October 9, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Fever Chart is one of the year's most wonderfully dark and entertaining novels, and its protagonist Jerome Coe an unforgettable literary character. Coe's narration is filtered through his mental illness as he weaves through the book's tightly woven plot and the menagerie of interconnected characters that populate this wonderful book. Read this excerpt from the beginning of the novel, I'm sure it will entrance you as well.
HTMLGIANT wrote of the book:
"It’s a dark book. Funny, sure—Jerome has episodes where he hallucinates thought balloons filled with Scrabble tiles telling him what to do—but dark. It’s been compared to A Confederacy of Dunces (even by the publisher), but beyond the setting, I’m not precisely sure it’s a apt comparison. Jerome is surrounded by large characters, but he himself is small, pushed to action and reaction by those around him. Ignatius Reilly pushed his rotundity around, bumping into the world, forcing himself on others. Coe runs from the world, runs from doctors, sleeps under his bed, falls in love with women he will never actually speak to.
Fever Chart is an excellent piece of writing, solid sentence to sentence. I’m enjoying it quite a bit."
In the mid-1990s, when working on the earliest version of Fever Chart, I acquired a late-1970s Pontiac Bonneville equipped with an 8-track player. Even when the automobile was new, 8-tracks had already been hurtling towards obsolescence for some time and, by 1995, when the car became my only transportation around my then-home of western Massachusetts (the top storey of Hell, not incidentally), thrift shops and garage sales were pretty much the only places 8-tracks could be found. And since the magnetic tape inside 8-tracks putresced so quickly, finding working specimens was not easy. Among the operational ones I remember piling up in the passenger's leg-room area of the Bonneville were Al Green's Greatest Hits, Band of Gypsys, Jaco Pastorius, the Annie soundtrack, and a swingy, jazzy thing whose label had blanched to illegibility.
There were others. One day, while idling at a stoplight in the dank city of Pittsfield, Mass., I noticed in the rearview a Cadillac approaching at an imprudent speed. The crash awakened the Cadillac driver, a 90-year-old fellow who should not have been sleeping. His car got totaled. A car between us got totaled. Incredibly, my Pontiac, even with its trunk hopelessly accordioned, worked just fine afterwards.
Except for the stereo. The Dire Straits album that had been parked in the 8-track player at the time was now jammed in there permanently. It still played though, so that's what I listened to. Over and over, scores of times. It was what was always playing in the following months, during which a number of unpleasant things occurred, mostly related to unrequitedness, snow, and soured love.
At an especially bleak moment (also at a stoplight), when I realized I had not the timber for carrying on and decided that cashing in my chips was the most sensible route for all concerned, the Dire Straits song in progress was "Down by the Waterline." It was some moments later, parked in a desolate church parking lot, ready for action, when I remembered that the vacuum-cleaner hose and duct tape that I, as a rule, kept in the trunk of my car for just this kind of emergency despair, was not available because the lid to the trunk had been sealed forever shut by Cadillac Granddad.
Though most of Fever Chart takes place in New Orleans, one or two details of the above recounting found their way into the first chapter.
Here are a few songs attached to the novel in one way or another:
1. Marc Ribot, "St. James Infirmary" (Saints)
I think I discovered this version of the old standard the day I submitted the final draft (of six) of my novel to the editor. For this reason I cannot think of a song I have more positive feelings towards. Similarly, I am moved to syrupy optimism whenever I listen to
2. Bob Log III, "Log Bomb" (Log Bomb),
which was the song playing when UPS came by in the middle of thunderstorm and dropped off two boxes of author's copies of the novel. It was the first time I'd seen the actual book. That was a pretty darn good day.
3. Percy Mayfield, "Louisiana" (A-side of Specialty 432; May, 1952)
I heard this in New Orleans around 1996, on WWOZ 90.7, while showering without soap. (I was out.) It was such a hypnotic, davening kind of song that I didn't realize I'd clenched up my whole body---as if moving would ruin the spell---and didn't relax until the deejay (who I recall sounded like an Irish-Channel Yul Brynner) came on and IDed the song. My muscles ached for days and I ate lot of Doan's pills. It was several years hunting until I found a copy of the single. To this day a loud playing of it makes me feel wet and unclean. In the best possible way.
4. Three Blue Teardrops, "Wished Upon a Star" (Heads Up for 53!)
It's one of those songs that's so right you figure it must be a cover of some classic; something all the best have interpreted at one time or another. But no, it's a completely original rockabilly expression. I can't believe it isn't famous and included on compilations and the like. Hell, maybe it is. I heard it first at the one and only Three Blue Teardrops show I ever went to, in New Orleans, at some now-vanished beer joint under the Pontchartrain Expressway. The place sold icy cans of Pabst at 50 cents apiece, and you were allowed to fall asleep at the bar if there was room. This beer joint---I wish I could remember what it was called!---in conflation with several others, formed the mental model for the novel's fictional barroom, the MoneyMaker, in which some of more adults-only scenes play out.
5. Magic Sam, "21 Days in Jail" (B-side of Cobra 5028; 1958)
A lot of real fear in this song. I can hear it in my head right now, and it makes me want to be good. Law-abiding. Not ever in jail. I recall upon first hearing it thinking this is the best song I've ever experienced, and feeling like the only sufficiently respectful response to its call was to drown myself in the tub. What the song has to do with Fever Chart I can't quite specify, but in my head they are forever snugly collocated.
6. David Isaacs, "Who to Tell" (Collected on Lee Perry's The Upsetter Shop, Volume 2)
A favorite during a creative draught halfway through the first draft of the novel where all I could do was play uncomplicated music, spy on a neighbor I was quite certain was a serial killer, and riot away my writing hours playing internet chess against anonymous French sadists and vicious, cheeky Kazakhs who made sport of my pawn formations. Another good song on the same collection is "Caught You Red-handed" (Take 1) by Eric Donaldson and the West Indians.
7. Sexy Death Soda, "When the Money Falls" (California Police State)
One of the best songs on the only album of a band that an ex-girlfriend turned me onto (an act which has proved her very greatest gift to me). An element of the song was the inspiration for a chapter of the novel in which a seven-year-old New Orleanian art prodigy who paints photorealistic portraits with nail polish sees a Vons on a trip to LA and realizes he'd been kidnapped from a grocery-store shopping cart as a toddler. The editor, during the novel's second revision, had me cut the chapter and cauterize all the remaining flyaway plot threads. I put the chapter aside, with plans to later manhandle it into a short story that could be submitted to a journal or something, but an otherwise charming cat named Henry anointed, with hot tinkle, the travel drive on which the chapter lay fallow.
8. Cake "Friend is a Four-Letter Word" (Fashion Nugget)
The breakup song of the list. Often playing when a woman I was especially preoccupied with during the New Orleans years (references to whom cause Annie, my girlfriend of ten years, to puff up like a nettled moggie) began making it clear without ever really being clear that our thing was over, that the thrill was gone, that a just-friends phase was nigh, and not a moment too soon. It hurt, though I don't blame her a bit---I was a gloomy, zestless, long-distance boyfriend who gambled instead of going to work. Soon after, I piled up everything I owned, except for a frypan, a change of clothes, and a shelf-yard of books, into a big, melodramatic heap out on the corner of Sixth and Baronne, and then sat back and watched the thrift-buzzards skeletonize it. Then I took a one-way nonrefundable to Vegas and lived there for a year. Though neither the woman nor the breakup feature in the novel, the themes of romance frustrated by friendship, and friendship murdered by romance, are central.
9. Guitar Wolf, "Kung Fu Ramone Culmination Tactic" (Missile Me!)
When the novel's main character and narrator, Jerome Coe, first arrives in New Orleans, he (like lots of first-time visitors) is wholly seduced by the city and its whispered promises of sanctuary and bacchanal, sex and contentment, Catholic-style sin and instant absolution, liberty, rest, absurdity, additional sex, mutiny, and laffs; and if his seduction could be aligned with any one occurrence in the real world, it would likely be the sweaty, groupie-crammed, gin-wet Guitar Wolf show (at yet another bar whose name I've forgotten and which is probably gone now) where Seiji, Guitar Wolf himself, an individual so sexy his mere presence could make even the straightest of you boys out there mighty uncomfortable deep down in your pants, beetled far over the lusty crowd and snarled, causing a mostly naked Veronica Lake look-alike to swoon. Swoon.
Bill Cotter and Fever Chart links:
also at Largehearted Boy: