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March 27, 2007

Book Notes - Henry Baum ("North of Sunset")

The Book Notes series has authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Almost ten years ago, I read Henry Baum's chilling novel, Oscar Caliber Gun, and was impressed by his handling of his protagonist, a psychotic murderer. The author had slipped off my radar, replaced in my consciousness by his music output (classified by NPR, "organic folk reminiscent of Will Oldham"). Thankfully, his latest novel arrived in my mailbox last month. North of Sunset, is the rare piece of literary fiction that successfully combines a thriller with a healthy dose of popular culture. As the "Vanity Plate Killer" roams the streets in the novel, Baum's insights into fame, film, and writing are ever present and welcome.

In his own words, here is Henry Baum's Book Notes essay for his novel, North of Sunset:

North of Sunset’s about a celebrity who starts killing people with vanity plates. The Vanity Plate Killer is loose in Los Angeles and the movie star uses him as a scapegoat. Meanwhile, the Vanity Plate Killer is writing a book about the killings and dreaming of his own fame. The novel’s about the ridiculousness of celebrity worship. I guess it’s unsurprising that music should be important to the book. I spent the bulk of my twenties playing drums or bass in bands. I’m also a songwriter. New songs can be found on my blog. Most of my songs are more straight autobiographical than my fiction, where I get to freak out with characters I’ve never known. I grew up in Hollywood so I understand the movie industry somewhat, but I’ve never been a movie star or a serial killer.


John Lennon – “Isolation”

I’ve actually thought about using part of this song as the epigraph: “People say we’ve got it made, don’t they know we’re so afraid.” Basically says everything that the book’s about. The main character collapses under the weight of celebrity. The other epigraph is from Fitzgerald's /Last Tycoon/, "What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story."


Devo – “Uncontrollable Urge”

The main character’s urge is more than one thing: sex, celebrity, and finally, killing people. For him, they’re all part of the same fabric. Sex, drugs, and celebrity don’t make him feel high enough so he has to take it to the next level. “Got an urge got a surge and it’s out of control.” That could be an epigraph too.


Beatles – “I Am The Walrus”

That’s two John Lennon songs. Makes sense that the man from the most famous band of all time, and someone who died violently because of that fame, should play into this. “I Am the Walrus” was a reaction to his celebrity—people over-interpreting his songs and taking them too seriously. Might have been the first instance of cynicism and alienation in his songwriting that would end up with a song like “Isolation.”


Talking Heads – “Psycho Killer”

That’s too easy. And it’s not my favorite Talking Heads’ song. Actually it might be my least favorite from the first four records. But it’s called PSYCHO KILLER. And as I wrote the basic framework of the novel while I was living in Paris, it makes some more sense. Qu'est-ce que c'est.


Love Child – “Cereal Killer”

My brother’s song. Didn’t make it onto their record, "Okay?" Rare, cassette-only song. Kurt Cobain put two of my brother’s Love Child songs on mix tapes listed in his journals. That is cool. The best and funniest song about a serial killer ever written.


No Means No – “Valley of the Blind”

This band’s totally formative to me in every way. I went to high school with the children of Hollywood. It's the reason for my anger and obsession with the place. I moped and listened to punk rock, especially No Means No—songs like "Forget Your Life" and "Self Pity." This song goes right along with the novel and the self-worshiping celebrity who hates his fans, but is more flawed than all of them.

My tribe is the indifferent kind
Stumbling around in the valley of the blind
What are you afraid you’ll see
If you open your eyes and take a look at me

see also:

the author's blog (with music downloads)
the author's myspace page

Ready Steady Book review
Grumpy Old Bookman review
Laura Hird review
other reviews

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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