September 1, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In his gripping debut novel Vestments, John Reimringer lyrically depicts the struggles of family, the decay of neighborhoods, and most importantly, crises of faith, and his priest protagonist is as human and genuinely portrayed as any cleric in modern fiction.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Through his thoughtful themes and lyrical prose, Reimringer effortlessly restores a measure of dignity to the priesthood even as he pays tender homage to the working-class roots of St. Paul."
Writing a playlist for Largehearted Boy was intimidating. I'm tragically unhip. My wife Katrina offered to help, in which case we'd've had a very different list. But my characters come out of a background roughly contemporary with mine, so they wouldn't have known what the hell we were listening to.
1. Bruce Springsteen, "Adam Raised a Cain"
This song gets to the heart of the book: "Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames… ." James Dressler, the Catholic priest narrator of Vestments, is reaching for the sacred, and Joe Dressler, his barfighter father, is the profane world he's trying to leave behind.
2. John Prine, "Angel from Montgomery"
James' brother plays this on the jukebox in a bar in chapter 2, and the speaker in the song could be James' mother complaining about Joe Dressler: "How the hell can a person go to work in the morning/And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?"
3. Bruce Springsteen, "She's the One"
Priests aren't born priests, and in high school James has a lover, Betty García. "She's the One" is a sexy song about a lost, long-haired lover. It has angels and lies and "That thunder in your heart/At night when you're kneeling in the dark… ."
4. Johnny Cash, "Sunday Morning Coming Down"
Joe Dressler would be a fan of Johnny Cash, another man who's lived on the rough edges of life and found solace in religion, even though Cash's Southern fundamentalism was very different than Joe's Saint Paul Catholicism. This song might just sum up Joe's life.
5. Bunny Berigan, "I Can't Get Started"
James hears this at his grandparents' house after a dinner at the Lexington Restaurant in Saint Paul celebrating his acceptance into seminary. This version is on a 78, recorded in 1937, around the time the Lexington was founded and James' grandparents fell in love, a romance that, like many, has faltered with the best of intentions. The Lex, meanwhile, is an old haunt of generations of Dresslers and Reimringers, as well as innumerable Saint Paul priests and politicians.
6. John Fogerty, "Centerfield"
Once he becomes a priest, James is stationed in rural Pretty Prairie, Minnesota. His best friend from seminary, Mick Shankland, is pastor of a nearby parish. The two of them met in college on the Saint Thomas baseball team, and they play town ball in River County. This is a joyous song, as a baseball song should be, and Mick is the "brown-eyed handsome man" rounding third and heading for home.
7. Frank Sinatra, "One for My Baby"
James joins a group of priests who dine and drink and play poker together, all ways of sublimating the frustrations of celibacy. This isn't helped by the fact that, unlike the bartender in the song, the bartender at the priests' favorite watering hole is Diana, the goddess of the hunt.
Still, I learned while researching priests that the frustrations of celibacy are about more than the lack of sex. I tried to reflect that in the novel, so I was happy when a priest who read the manuscript told me I'd gotten it right: "The intimacy is a huge void," he said, "it's not the sexual part as much as it is the intimacy."
8. R.E.M. "Superman"
This is Mick's song. The son of a Mayo Clinic surgeon, Mick is cocksure and confident, a womanizing priest who believes he can get away with anything. "I am, I am, I am Superman." As the priest mentioned above said of Mick: "Every now and again you meet a guy who doesn't have a conscience." By the way, Mick would like Katrina's playlist better than mine. She's the green-eyed girl he eyes in O'Gara's early in the novel.
9. Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue"
Late in the novel, Joe Dressler claims to have broken Bob Dylan's nose in Dinkytown around 1960. Hard to tell if it's true; Joe's not the most reliable source. But here's the story behind that scene. While I was writing Vestments, Katrina published her first book of poetry. In the last poem, she had used seven words from "Tangled Up in Blue," and she asked Dylan's publisher, Ram's Horn Music, for permission to publish them in the book. "Sure," Ram's Horn said, "that'll be $200." Eventually, she talked them down to $100. That was a lot of money for us then. Still is. I was ticked, and thought, "The hell with it, Dylan's words may cost $100, but I can break his nose for free." Dylan and Joe Dressler could've been in Dinkytown at the same time. And breaking Bob Dylan's nose, or making up a story about it, was perfectly in character for Joe. So the scene's motivation is completely gratuituous, but it worked for the book and I had fun writing it.
10. The Rose Ensemble, "Maria Magdalene"
From the album Seasons of Angels, this song captures the sensual tapestry of Catholicism that underlies the novel. The choice is also a commentary on the Betty García character. She's a smart, tough-minded young woman, and what happens between James and Betty in high school is something both of them want. So it's interesting that some readers—usually deeply Catholic—see Betty as a seductress and James, the future priest, as her innocent victim. He ain't.
11. "I'll Be Seeing You," from the Broadway musical Right This Way, music by Sammy Fain, lyrics by Irving Kahal
At his brother's wedding dance, James has a vision of generations of Dresslers, living and dead, "maiden aunts and drunks," brought together by Catholic ritual.
When I moved to Saint Paul in 2001, I didn't have any living relatives in the city—they're all in Calvary Cemetery. But my family has been a part of Saint Paul almost as long as it's been a city. My great-great grandfather became an American citizen here in 1856, two years after the city was founded, and owned a saloon downtown. My great-grandfather was married in Assumption Church in 1880, and died at the second-ever Saint Paul Winter Carnival when he got drunk, fell off the back of a sleigh, and cracked his skull. My grandfather and father and brother were born here.
So, although the novel isn't autobiographical, it is in some ways an attempt to recapture my family's past. I'm looking for them in all the old familiar places, and the book is a love letter to the city of Saint Paul: its glittering winter light, its Catholic neighborhoods and bars, its union-Democrat culture.
12. Bonnie Raitt, "Something to Talk About" James gets a black eye on his brother's wedding day. His mother covers it with makeup, and after saying the wedding Mass, he washes his face, going to the reception dinner and dance with an obvious shiner. When someone questions this, he says, "It'll give 'em something to talk about." An upbeat song to end everything.
John Reimringer and Vestments links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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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)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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