June 18, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Alex Taylor's debut short story collection The Name of the Nearest River gathers dark tales of rural Kentucky, of individuals caught in desperate situations. Taylor draws his characters so skillfully that even the most vile garner empathy from the reader.
Alex Taylor is a bold, new voice in American literature. Being Southern, comparisons to Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner are inevitable, but his stories of small town Southern life manage to be both modern and classic at the same time and stand own their own.
Orion Magazine wrote of the book:
"It recalls Cormac McCarthy's dark and violent landscapes, Raymond Carver's minimalist plots and yearning characters, and Eudora Welty's photographic eye and comic sensibility. Flowing from the pen of a lesser writer, such confluences might be a wash, and might seem derivative and diffuse, but Taylor has managed to direct these disparate streams into a mighty river. Through his creative vision and technical artistry, Taylor reminds us of the awesome power of a good story well told."
Chris Knight "Rural Route"
I adore Knight's unsentimental view of country life. He takes a wire brush to the skull of the world and reveals the bone-hard truth beneath. This song in particular is evocative of what I hope comes across through my characters: desperate people surviving impossible loneliness. Indeed, the darkness is thick. During my running days, those times when I was a wild teen riding the country in my first pickup--a white 1990 Isuzu, in case you're wondering--I'd drive for hours through what seemed to me the most sublime and empty landscape on earth. Hills ruptured by drag lines, woods once ancient and now gone to ruin. And I suppose I adored the white melancholy of those days, me as the lone wolf careening down the maw of life, unaware of exactly what was occurring inside me but, as James Dickey would have it, 'wild to be wreckage forever.'
Ernest Tubb "Thanks A Lot"
My grandma was always playing old country standards on her record player. This one came out of the ether one night and I wrote the story "At Late or Early Hour" about an aging mother who plays a hand in her husband's demise. Tubb's voice is rust water seeping out of the cratered dirt. The song itself is a bitter address to a lover who has gone, leaving the ballad's narrator lost and injured, perhaps beyond repair. Perhaps more than any other song, this one from The Texas Troubadour helped build a tale for me, the chords and melody leading me straight to a plot and a character. Tubb is a conjure man in my view, perhaps even a saint.
Townes Van Zant "The Highway Kind"
Nobody writes a nightmare like Townes. His lyrics are baroque poetry for the soul blighted by life. A good many of my characters long for escape, but they are bound to a people and a soil which have forsaken them, and this song of wandering is often gnawing at the edge of my consciousness, taking me down the long moonlit nightways of the heart. "Pour the sun upon the ground / stand to throw a shadow/ watch it grow into a night / and fill the spinning sky". Well, those are words for a heart who feels the surge and pull of forces beyond his control, the desire for freedom coupled with a knowledge of freedom's terrible price. The root trouble of my characters, it seems to me, is that they long for virtue but are bound impossibly to their sinful and human selves. One does wonder what God is trying to pull, making us creatures governed by our own ravenous appetites.
Merle Haggard "The Old Man From The Mountain"
This one is pure slapstick cornpone, complete with a saxophone interlude. Haggard's demonic cackle at the end makes me want to take to the road and wind up some place I ought not be. The song's narrator--hopefully resembling some of my characters--is a larger than life sawmill worker who means to avenge the wrongs done to him by a fickle woman. Believe it was summer of 2001 when I saw Haggard at The Executive Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky (a venue now reduced to rubble and no sad loss this). Even then, he was a fist in the face of political correctness. When his band wound this number up, my heart did a jig and I wanted nothing more than to get in a fight and come home broke and bloody. Apparently, I hadn't drank enough Budweiser as I left mostly whole.
Trent Summar "Paint Your Name In Purple"
This song was wrecking around in my head when I wrote "This Device Must Start On Zero", which is about a demolition derby enthusiast with significant women troubles, and I think some of the shrapnel from Summar's countrified rock lodged deep in my consciousness. I've always been interested in automobile culture, especially the wild and angry s.o.b.'s you'll find around any local dirt track on a Friday night. These are folks who aim to please exactly no one. The song embodies the slapstick clownishness of racing, coupling it with a sincere display of affection for a female that could be misread by outsiders as tawdry posturing. But, of course, it isn't posturing at all. If you paint a woman's name in purple on the side of your car door--well, those wedding bells can't be far off. Of course, my tale doesn't end so happily. But I was interested in coupling the rage and fury of racing with the rage and fury that so often attends love. Hopefully, something akin to that comes to the surface in the story.
Johnny Lee "Cherokee Fiddle"
This one reckons out a ghost from former times, comes howling off a darkened plain and hits your heart with a shovelful of train-burning coal. There's real soot in this tune. You can get a little drunk from it. Perhaps a little asthmatic, as well. A song about what is lost due to progress is nothing new, but this one seems singular in the ambivalence/uncertainty surrounding the fiddler's actual musical prowess: "Some folks say they'll never miss him / Ole fiddle squealed just like the engine brakes". Such a sentiment is resonant for me. As a younger man, I spent a good many Friday nights going to house parties where old men beat guitars and drank homemade wine. There was plenty of good whiskey as well, and a fiddle or two. For me, these old men were heroes. Most of them have passed away now, and I still think of them as heroes. But looking back, their musical genius was likely exaggerated by my youthful desire for them to actually be geniuses. So I guess the song is about memory in many ways--its vibrancy, its culpability in stealing the truth and giving us something much more potent. Sometimes, I suppose that's how fiction functions as well.
Gary Stewart "She's Acting Single, I'm Drinking Doubles"
Stewart is quite the tragic musical legend, a Kentucky boy who married the wrong woman and spent a lifetime singing about failed marriages and spiteful lovers before blowing his brains out. His sorrowful falsetto is enough to make paint weep. Sometimes, it's a bit much for certain tastes, but I find Stewart takes you to the exact spot of melancholy where you can get giddy from the fumes of sadness. Such is the tradition of the best country songs. While this tune didn't inspire an exact story for me, it is the kind of tune you'd likely hear were you to walk into the various haunts my characters find themselves in. Its atmospheric quality is one of dim lights and smoke bundled about dingy windows, of shank-faced women and too much loneliness. You can sit in the middle of this song and wither.
Alex Taylor and The Name of the Nearest River links:
Best New Fiction review
Library Journal review
Louisville Courier-Journal review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Orion Magazine review
Oxford American review
The Paducah Sun review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists