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May 29, 2009

Book Notes - Matthew Vollmer ("Future Missionaries of America")

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

Matthew Vollmer is more than a fiction writer, he is a curator of the carefully drawn, believable characters that inhabit the pages of his stunning debut story collection, Future Missionaries of America.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Vollmer writes with equal dexterity about teenagers and adults, men and women, atheists and believers, Goths and jocks, dropouts and doctors — less interested in getting down any particular demographic, it would seem, than in revealing the humans beneath. Expertly structured and utterly convincing, these stories represent the arrival of a strong new voice."

In his own words, here is Matthew Vollmer's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Future Missionaries of America:

New Order, "Ceremony"

The first story in my collection, "Oh Land of National Paradise, How Glorious Are Thy Bounties," is about a waiter in Yellowstone Park who's running through a geyser basin, feeling guilty about having slept with his best friend's girlfriend, especially now that the best friend, who was hit by an RV, has now died. I wrote versions and versions of the story, but the summer after my wife and I got married I revised this thing so hard I almost went blind. For some reason, I kept listening to George von Pasterwiz's Dreyhundert Themata und Versetten zum Praambuliren und Fugiren (Three Hundred Themes and Versettes for Organ or Piano), which is one of those really cheap classical CDs from Arte Nova Classics. Maybe I was hoping to tap into something universal and timeless. At any rate, it helped me finish it.

If I had to soundtrack this story, though, I'd probably choose this New Order song over baroque classical. I love the icy, triumphant groove that "Ceremony" generates; it seems like an appropriate song for a main character who thinks he might be able to outrun his sadness.

The Roches, "Hammond Song"

In the story, "Two Women," a young woman and her boyfriend spend a summer in Idaho. The boyfriend seems preoccupied by his ex-girlfriend; the young woman befriends an older woman and her adopted baby. The younger woman becomes obsessed with the older woman; the older woman is obsessed with her husband, a poet, who is himself in love with one of his students. People subsequently drink, lie, freak out, and lose their keys.

I can imagine the Roches' "Hammond Song" playing in a lot of these scenes. The song is sweet and folksy, powered by these spooky, otherworldly harmonies. Also, the singers deliver a series of warnings and ultimatums ("if you go down to Hammond/ you'll never come back" and "if you go with that fella/ forget about us"). It's beautiful and weird and eerie, which is what I imagine life to be like for the young woman in this story.

Metallica, "One" and Michael W. Smith "Pray for Me"

When I was 14, I left home to attend a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school and spent the next four years earning average grades, falling in love with girls, and berating myself for not feeling more spiritual. For a long time, I'd tried to write a story set at an Adventist academy, but it wasn't until I came up with the character of Kyle, a kid who isn't an Adventist, has a girlfriend back home who's cheating on him, can't stop thinking about his dead father, and is being forced to dig a giant hole as punishment for pulling the fire alarms and beating the crap out of another kid in his dorm. Because Kyle's into old school metal, I'm sure he loves "One" by Metallica—a song whose intro got played a billion times at my school by anyone who owned a guitar. Then again, he's probably just as likely to have Michael W. Smith's song "Pray for Me" stuck in his head: that ‘80's Christian anthem that makes me remember vespers services and holding hands with pretty girls while singing praise songs.

Ketil Bjornstad, Terje Rypdal, David Darling, Jon Christensen, "Lailia"

A dentist calls his dead wife's cell phone just to hear her voice, then leaves a long message about how terrible his day has been. This story, titled "Man-o'-War," is sort of a deluge of information, and it made me remember a CD I used to write to a lot titled The Sea II— an album put out by ECM, which seems to have an affinity for Scandinavians playing lonely sounding jazz improvisations. Christensen taps out a lot of drizzly sounding percussion on the cymbals, Darling whittles out some forlorn melodies on his cello, Bjornstad tinkers around on the piano, and Rypdal unleashes stormy Hendrix-like licks. I don't know if it's great music, but it's the kind of thing that, if you're driving on a rural road late at night, can help you imagine that you're in a movie where something terrible might happen.

Staind, "It's Been A While"

I wrote "The Gospel of Mark Schneider" after spending a summer as a "field technician" for Purdue University's entomology department. Like the characters in this story, everybody in our crew drove all over Indiana to measure plants or dig up corn roots. We also listened to this kid Mike tell stories about the church he was attending—as well as all the hot girls he banged. I thought I would hate Mike, but it turned out that spending hours in sweltering hot cornfields allowed us to form a sort of camaraderie. Mike, who always insisted on driving and controlling the radio, knew all the words to every metal and/or rap song; you could hear him singing the chorus of Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" as we flicked worms FedExed from Dow Chemicals onto baby corn plants. But of all the songs we listened to that summer, Staind's "It's Been a While," was the one I dreaded most. The lead singer dude, with his nasally baritone snarl, sounded like a cheap imitation of Creed (which was itself a cheap imitation of Stone Temple Pilots, which was a cheap imitation of Pearl Jam). Seven years later, "It's Been a While" still pretty much sucks, but it reminds me of riding around rural Indiana in an old Suburban with Mike, so I don't mind it as much.

