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June 17, 2010

Book Notes - James P. Othmer ("Holy Water")

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

James Othmer's second novel Holy Water is yet another smart and funny book from one of America's most clever satirical writers.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Othmer wrings humor from nearly every facet of contemporary culture, with many of the most comical moments taking place in brief anecdotes (as with a Gulf War I re-enactor). It’s well-done satire--dark, but not too--in the vein of Gary Shteyngart and early Colson Whitehead."


In his own words, here is James P. Othmer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Holy Water:


In Holy Water, Henry Tuhoe quickly loses his job, his marriage and his mojo. But when he loses the entire contents of his meticulously-curated iTunes library – some 5449 songs – while in the magical and disturbing Kingdom of Galado, he begins to lose his marbles. The thought of living in this strange land to which he was recently transferred, or extra-sourced, or (his word) gang-Bangalored, without a security blanket of life-stage-appropriate songs, paralyzes him with dread.

It's not simply the lost songs that devastates Henry. It's the lost playlists, which he views as distinct responses to specific events. He can never recreate their precise sequences or the quirky titles he gave to obscure genre groupings. While it may be possible to replace a great many of the missing songs, he knows that he can never come close to replacing the mixes that "reflect nothing less than the syncopated rhythms of his soul."

I'm writing these notes from my protagonist's POV because Henry Tuhoe knows and cares much more about music than me. I love music, but Henry obsesses over it and feels the need to constantly assign songs to particular moments of his out of control life as they are happening.

Before I share the playlist for this particular time of Henry's life, which he refers to as a "mixtape for the Apocalypse," here's one last bit from the book that describes his fulfilling and dependent relationship with music: "Sometimes the music informs his thinking and sometimes it is the other way around. He cannot carry a tune and has never shown any proclivity for playing an instrument, yet he believes that music has moved and taught him far more than any book or person. He's spoken to others who claimed to feel the same way but they were different. They always seemed more obsessed with the facts and dates of when a group formed, when it changed drummers, when it broke-up, when the import single became available in the States, but Henry never cared about any of that. What he cared about was the music and how it made him feel. His father often told him that he used music as an escape, a way to hide from the world, but Henry had always thought about it as a way to discover it."


REM – "Cuyahoga"

The Cuyahoga is a river in Ohio that was so polluted in 1969 it caught fire. Conditions have to be pretty bad for a body of water to combust. There have been thirteen fires on the Cuyahoga since 1868 when, apparently, riverfire trackers first started taking note of that kind of thing. On the plus side, some say that the environmental movement began in earnest soon after Time magazine published shocking photos from the Cuyahoga Fire. In Holy Water, my protagonist Henry is on a party boat that comes upon a similarly burning river in the corrupt and polluted Kingdom of Galado. In addition to thinking, "Holy shit, the river is burning down, no – make that up," Henry also thinks of this REM song, as well as Randy Newman's excellent ode to the 1969 Cuyahoga fire, "Burn On."


Lightning Bolt – "Fleeing the Valley of Whirling Knives"

Before he leaves his job as VP of Underarm Research for one of the world's largest makers of unnecessary chemical objects in your medicine cabinet, Henry has some serious vasectomy issues. His wife, who hasn't let him touch her in months, and who has recent acquired a taste for the occult, insists that he get what she calls the permanent snip. Henry is firmly in the anti-snip camp. At least until he's sure that his wife hasn't become a full-fledged child of Artemis. The title of this song not so subtly reflects his mindset.


Vitalic – "No Fun"

Another title that overtly speaks to Henry's current worldview. Although he's not particularly fond of the song, he keeps it in rotation because he once read that the front man of the group contended to be a part-time gigolo as well as a Ukranian trubka player from a family of otter fun traders. That's why I do, too.


David Ford "State of the Union"

After his wife throws him out of the suburban home he never wanted, for (SPOILER ALERT!) lying about the condition of his testicles, and before he flees the country to run a call center for a bottled water company in a draught-plagued nation, Henry checks into a cheap motel that he imagines is filled with recently banished husbands like himself, and takes stock of his mess of a life. He plays this song, and much of the aptly titled album, I Sincerely Apologise for All the Trouble I've Caused.


High School Musical Soundtrack – "Get Your Head in the Game"

In Galado, a Buddhist nation on the verge of being overwhelmed by globalization, where Henry is introduced to the Prince, a four-foot tall, megalomaniacal, steroid-abusing despot with a Kim Jong-il-like taste for the tackier aspects of Western culture. This song is blasting through the speakers of the royal gym during their post-workout introduction. I apologize in advance for introducing it to your subconscious, on an eclectic and intelligent music and literature blog of all places, where it will loop for the next 12 hours.


Bob Dylan – "Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands"

Henry's first lodging in Galado is at a spiritual spa/upscale bordello. For some reason it reminds him of the Hotel Chelsea, where Dylan is reported to have penned this song, and which Teddy Wayne does a much better job describing in last week's fine edition of Book Notes.


The Pixies – "Where is My Mind (the Purple Tape, Seventeen Song Original Demo Check)"

In Galado (which was inspired by Swift's fictional Academy of Ladago), a land both magical and corrupt, Henry wanders through an abandoned development called USAVille. The plan for the project was to attract American business people representing multi-national conglomerates and house them in a familiar, comfortable environment. Then the global economy went kerflooey and the Prince's idealized vision of a Galadonian Brandocracy took a major hit. Ironically, the ruins of this imaginary future are not unlike the ruins of so many abandoned, sub-prime casualties back in the real USAVille. This song, recalled by Henry, nicely compliments the surreal yet too real vibe of the moment.


Tom Waits "Step Right Up"

If consumerism and rampant globalization were to have a theme song, this would be it. By the way my nephew, who composes music for a living and knows these things, tells me that to achieve that I just swallowed a bowl of drywall screws sound, Waits screams into a pillow before performances until his vocal chords are properly degraded. And I thought that writing in longhand was badass.


The National -- "All the Wine"

This song always makes me smile. Bold, playful lyrics and a slightly out of control tone. "Big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth…And all the wine is mine." This is playing on Henry's resurrected iPod near the end of the book while he enjoys a rare burst of confidence after falling for a woman he doesn't deserve and beginning to exhibit a sort of reckless, righteous and endearing fearlessness.


Spoon – "The Beast and Dragon Adored"

Heading up the flaming river, surrounded by box store magnates, cowardly Congressmen and Galadonian revolutionaries as the country is consumed by anarchy, Henry scores the most dangerous and thrilling moment of his life with a song whose exotic title and lyrics and ominous bassline remind me of something out of Graham Greene's The Quiet American or Conrad's Heart of Darkness. With a laugh track.


James P. Othmer and Holy Water links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book

The Agony Column review
Fast Company review
Publishers Weekly review

The Advertising Apprentice interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Adland
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Futurist
Three Guys One Book interview with the author


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)
musician/author interviews
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


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