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March 6, 2009

Book Notes - Jim Tomlinson ("Nothing Like an Ocean")

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

Jim Tomlinson's first story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, drew comparisons to the works of Flannery O'Connor and Alice Munro. Tomlinson's second collection, Nothing Like An Ocean, captures the essence of a small Kentucky Appalachian town in its stories, weaving a tapestry of conflicted lives that everyone will find familiar.

In his own words, here is Jim Tomlinson's Book Notes essay for his short story collection, Nothing Like an Ocean:

The stories in Nothing Like An Ocean are set, for the most part, in the fictional community of Spivey, Kentucky. So think bluegrass, think roots music from the get-go. They are stories of school teachers and copper thieves, of immigrant laborers and maimed Iraq War vets, of pedigreed show rabbits and rescue greyhounds, of church dances and single mothers working long factory shifts. They aim to be, at their core, about what William Faulkner famously called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”

How does music play into the fiction? Sometimes it becomes a distinct story element. Sometimes it’s part of the background mood. It might be counterpoint to what is happening on the page, or it might be ironic comment. Sometimes the music is simply an invisible influence. Meryl Streep says that for every role, she finds a secret something about her character, something no one else knows, and that by playing against that small thing, she imbues the character with a dimension beyond the words in the script. Writing with music in mind is that way. A writer knows what songs play on a character’s radio and in her head, what tune she hums at the kitchen sink, what songs can move her feet to dance or shatter her heart. But these are things the writer often does not tell. They are part of the character’s texture, those unwritten bits that make characters seem real and round.

The collection’s title story, “Nothing Like An Ocean,” is concerned with the aftermath of tragedy, the dynamics of blame and guilt, and the slow beginnings of healing. The music playing at an over-forty singles mixer dance attended by Alton Wood and his sister Faye includes period-appropriate songs: Olivia Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow?”, followed by Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home.” The music at first soothes Faye’s mental state and then re-ignites her fears.

“Angel, His Rabbit and Kyle McKell” has no music on the page. But music flows below the surface. Dempsie, the young camera store clerk, is learning photography. She likes those nice bright colors of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”. Everything, she believes, can be made beautiful in pictures. Then her friend, Kyle McKell, returns from Iraq with wounds and a high tech prosthetic leg. He struggles with the scars and with buried rage, which, once exposed, might sound like the angry snarl of Steve Earle’s “Rich Man’s War.” At least I imagine it that way and hope the reader does, too.

“A Male Influence in the House” opens with adolescent Robert at the bathroom mirror enjoying a Travis Bickle moment. You can almost hear Rancid’s “Travis Bickle” blam-blam-blaming in Robert’s head. Meanwhile Lynette, his single, motorcycle-riding mother, contemplates a future with her boss from the local electronics factory. People there are talking, and she sees herself as Bonnie Raitt, eager to give them all “Something to Talk About.” And her brother, Jerry, the household’s recently introduced male influence, is busy stripping copper gutters from an upscale log cabin in the woods and loading them into his pickup truck. Surely a Hank Williams, Jr. tape plays in the tape deck, “A Country Boy Can Survive.”

Fifteen-year-old Katy Davies has been sent from her mountain home to live with relatives in “Singing Second Part.” To audition for the choir in the new church, Mr. Widicus asks her to sing the third verse of the hymn “In The Garden,” to sing it in second part harmony. As a girl who grew up singing in the shape note tradition, Katy does it easily. Maybe she even owns the Elvis Presley record. Later at a weekend Southern Gospel Singing in Evansville, there will be other styles of music, and Mr. Widicus will show a darker side. But that will come later.

In the story “Overburden,” Ben, who is fifty-four and about to become a father again, drives with his pregnant wife Sarah from Arizona to Kentucky for a craft fair.” They plan a nostalgic visit to the mountainside where they first met. On the trip, they listen to satellite radio, all the old songs on a single station—Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles. But when they get there, the place where they met is gone, the mountain leveled, and the rubble—the overburden—dumped into adjacent valleys. On the porch of Harlan and Minnie McKesson’s home, you can almost hear Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band playing “The Mountain” to mourn what is lost.

Quilla Coe, a mousy bank clerk, shares her growing infatuation with artist Georgi Vijov, a stranger in town, with the owner of Rita’s Huddle In Cafe in “So Exotic.” As Quilla’s fascination with him grows, Rita is reminded of a youthful romance of her own, the tobacco plants in bloom and hummingbirds everywhere, a sweetness patterned after that evoked by the “A Taste of Honey” recorded by the young Barbra Streisand.

“Rose” is story of love and loss told in exactly one hundred words. A married couple’s deliciously rich relationship is sketched in a line or two. A longer version would certainly include John Prine and Iris Dement and their playfully scrumptious version of “In Spite of Ourselves.”

Denton Weeks, who is heartsick over losing Alyssa Larkin in “Birds of Providence,” uses music as his life preserver. “When he’d overdosed on remembered love, when he felt completely pathetic, he’d slip his favorite Steve Earle disk into the car’s CD player. He’d kick up the volume, hold on, and let the music rescue him.” The music that truly informs this story, even though it isn’t mentioned on the pages, is the classic “Love Hurts,” as recorded by Gram Parsons and a young Emmylou Harris. Dent experiences every love-ache in their voices in his scarred heart.

“The Persistence of Ice” was inspired by a Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” This somewhat madcap account of events is the teacher’s version, rather than the students’, as they are related in a letter to his father.

Another story inspired directly by music is “Shadow Flag,” which takes its title and theme from a lyric in “Garden” by Pearl Jam. “I will walk...with my hands bound/I will walk...with my face blood/I will walk...with my shadow flag/Into your garden, your garden of stone.”

Finally, there is “Berliner,” the story of Aurie Childress. During his Army days in 1948 Berlin, Childress sang with the Army band. He was known as “The Blond Sinatra.” Years later, a letter arrives from Eva, his former lover. It reminds Aurie, now an Ohio car dealer, of his glory days. He realizes that those months were the highlight of his life, that the day in 1948 that he sang The Star Spangled Banner to a huge Berlin crowd was the peak. Everything since then has been downhill. He decides to make a radical change, to leave his wife, to bring Eva to this country. He’s convinced, in his misguided and delusional way, that it’s what Frank Sinatra would do. Sinatra won’t record “My Way” for another four or five years, but already that song’s rhythm, attitude, and raw determination pulse through Childress’s veins.

Now that I’ve written where the music appears in individual stories and what music had direct influence, I’m wondering where the John Gorka songs show. Surely they must, because I listened to him incessantly while I was writing. The same is true of the earthy Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, and John Mellencamp. Surely some distilled essence of their music permeates the book, informs these stories and textures them in subtle ways. How could they not?

Jim Tomlinson and Nothing Like an Ocean links:

the author's website
the author's book tour
publisher's page for the book
a story from the book ("Angel, His Rabbit, and Kyle McKell")

Orgrease Crankbait review

Goodreads page for the author
Goodreads page for the book
Louisville Courier-Journal profile of the author
Pen on Fire interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
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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