November 7, 2006
The first story in Sideshow, "The Man Who Never Dies," features an ex-college football player, a county fair, a freak show, and even Bear Bryant, all set in Memphis. Stories don't get much more southern, and author Sidney Thompson effortlessly weaves the south's "sense of place" as a major character into this collection. In a great year for the southern short story, this book stands out.
If SIDESHOW were a movie, with each of the ten stories requiring a song to capture its dominant mood and theme, this would be the soundtrack:
1. “The Man Who Never Dies”: “The Wanderer” (U2 with Johnny Cash)
Old Memphian Johnny Cash is singing from the point of view of the prodigal son: a man who has spent too much of his life wandering away God the Father but who now, having repented, is wandering in search of Him. In the father-son story of “The Man Who Never Dies,” we have a very similar structure of fractured and aimless life (prompted by the narrator’s near-death experience of drowning, due to his father’s neglect), followed by epiphany and redirection. I chose this song as well for the elemental, almost church-like, almost carnival-like, synthesized organ music, since the climax occurs at the Mid-South Fair in Memphis, where the featured freak on the midway is “The Man Who Never Dies,” a man with biblical longevity.
2. “The Floater”: “Nightswimming” (R.E.M.)
“The Floater” is about a specialized sheetrock floater (one who hides all uncomely aspects of seams and nail heads, etc.) who has recently suffered the death not only of his marriage but also of his two prized hunting dogs (lost to a house fire). Now intensely vulnerable to loss and pain, he finds himself in the baffling predicament of being unable to kill. As he rebuilds his house, he hopes to rebuild himself, specifically to his more manly, hunting ways, and he reaches the solution of adopting a dying dog, a poodle with heart worms, in order to kindly put it down himself. His solution has unexpected flaws, and at the end, “He lolled his head back and stared at the unfinished ceiling of night, with all its irregular clouds and clusters, and he wished he could strip off his shirt and swim into the sky, to be unseen and forgotten forever.” It is this final moment of emotional upheaval that R.E.M.’s song captures. According to PASTE magazine, SIDESHOW “is the South seen more through the prism of R.E.M. than William Faulkner.” With that said, how could I leave R.E.M. out of my soundtrack?
3. “The Voyeur”: “Family Tree” (Ben Kweller)
Ben Kweller’s youthful mix of innocence, idealism, mischief, and yearning is the perfect representation of Bruce’s voice. Bruce is the teenage narrator of “The Voyeur,” and his quest, though curious, is not that ignoble; initially, he’s simply driven by the desire to learn why his parents are getting a divorce. Assuming that his mother has been adulterous and determined to prove it, he climbs the tree of his childhood home one weekend night and peers through his mother’s bedroom window. What he witnesses here causes him to uncover unpleasant truths, first about himself, then later about his parents. Ben Kweller sings pleadingly, “You are my family tree/ Be good to me.” Then he sings demandingly, “Take care of me.” Bruce could very easily utter these lines to his parents.
4. “The Chameleon”: “Stranger in My Own Hometown” (Elvis Presley)
Recently divorced, Arnold of “The Chameleon” spends his weekends visiting various bus depots in and around Memphis. He carries a duffel bag of props that help him strike up conversations and make safe, temporary friendships. At the Memphis depot, he always gives an Elvis Presley postcard as a momento to his new acquaintance when it’s time for them to part, and he carefully chooses which card to give, depending on what information he has acquired of the traveler’s interests. For the opening of the story, when Arnold runs across Union Avenue and pushes open the front doors of the depot, I can hear the upbeat, drum-strong “Stranger in My Own Hometown” charging him forward.
5. “The Romanticist and the Classicist”: “Manalyuca” (McCoy Tyner)
For a story about a self-taught black farmer who takes his teenage son with him to kill their next-door neighbor as an instrumental part of his classical education, I thought...jazz. Something sophisticated and stately that combines restraint and outburst, which is therefore both classical and romantic. Hence McCoy Tyner’s brilliant “Manalyuca,” which features Tyner’s piano, with his accented left hand, but it’s also the haunting bass line accompanying him that completes the circular melody and performs the final trick--when, late in the piece, the bassist takes up his bow and strokes a solo with ominous implications.
6. “The Counterfeiter”: “Even the Losers” (Tom Petty)
The protagonist of “The Counterfeiter” is an airbrush artist who copes with his impending divorce (and the likelihood that she is now dating a deputy sheriff) by becoming a counterfeiter, which is what he perceives might just be the epitome of the genuine artiste. And just as he accomplishes his goal, he begins to sing the words of his own self-professed anthem: “‘Even the losers...get lucky sometimes.’” I obsessively played this song while writing this story, making the song, at least for the time, my own anthem.
7. “Ernest, the Bicyclist”: “Born under a Bad Sign” (Albert King)
Ernest is poor and illiterate, a twenty-four-year-old who survives in rural Mississippi on army rations and government cheese sandwiches and lives with his mentally handicapped mother who sometimes mistakes him for her deceased husband. To escape this deviant home life, he runs away on his bicycle with his fourteen-year-old girlfriend, whom he met while collecting aluminum cans for escape money. Mississippian Albert King sings, “Been down since I began to crawl/ If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” The achievement of this sad song represents the achievement of the blues themselves and what I was aiming for in my story, that it’s not actually sad at all but so self-deprecating that it’s oddly humorous, if not defiantly upbeat, punctuated best by King’s proudly cathartic “Ow!”
8. “The Gatherer”: “I Think That I Would Die” (Hole)
Courtney Love perfectly captures the deep hurt, self-righteous rage, and punkish activism of “The Gatherer”’s Lilian, who in the wake of a miscarriage and a divorce, begins to turn against humanity in preference of protecting and collecting animals, both dead and alive. When Courtney Love painfully yells, “It’s not yours/ f*ck you!” it could very easily be Lilian responding to Buff and Freddie, who try to stake claim to a dead deer that she wants to take home for proper burial but that they want to take home to eat.
9. “The Husbands”: “Been Swank” (The Von Bondies)
“Been Swank” opens and ends with a highly charged strut-of-war drum beat and heavy lead guitar strumming. It’s an explosive song that, despite the casualties, openly admits the joy of conflict: “I’ve been set up like the innocent/ I’ve been swank/ And I’m loving it.” Even though the “The Husbands” takes place on the home front, about two army husbands reeling in the absence of their wives, away at war, there are dark ulterior motives of revenge behind one army husband’s desire for friendship with another army husband.
10. “The Aristotelian”: “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” (Bo Diddley)
Obviously, this song is about deception. So is “The Aristotelian.” But they are about more than deception; they are about redemption, when truth is revealed and we prove to have more depth than others first thought. That gives reason, I think, for the song’s earthy, happy rock ‘n roll beat, which the story has as well, being an earthy, happy story, about the gluttonous love triangle between a green-thumbed apartment complex manager and his two new tenants--a gorgeous librarian and her bedridden seven-hundred-pound husband.
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)