Norrie Paramor, "Autumn in New York"

I bought Norrie Paramor's Autumn, an LP of easy listening string music from the 1960s, because it had an interesting cover: some little girls are playing in a leaf-strewn city park, under the naked limbs of black trees. For some reason, whenever I put it on, I imagine an older person listening to it and feeling nostalgic, and the idea of this music bringing back happy memories always makes me feel doomed, because some day I'm gonna be old and listening to the music of my youth and wishing I could relive a bunch of stuff I can barely remember. It's the sort of lonely feeling I had once when I walked into this cabin on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire that wasn't mine—the door was unlocked—and then later, when I started to write "Second Home," about a widow returning to a family lake house, only to find her son there with an older man.

Polvo, "Tragic Carpet Ride"

The main character in "Freebleeders" works at a university lab that performs studies on hemophiliac dogs and pigs. A girl he barely knows arrives to spend a weekend with him, and convinces him that what he needs is a puppy. Turns out the girl's a bulimic shopaholic, and the guy almost gives the dog a heart attack when he repeatedly blows pot smoke into its face. The song here has to be one by Polvo, a now defunct band whose hometown is Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the story is set. Incorporating elements of punk and new wave and Asian and Middle Eastern folk music, Polvo created these angular, woozy, wild songs; "Tragic Carpet Ride" is one of my favorites.

Suicidal Tendencies, "Institutionalized"

The narrator of "Straightedge"—an alcoholic gambler who lives in a motel and "dates" a prostitute named Portia—travels to Atlanta to stay with his ex-wife and her husband, where he watches his son try—and fail to land—an impossible trick at the X games. Even though the narrator's more of a Hall & Oates kind of guy, I could see him trying to listen to a mix CD his son gave him, and bobbing his head to Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized," thinking "okay, I get it" even though he totally doesn't.

Clipse, "Ride around Shinin'"

The song "Ride around Shinin'" by Clipse is a song about bling and cocaine and corrupting female college students. My story, "Stewards of the Earth," is a story about a young woman who attends classes at a Christian college without paying tuition and can't get the image of a beheaded John the Baptist out of her mind. This song and story share almost nothing in common, except for the fact that both are attempting to cast spells over their audiences: Clipse with their looped sample of strummed piano strings, and "Stewards of the Earth" with its disembodied head, which suggests to the main character that she leave her boyfriend (a young man who's obsessed with tracking down toys from his childhood) for a guy named Lorenzo, who wears track suits and a thin beard that looks as though it's been drawn along his jaw line with a Magic Marker, a guy who might very well walk around rapping to himself: "ride around shinin' while I can afford/ plenty of ice around my neck so I don't get nauseous/ float around in the greatest of Porsches/ feel like a chuck wagon cause I'm on 12 horses."

Uncle Tupelo, "Fatal Wound"

I'd read some Barry Hannah and that inspired me to try to write a story (later titled "Bodies") about a grouchy old bastard who, despite his drunken belligerence, ends up being vulnerable enough to rouse up some sympathy in whoever listens to what he has to say. After seeing a little girl on a beachfront arcade who looks like his daughter (who'd been murdered twenty years before) the guy ends up wandering an exhibit of plasticine bodies with a new friend, a trashy waitress who keeps birds. If this guy had a dollar to blow on a jukebox ditty, he'd no doubt choose "Satan Is Real," by the Louvin Brothers, but when I think about him, I hear "Fatal Wound," a song from that Uncle Tupelo album March 16-20, 1992—a sad, pretty, simple song, wherein Jeff Tweedy sings: "columns of sunlight/ and glorious cities/ oceans of opportunity/ and all your decisions seem ancient."

Schubert, "Gute Nacht"

The story "Will & Testament" takes the form of the main character's will & testament, which he has sent to twenty-seven possible executors, all chosen at random from the Manhattan phone book. The will stipulates what is to be done with his belongings as well as the parts of his body—his fat should be extracted an used as fuel for lamps; his brain is to be divided up and inserted into vials, and sent to the companies for whom he has worked. Also, he wants Schubert's Winterreise to be played every year, on the anniversary of his death.

The Smiths, "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out"

In "Future Missionaries of America," an atheist teenage girl (Alex) compulsively writes letters to a fundamentalist Christian boy (Melashenko), who also happens to be her partner in a Health class where they must take care of an unpredictable infant simulator. One night, during an ice storm, Alex and the robot baby get stranded at Melashenko's house. There, Alex discovers that his family couldn't be less like her own, and that he's been keeping a secret from her. The story ends with Alex heartbroken, and I expect that once she returns to her house, she'll dial up this beloved Smiths song, to hear Morrissey croon: "and if a double-decker bus/ smashes into us/ to be by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die."

Matthew Vollmer and Future Missionaries of America links:

the author's website

Bookslut review
Library Journal review
Mary Magazine review
New York Times review
PopMatters review
Publishers Weekly review
Roanoke Times review

Art & Literature interview with the author
Five Chapters story, "Stewards of the Earth" by the author
Fugue story "Second Home" by the author
The Velvet interview with the author
Virginia Quarterly review story, "The Gospel of Mark Schneider" by the author
Writers Read guest post by 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
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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