June 4, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Josh Weil's The New Valley heralds the introduction of a master storyteller to literature. The depth of sadness his intricately drawn characters experience in this trio of linked novellas is only equaled by the exquisitely described settings.
The Believer wrote of the book:
"In these three beautiful novellas, the sky above and the soil below bear witness to stories so elemental and stunningly intricate that they seem carved from hickory. Weil carefully roots out these men from their hiding places, watching over his flock of lost souls with unbounded empathy."
The New Valley, my collection of three linked novellas just published by Grove, is really about silence more than sound: A cattle farmer whose dad has just died lies down in a pasture, his head resting on the flank of a paralyzed steer, engulfed in the vast quiet of the world; a mildly retarded man retreats into isolation as he writes an apology to the jailed husband of the woman with whom he’s fallen in love; an old man struggles to patch the cracks broken open in him by a passage of time that takes from him his loved ones along with his hearing. But when I say silence, I’m not really talking about the absence of sound. I’m talking about what fills in when the usual cluttered noise of the world recedes. For me, silence is what clears a space for thought. And silence has a soundtrack.
I don’t write to music, but I think to it. It’s as important as paper or pen to my jotting down the ideas that reveal a character, that spark a story, eventually make a book. This book is full of the influences of songs. Because, in the end, I think that art – whether music or writing – is largely about taking us out of the world we inhabit and putting us for a moment in another. Here are some songs that helped me get to the world of the New Valley. Here’s the soundtrack to that world’s silence.
1. “Some Summers They Drop Like Flies” – Dirty Three
There’s nothing like Dirty Three to get my mind spinning into the place I need it to be when I’m trying to get into that near-dream-world in which the subconscious climbs up and looks around and whispers to me my best writing ideas. Dirty Three’s music is both delicate and roaring, meticulous and sweeping (with just enough dissonance to keep it from getting mushy) and a piece like “Some Summers They Drop Like Flies” takes me through all of it in ways that build and roll on and build some more and start over. And, luckily for my work on The New Valley (which is set in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia), it’s got a lot of strings going on, just enough fiddle-sound to make me feel a little of Appalachia creeping in.
2. “Owensboro” – Natalie Merchant
There’s more than a little Appalachia in this song – I’m talking twangy guitar and plucked banjo and fiddles moaning – and yet it stays totally clear of the musical cliché of that part of America: there’s no bouncy bluegrass about it; there’s no saccharine twang of pop country. There’s just Merchant’s soulful singing, a lonesomeness combined with a steeliness that, for me, speaks to the feeling of the whole book. And with the working-class theme (“And I worked in a mill/With the rest of the "trash"/As we're often called/As you know”) it’s as good an introduction to the ambience of The New Valley as any.
3. “Follow Me down” – The Lonesome Sisters
If “Owensboro” sets up the world of the book, then this song encapsulates its feeling. Not just the sound of the music (the way the singers harmonize reaches deep into the mountain music tradition), but the intense longing and yearning: this song is all promises to a loved one, but there’s something almost desperate about the fervor with which the promises are made, as if they’re also pleas that the offers might be accepted:
“I will melt like snow on your tongue/And I will hold you like nobody’s done/And I will whisper the world undone….Follow me down/Lay your head into my hands/You been found”
This is at the core of The New Valley. It’s what links the novellas together more than anything else: they’re all stories about men trying to overcome the loss of loved ones and desperate for someone to pick up their hearts again.
4. “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” – Blind Willie Johnson
If you could hum weight on the heart, it would sound like this. Sometimes Johnson sounds like he’s going to make a word out of the moaning, but he never quite does: it’s all plaintive steel string and what can only be described as human-sounds. In “Ridge Weather”, the first novella in the collection, Osby Caudill, finds himself living alone in the old house he and his father used to share, completely isolated on their rural cattle farm, desperate to find a way of having an impact on some life other than his own. His is a quiet desperation made as much of the crows and snow-drifts and newborn cattle steaming in the cold as it is of his father’s recent death. Listening to “Dark Was the Night” I can feel that cold.
5. “I’m On Fire” – Bruce Springsteen
At one point in “Ridge Weather”, Osby tries to break out of his isolation. He drives into town, to a local bar. But, once there, he feels, as much as he wants to, he does not belong amid all the gregariousness inside:
He switched on the radio again. Bruce Springsteen sang, low and slow, telling the night of the way he was on fire. Osby lit a cigarette, sucked smoke, and backed the truck up.
I wanted to use this because of the song’s palpable fervor: it mirrored what Osby was feeling, but was in such contrast with the action he ends up taking. Sometimes that contrast can point up a poignancy, which was what I was going for. And, I mean, come on: how could I not have at least one song by The Boss in there?
