation-ville or Nash-vegas.


14. (blank page at the end) "My Old Kentucky Home" (Amy Pickard)

The last song on the play list is a version you almost certainly have not heard. Amy Pickard, a Tennessean-turned-Philadelphian, tears apart Stephen Foster's standard and rebuilds it from the studs up. If you listen to Governor A. B. (Happy) Chandler's version (sung at dozens of University of Kentucky Senior Night celebrations) and then Amy's, you can map out the passing of an era within the last 30 years, and also the strange ways that era has been revived in out-of-the-way places like South Philadelphia, which are in some ways now much more Southern than the South is.

see also:

Greg Downs' myspace page
Greg Downs' Wikipedia entry

Small Spiral Notebook review
StorySouth review
Litpark interview
Tennessean interview
Nasville Scene profile of 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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