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May 23, 2008

Book Notes - John Brandon ("Arkansas")

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

John Brandon's debut novel Arkansas follows two low level drug runners, Swin and Kyle, as they forge their lives in the wilderness of Arkansas. Brandon's narrative breathes life into not only the two protagonists but also the ancillary characters, and draws the reader into their worldviews effortlessly. Arkansas is an amazingly crafted debut novel which happens to have my favorite book cover design of the year.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"Picaresque, sly, bitterly funny, the novel hooks us at once with its blithe, cutting insights, many of them throwaways: "Most adults, [Swin] noticed, had little range to their personalities." "Like all small men who can fight, you are thought of as crazy." "The [car] seat would not recline at all; it forced Kyle into the posture of a responsible citizen who trimmed his azaleas and bought cleats for needy punks." These boys are damaged, shrewd, often painfully right. We can't not care for them."

In his own words, here is John Brandon's Book Notes essay for his novel, Arkansas:

Many of the folks in Arkansas don't care much for music, and that, as much as anything else, shows they're not right in the head. Whether Kyle would want me to, I've compiled a playlist--a few songs in honor of certain characters, a few fitting the overall feel, a few in honor of the state itself.

Note: There is a song called, I guess, 'YOU AIN'T A NOVA SCOTIAN,' or maybe 'YOU AIN'T A NOVA SCOTIAN IF YOU DON'T LIKE FISH' that appears in the book. Swin and Johnna go see a band made up of Canadian children and they sing it. Though I couldn't find it anywhere (anywhere being i-tunes), it's a real song and the band of Canadian children is real. The song includes a list of seafoods that's fun to sing along with.

IT AIN'T NOBODY'S BUSINESS Mississippi John Hurt

There's a scene in which Kyle and Swin are driving somewhere and Swin wants to hear a specific blues song. This is that song.


In honor of Ranger Pat Bright. A soft song for a hard man. Very soft, very hard. This one fits. An eerie amount of the lines seem meant for Bright.

LOST HIGHWAY Willie Nelson & Ray Price

The old title of the book was 'The Highways of Arkansas.' The characters spend a lot of time on the road, and it seems to be the road these fellows are warning us about.


For Swin, man of many tainted futures.

ARKANSAS Oscar Brand

This song is excellent and funny. That's what I was going for, and I think the song whipped me.


Couldn't dig up the composer, but everyone agrees it was written in the late 1920's. Johnna would choose this, bless her heart. I'm a Gator, myself, but everyone should have a soft spot for the Razorbacks, despite their rewarding Bobby Petrino for his rascally ways.


I was only half convinced about choosing either of these, so they have to split a spot. PEOPLE ARE STRANGE seems a bit easy to me, on-the-nose or something, and BUST YO SHIT I thought I might be including just because I don't have another rap song. The themes are pertinent, though--people seeming strange in the first case, revenge and whether or not to take it in the second. And the beat in BUST YO SHIT is one of the best around. Come to think of it, I was right; these two songs are only on this list because I like them.

ARKANSAS Jim Hightower

There are numerous songs with the word Arkansas in the title. This is one of them. I hear this playing whenever Kyle and Swin are driving somewhere, bored.


This has nothing to do with the content of the book. While I'm writing, I can't listen to music with lyrics, because I'm easily distracted. The best option, I've found, is beats--hip-hoppy beats, not anything manic. If you find the right one, it should wire you up and smooth you out at the same time, make you feel efficient.

HONESTY Billy Joel

Nick gets this song caught in his head and it makes him more deranged than he already is. Go ahead, listen to it a dozen times straight. See how you do.

DOWN IN THE ARKANSAS Jim & Jennie & The Pinetops

My book has a beautiful cover, and I hope people judge the quality of the story by that cover. With that said, is it so wrong to like a band's name a lot? It's a cool song, too.

IT'S EXPECTED I'M GONE Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy

I put Kyle last. This song has few lyrics, and it sounds like it's spilling out of itself, like it's a bit warped. Consider the lyric, 'I make certain that my head is connected to my body.' That's what Kyle does. Better than anyone.

John Brandon and Arkansas links:

the book's page at the publisher
buy the book at the McSweeney's store

A.V. Club review
Arkansas Times review
Fantasybookspot review
Popmatters review
Portland Mercury review
The Rabbit I Pulled Out of My Hat review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Splicetoday review

identity theory interview with the author
Los Angeles Times' Jacket Copy interview with the book's editor
Subtropics interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
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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