6. “Begin the Beguine” – Django Reinhardt
The closest thing Stillman, the main character in the second novella “Stillman Wing”, would have to a theme song would be the ringing in his ears. He has no time for it, just as he has no time for music. But the people around him do, and they are – in many ways – both the grace notes and the bass line of the story, so the two songs I’ve picked to represent this novella are about them: Stillman’s daredevil parents (now dead), his one-time-almost-wife (now gone) and his daughter (who lives like she’s courting disappearance and death, both).
“Begin the Beguine” is actually in a scene in the novella: when Stillman was a little boy his parents would leave him in the gravel lot outside the dancehall in town until, halfway through the night, his mother would come out, smelling of smoke and whisky, and teach him dance steps to the songs the bands played inside. In the novella, they dance to “Begin the Beguine”. There are great versions out there by Ella Fitzgerald and Artie Shaw, but the Django version captures best the reckless, wild, hot feeling that I associate with everything about Stillman’s parents.
7. “Look at Miss Ohio” – Gillian Welch
If that wild recklessness lives on after Stillman’s parents’ death, it’s in his overweight, tough-minded, adult daughter, Caroline. She grabs life by the balls. Then she slings it over her shoulder and drags it where she wants. She’s a good-hearted person who means well, but she’s not about to live by her father’s – or anyone’s – rules. I don’t think there’s a song out there that captures that devil-may-care, “go to hell, I’ll meet you there later, I’m gonna have fun now” attitude better than “Look at Miss Ohio”:
“Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio/She’s a-running around with her rag-top down/She says I wanna do right but not right now”
Plus, it just has such a rocking, thumping, driving beat.
8. “One Monkey” – Gillian Welch
Okay, so I’m kind of in love with everything by Gillian Welch right now. In fact, if I had to pick one artist’s oeuvre to speak for the whole book, it would be hers. If you don’t know her stuff, listen to it. There’s nobody out there like her; trust me, I’ve searched.
This is possibly my favorite song by her, but it also somehow speaks to me of both the main character in the final novella and the way the story in “Sarverville Remains” unfolds. There’s a doggedness to Geoffrey Sarver, an earnest – I’d say almost fearless – determination to get to the bottom of things, no matter how much it hurts. And there’s a relentlessness to the plot that, while I was writing it, felt to me like it was driving forward despite anything I might throw in its way to slow it down. That’s how this song makes me feel: like I’m being pushed forward and pushing myself forward at the same time, all of it so mashed up that by the end I can’t tell the difference.
I’ll give you the refrain here. Once you listen to the song, it’ll be banging away in your head, the way it is now for me: “One monkey don’t stop the show/One monkey don’t stop the show/One monkey don’t stop the show/Whoa, so get on board”
9. “Wolf Among Wolves” – Bonnie Prince Billy
But I’ve got to leave Gillian, at least for a little while. And one artist whose music I love as much, and whose mellowness allows for some of my most productive thinking time – and whose songs fit The New Valley beautifully, too – is Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie Prince Billy). “Wolf Among Wolves” is about displacement from the self, the struggle to fit into roles pushed upon us, a wish to be accepted for who we are:
“Why can't I be loved as what I am/A wolf among wolves, and not as a man/Among men”
That speaks about as clearly to Geoffrey Sarver’s predicament as anything could. A mildly retarded man, he’s kept out of the community of adults and not allowed to fully join the one of children. The only person who makes him feel complete as he is, is the woman he falls in love with. Of course, then he finds out she’s not who he thought she was.
10. “The House of the Rising Sun” – The Animals
I have to drop this in here. It makes an appearance in “Sarverville Remains”, and I can’t read the scene where it does without hearing it in my head. In the beginning of the novella, Geoffrey is in a van with two high school boys waiting in the back lot behind a bar for something to happen (he doesn’t know what it is, just that there’s an aura of elicit, dangerous, excitement about it).
You’ll know it when you see it, Russ said and put on the music. He put it on low. It was House of the Rising Sun. We sat there nodding to it.
Now, there’s just no song out there better to sit in a dark van in the back of a bar nodding your head to, right? All you one-time teenage boys out there, back me up.
11. “Wonder (remastered single version)” – Natalie Merchant
But if you’re not in a dark van behind a bar; if, say, instead you’ve just read this book, and you hit the last page, and you set it down, and you are, of course, overwhelmed and moved and awed (or, okay, maybe you’re just glad the damn thing’s over and your hungry now and you want to listen to some tunes), there’s no better song to bounce around to than “Wonder”. Why? Because Merchant’s still got all that steeliness in her voice from “Owensboro”, but it’s sharpened and shined-up and flashing the light around like crazy. And it fits: for all the loneliness and heartache in The New Valley, in the end its about struggling through and pushing on; it’s about surviving. What makes that survival feel beautiful in each story to me is that, by the end, each character has made a certain peace with who they are. As Merchant’s song says:
“They say I must be one of the wonders/of god's own creation…/I believe/fate smiled and destiny/laughed as she came to my cradle/’know this child will be able’…/’she'll make her way’”
Josh Weil and The New Valley links:
also at Largehearted Boy: