May 21, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
On the radio program This American Life, Cheryl Wagner delivered several incredibly moving Hurricane Katrina stories. She didn't gloss over the effects of the storm nor the rebuilding efforts, but told her story with stark candidness and surprising, often dark, humor.
Wagner's memoir of her post-Katrina experience, Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around, is in the same vein. The story is about more than rebuilding a house, the allure of New Orleans to its inhabitants is explored from an intensely personal perspective. The tragedies and triumphs as two people try to reclaim their world make Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around impossible to put down.
The Times-Picayune wrote of the book:
"Finally, Wagner and her boyfriend end up with "the dogs, sanity and each other." And we end up with this fine book, with its searing honesty, its gallows humor and its survivor spirit."
Foibles of the Reconstruction
A Book Notes essay by Cheryl Wagner for Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around
Can a person understand a book better if it has a song list? There’s a lot of music living on the page of Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around, so maybe. My book is a three-year tale of a boyfriend and a girlfriend and two basset hounds rebuilding a house and neighborhood after It—the New Orleans flood we’re not supposed to talk about anymore. But I’m no DJ. These aren’t my all-time favorite songs. It’s not even a smooth, well-transitioned list. Sure, you could dance to it. But you might not like how you look.
Chapter 2 - Expedition Pants and Hobnail Milk Glasses
"Ain’t Got No Home" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry is where it all starts. "I sing like a girl. And I sing like a frog." This is a great song for when things get mighty weird.
Chapter 7 - Pit Bull Jesus
The sound of this chapter would be music from before the quagmire. The Sounds of Before is the music that plays in your head while you walk through blocks of empty, wasted neighborhood.
"Walk It Like a Dog" by DJ Jubilee is the soundtrack to the hollow feeling that comes with the silence of miles of ruined, left-behind homes. Finding dead ferrets dried to cages and seeing bed-sheet escape ropes unfurled out attic windows doesn’t sound like horror movie music. Turns out it sounds like bounce rap. This is the sound of where have all the little kids gone? I hope they made it okay. Lil’ Boosie’s "Do Tha Ratchet" would also work.
Another Sound of Before is my boyfriend Jake’s band practicing while I gardened outside. "Condor Man" by Jai Alai makes me think of ruined band vans across New Orleans, sotted in stinkwater and then stranded and left dry rotting across the city for months. Behold Jake’s band van on the curb in front of our house stinking like it was dipped in convenience store coffee. See, a few blocks away, Jake’s prior band van, Dishwasher Pete’s old granola-lesbian-turned-dishwashing-tour van, spray painted by a punk band and waterlogged and hurricane beat to sh*t.
Chapter 9 - Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around
"The Way That He Sings" by My Morning Jacket is the soundtrack to nighttime escape after a day spent toiling in your shell of a life in the depressing muck. This is my friend has a dry apartment and some good music even though we don’t anymore. It’s let’s shut the door to this sadsack world and soak the mold off in this borrowed tub with a basset hound on the bathmat next to me. It’s invite a friend over to not cry and have a welfare cheese party.
Chapter Everything - Random Songs of Construction
I left most of the nitty-gritty details of years of sweaty construction out of the book. I just could not stand writing it after doing it. I doubted any normal, non-renovating reader could either.
But Songs of Construction throughout the book come in several categories. The ones I’m leaving out are songs from when I was the lone female carpenter’s assistant to some bemused dude kicking out the classic rock of New Orleans on a yellow DeWalt boombox. Instead, these songs are songs I got back. And, for a time, they suddenly shimmered and meant more to me than before. These are songs you put on when you’re working alone or with friends. Maybe it’s just PTSD rock. Still not sure.
"Remainder" by the Leels is the kind of rocking lo-fi song from before you saw what you saw that makes you feel better. "Why did we ever come to this place at all?" Indeed. "Holland, 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel-- ditto! "18 Wheels of Love" by the Drive-By Truckers? Well, it’s fun to stomp around the house with a sheetrock stripper in your hand yelling, "Mama ran off with a trucker… Peterbilt! Peterbilt!" Or, better yet, "They got married in Dollywood… by a Porter Wagner lookalike!" Otherwise construction days were all "Now where in the hell did you put those galvanized three-inch screws?" "Find them yourself!" "You lost them!" "No you lost them!" "Screw you!" Peterbilt! Peterbilt!
"Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order is the ‘80s station on satellite radio when your music flooded and now you mostly only have a new battery-operated boombox. It’s also the sound of stuffing insulation between narrow cypress studs with my friend Jeff before he takes a lunch break from The Smiths for a spicy meatbag at Broadview Seafood. As Morrissey always says, "What difference does it make?"
While on the topic of music to scrape, strip, pound, and paint by, here’s a random radio escape song that gets on Jake’s nerves: "Put Your Records On" by Corinne Bailey Rae. This song opens the paint can and scoots me up the 12-foot ladder when I’m sick of everything.
"The First Song" by Band of Horses. What can be more lifting than blasting new music through an empty house on an empty street? There’s two ways to look at your home: flooded piece of sh*t wreck that’s ruining your life or your own personal two-story speaker.
Chapter 19 - Tumbleset
This chapter is "I’ll Fly Away" by Hot 8 Brass Band and all the other songs of mourning.
"Mystifies Me" by Son Volt is when you realize every other day that you still love your boyfriend even though the years of post-storm-torture-stress has been making all the couples you know turn to each other mostly to scream. This is a good song for neither of you have to fix it and it’s okay if it all breaks again.
"Smoke My Peace Pipe (Smoke It Right)" by The Wild Magnolias makes me think about Tootie Montana and his televised heart attack testifying before the N.O. City Council before the storm. It also makes me think of a photograph of little white Adam, excellent kid guitarist and nerd son of a jazz historian, tearing it up on guitar for the Indians a few times when he was fourteen or so. It makes me think all the ways life can have a hallucinogenic quality and how, in New Orleans sometimes, all manner of things are possible.
Chapter 22 - The Happy Dutch
"What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong is kitsch and genius all at once. Since the flood, "What a Wonderful World" is campy and touching and incredibly eerie to me, especially whenever I hear it out of the blue somewhere outside of New Orleans. I’ve heard an oddball Dutch version in Amsterdam that reminded me of death metal. Recently in New York, an old Brazilian man blowing a haunting "Wonderful World" on his horn on the subway accompanied by a grocery cart boombox string section mesmerized me. And was kind of scary.
Chapter 23 - Birth of a Buzzkill
"Three Years Ago Today" by Built to Spill is not afraid to let you know how lowdown life can get. Doug Martsch has a kind of nihilistic-optimistic, just f**k it, pick yourself up and maybe try again philosophy I can appreciate.
Chapter 25 - More About a Neighborhood Than You Ever Cared to Know
"The Littlest Birds" by The Be Good Tanyas-- I just think everyone might feel better if they listen to this song after reading my book.
Epilogue that Never Was
These are my picks from the approaching the four-year anniversary of the mess mark. Music from New Orleans people that makes me hopeful for moving on and shutting the book on muck and reconstruction maybe once and for all. "Constellations" by Heater People and "Bang! Bang!" by The Knux and "Model Ex Citizen by Quintron." It’s the sounds of putting one foot in front of the other and keeping on keeping on.
Cheryl Wagner and Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around links:
also at Largehearted Boy: