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October 7, 2010

Book Notes - Eric Gansworth ("Extra Indians")

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

Eric Gansworth's fourth novel Extra Indians covers deep territory. The Vietnam War, modern Native American life, and the choices we make (and their repercussions) are all explored in this intense, lyrical, and haunting novel filled with unforgettable, finely drawn characters.

Extra Indians still creeps into my thoughts daily, weeks after reading the final page. For me, that is the definition of a worthwhile book.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Gansworth (Mending Skins) has given us a beautiful story of the intersection of truth and fiction, family and forgiveness, and the inability to forgive."

In his own words, here is Eric Gansworth's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Extra Indians:

I have to confess to having done an informal version of this idea for each of the four novels I've had published, so was really excited to have the opportunity to foist my obsessions on semi-unsuspecting others. I've always been a film soundtrack kind of guy. In fact, my first album, at the age of three, was the soundtrack from the Batman television series, which included much of the incidental music from the show as well as snippets of dialogue. I see this trend often cited as a Tarantino invention, but this soundtrack, issued in 1966, would suggest the trend goes back at least that far. At any rate, I drifted briefly away from soundtracks as a kid just discovering rock, but by as early as 1979, I was buying the OST to George Romero's second installment of his zombie series, Dawn of the Dead, a disc I still listen to with great frequency, thirty years later, where the music is so distinctive, it's intrinsically wedded to the images. I have straight soundtracks like this one, as well as those albums where the soundtrack was amassed out of "source music," songs built into the narrative, where characters listen to songs, on the radio, playing records, etc., rather than the music being superimposed over the action. I'm thinking here of films like Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. I'm probably most enamored of those films where the two styles have been combined. Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter includes music composed for scenes, as well as songs by The Tragically Hip and Jane Siberry that characters listen to or even perform in some cases. Because Extra Indians is significantly about film, and the characters are passionate about music, there were some natural selections and other music that grew out of the period I was writing the novel.

"Fargo North Dakota," "Brainerd Minnesota," Carter Burwell: These two minor key songs, from the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' film, Fargo, are variations on the same piece of music, simultaneously sparse and dramatic, the way winter groundcover can be barren and then a sudden storm reminds you of things beyond your control. The novel opens, referencing this film, and in some real ways, Tommy Jack, one of the protagonists, is dealing with events in life that take a similar path. He does one simple thing, recognizing the isolation of a largely private life, and his actions swiftly throw him to a storm beyond his control.

"When You Come Back Down," Nickel Creek: This is a simple and beautifully direct song about letting go of someone whose dreams are a more powerful draw than you. It's the strangest kind of rejection to receive because you aren't really being left behind. You just aren't as important as that other thing pulling someone away from you. The consolation life you're left with is that you will still be there should they choose to come back. It's not much, but it is what many of the characters in this novel are left with. This song had such a profound effect on the tone of this novel that I incorporated its title into a key passage.

"Blue Yodel (T for Texas)" Jimmie Rodgers: This early American roots music selection suggests the ghosts of earlier eras that preoccupy Tommy Jack. In addition to the rock music he would have grown up with in the sixties, his small town Texas history would have also acclimated him to the casual, and almost cheerful violence of love gone wrong in this country-blues entry from the Singing Brakeman.

"Callin' Baton Rouge," Garth Brooks: There's a strange exuberance to this song, musically at odds with the narrative suggested. It's got a rollicking fiddle line throughout it, but its joy seems to derive from a trucker drunkenly hooking up with a woman of indeterminate age and then being preoccupied with her after he's hit the road. It seems out of place with the rest of this list, but in some ways, it offered me a glimpse into the no-strings passions of an over-the-road hook-up that begins to turn into a relationship, the unexpected ways intimacy can latch on. This, in some ways, is what happens to Tommy Jack when he meets Shirley Mounter, and what he tries futilely to recreate over the years, with periodic, mostly anonymous encounters on the road.

"Weightless," Old 97's: This is maybe the flip side to the Garth Brooks song, in which the road serves as the place to shrug off the troubles of navigating intimate relationships. The road is the place of weightlessness, and while it seems like a relief, it is done as a slow, heartbreaking blues rocker. Even as its voice seeks escape, it reconciles the impossibility of escape, that Heaven is the only place where people quit fighting and running.

"Fireworks," and "It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken," the Tragically Hip: "Fireworks" is a song strangely about the negotiations of intimate knowledge between two people, celebrity heroes, and the ways in which fireworks are like transient, evanescent stars falling from the sky. The first time I saw the band play the song was in a small music hall in downtown Toronto, and at the time, it was called "Bobby Orr" and seemed to solely be an ode to a hockey hero of the ‘70s, and I was interested to see the eventual shape of a song that began its life about a very particular kind of celebrity. The impossible pursuits of trying to capture shooting stars, fireworks/flares, and the intangible nature of obsession all play major roles here. Maybe because of these narrative threads, this is a song that played in my head heavily when I was first thinking about the connections among these characters. The line that echoed for me as I wrote the Vietnam night scenes, with their exploding flares, was this: "Fireworks emulating heaven ‘til there are no stars anymore." The title of the second song is a bit of Canadiana, which I have loved for its ambiguity, and the song itself stays with me for its simple request from one person to another: "let's get friendship right."

"Mission," and "Afterimage," Rush: These two songs, from different albums in Rush's often derided "synth" period, open different sides of this story. "Afterimage" is about what people are left with, after someone in their lives has died, with the strong suggestion by the title that the image is residual, the artifact left when you turn your eyes to a blank surface, an artifact that always leaves. "Mission" offers a glimpse into the emotional state of someone driven to attempt the unlikely dreams Fred attempts here. Neil Peart articulates the dangers of passion, its fire, and its costs, and a recognition that the strange world of the passionate life is closed, doomed to misunderstanding by those who have not experienced the costly realities of its seductive call.

"Hiawatha," Laurie Anderson: This piece concerns mythmaking in America, involving such surreally disconnected images as Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, a failed long distance phone connection and Longfellow's erroneous attribution of Hiawatha's identity. One of the key figures in the history of my people, the Haudenosaunee, Hiawatha was refigured into the predictable noble savage in Longfellow's piece. It is this identity which largely remains in the public consciousness and its power is part of what makes Fred Howkowski head to Los Angeles, believing he could breathe real life into the Hollywood Indian, having no idea the attempt would steal his breath instead, and aborted phone conversations, like the one here, frequently show up through the course of this novel.

"Your Hand in Mine," and "To West Texas," Explosions in the Sky: Again, two instrumental pieces from an amazing post-rock band originating in Texas. I love, in particular, the way "Your Hand in Mine" starts with notes that sound almost like sonar pings, and the cascading guitars that are a signature of this band suggest the impossible expanse of the West Texas landscape Tommy Jack calls home.

"Do You Realize??" The Flaming Lips: The tonal juxtaposition here, with bells and shimmering acoustic guitars, heavy reverbed vocals, string arrangements, set up the big questions. We are asked to examine beauty, mortality, lost opportunities and regret. While these warnings are not necessarily original ideas, that they exist in lyrics separated only a few seconds in the same song, cast them in a certain melancholy that chases my characters' lives. Also, how can you not love a song about beauty and death whose video features dancers in less than clean fuzzy bunny costumes?

"When It's Time," and "Last Night on Earth," Green Day: These two songs in combination strongly suggest the problematic arc of the relationship between Tommy Jack McMorsey and Shirley Mounter, the woman he left thirty years in the past when he discovered she was not exactly the person he thought she was. "When It's Time," is about two people who never seem to get to the same level of intimacy at the same time. "Last Night on Earth" involves further attempts, through letters, postcards, to express the same things, over distances. Over the thirty years' time, Tommy Jack and Shirley try to reconnect but even then, their written overtures are poorly timed, and their dedications lost to the miles and years.

"The Drum," Bongwater: Another song suggesting that we find it impossible to follow the beat of a distant drummer with any sense of synchrony. A number of its images are disconnected, vaguely surreal, suggesting disconnection among people, despite earnest attempts--a plague most of the characters of this novel fall prey to. They really want to believe that if they just listen to the world's rhythms closely enough, things will be all right, unaware they lack the skill to do that very thing.

"One Fast Move or I'm Gone," Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar: This song is drawn from the work of Jack Kerouac and perhaps, more telling, his life, as well. There is a prescience on the part of the Kerouac voice here that gives us a glimpse of a person who recognizes that the possible avenues for successfully navigating a difficult life are growing fewer and fewer. Some people, like Fred Howkowski, are incapable of making that fast move, and those around them don't seem to hear their understanding of their situations until it is too late to do anything.

"Suicide is Painless," Johnny Mandel/Mike Altman: Oddly, this theme song from the film M*A*S*H, written by the film's score composer--with lyrics improbably composed by the director's 14 year old son, sung by session singers--is perhaps one of the most clear and direct insights into the mindset of people who have contemplated suicide. I remember when producers chose to change the song to an instrumental for the television adaptation, the reason frequently cited was the seeming endorsement of suicide as a logical solution to life's difficulties. While I am by no means an advocate of reactionary censorship, when I listen to it, even now, I can understand the producers' position.

"Don't Wait for Me," The Judybats: Somewhat like the previous song, this piece about dying is more about accepting one's choice to willfully take oneself out. The voice is most concerned not about leaving, but about leaving bad feelings behind in those intimates left behind. It strangely asks one of those intimates to drive the car and also requests that no flags be present, which feels like the sort of thing Fred might ask.

"Where Things Leave Off," "Keep Drawing Suns," and "Far From Here," Japancakes: A few years ago, I was awarded a month-long residency at the Seaside Institute in Seaside, Florida to work on this novel. When you live in the northeast, the month of January in Florida is an incredible mood elevator, making work time optimal. In the mornings, I read over what I had written the night before, contextualizing it with the novel's progress thus far. I tended to do new writing in the evenings, after supper, often until 2:00 a.m. or so, which is my standard way of working. This practice left me noon to five or six to think about that evening's writing, wander around in the sun, watch the surf in the Gulf of Mexico, and enjoy the fact that I was not blowing the snow from my driveway in below zero wind-chills. There was a terrific independent record store in Seaside, with a balcony where you could sit in the sun, drink coffee and listen to whatever they were playing, which was always at least interesting. I noticed after a while that one CD in heavy rotation would perfectly set my mood for the loneliness of Tommy Jack in his Texas landscape, trying to make a life that was not the one he'd intended for himself. They would play a few tracks from it and when they'd switch out to something else, I'd rush back to the place I was staying and be able to fall immediately into Tommy Jack's world. When I finally got around to asking them what the CD was--Japancakes' The Waking Hours--I laughed, as I had been unconsciously rolling that band's name around in my head for a week. I had read it at their front desk, and had fallen in love with a band that had a sense of humor about their name. I have since gotten everything they've done and while I've found each brilliant, when I need to drop myself back into Tommy Jack's world to work, these three songs have been consistent doors for me. Like Explosions in the Sky, they start slowly, and build soundscapes that, even when you think they can't go any further, they explode like the aural equivalent of one-point perspective landscape drawings, each line disappearing on the impossible horizon before you. There is a lap steel guitar in this band that takes you away like the wind that blows constantly in West Texas. Incidentally, when loaded this CD into iTunes, the genre listed it as "Unclassifiable," which I had to agree with.

"The Road to Nowhere," Talking Heads: The road is Tommy Jack's respite from his past for much of his adult life. It is the place where he can forget everything he's become, an amalgam of all his past mistakes. Where the road takes him is irrelevant, as long as he's alone for the trip, or at least without people who know his history in any kind of intimate way.

"Imagine," John Lennon: Perhaps one of the most overused songs in popular culture, but I felt it necessary to include, just the same. As a plot point, two characters, driving to Texas, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the Lennon exhibit celebrating what would have been his sixtieth birthday. They make this stop on their way to meet another person who can not possibly measure up to their imaginary versions of him. I was always interested in the ways this song suggests our imaginations can either set us free or bind us eternally.

"Lament" and "Grayish Tapering Ash," by Balmorhea: I discovered this additional post-rock group from Texas almost by accident. While spending great amounts of time driving the small towns of West Texas during the composing of this novel, I found myself with a friend in the very small town of Balmorhea. While looking at other music in this genre online, I recognized the unusual name this band had chosen to call themselves and decided to take a chance, picking up their first two releases, a self-titled effort and Rivers Arms, from which these two tracks were pulled. They both evoke the feeling of walking those long stretches of straight country roads in West Texas in ways even photos I took while walking them don't do justice. When I want to be back there emotionally, in the vast sky and plains near railroad cinders, these two tracks carry me there, as if on a dust devil.

"Ashes to Ashes," and "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)," David Bowie: I had Bowie's hits collection Changesonebowie since maybe seventh grade. I remember buying it and Blondie's Parallel Lines one weekend, and telling friends about it on Monday, only to be asked what was wrong with me. I went to a fairly conservative school, where Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, maybe Styx, were the musicians of choice. I listened to Rush at the time, (still do) but that was about as close as I got to the prog rock of my school. By the time "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" arrived, I had resigned myself to being one of the school's weirdoes, who listened to music no one else did. "Ashes to Ashes" was the first single and it revisited the Major Tom character from "Space Oddity" and his hopeless departure from Earth, and while I was attracted the melancholy of it, the paranoia and anxiety of "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" that most defined the way I felt most days. When I think of Fred's last months in Los Angeles, knowing his life was falling apart and believing Vietnam had somehow superimposed itself on America's west coast, the tone of this song captures what I think the sensation that might approximate his daily life. "Ashes to Ashes," on the other hand, felt more like what Tommy Jack was left with, when he reads Fred's suicide note.

"Hey You," and "Comfortably Numb," Pink Floyd: These two pieces from Roger Waters' massive and intricate exploration of post-war trauma, interpersonal disasters and the odd relationships between performer and audience demanded inclusion here. I am not sure I would have ever become a writer had I not been introduced to The Wall at exactly the right time in my life to understand those places were biography and art meet, each allowing a clearer understanding of the other. The explicit link to this narrative, though involves the plaintive reaching in "Hey You," the aftermath of living with the chaotic world reflected in the Bowie songs above. One escapes the noise but then finds it harder and harder to live inside the isolation. "Comfortably Numb" using some of the same chords and narratives, develops the isolation into a further retreat. As Fred moved toward his inevitable path, these felt like two of the final steps.

"Why Does it Always Rain on Me," Travis: Fred, when he gets to the end, understand the truth so many Hollywood hopefuls come to understand--the myth of discovery. He has given himself as many delusions as he can find until finally, the perpetual repetition of his limited possibilities is too much to keep trying.

"The Legend of Boggy Creek," "Nobody Sees the Flowers but Me," Jaime Mendoza Nava: Probably the most obscure pieces here, these two entries are from the soundtrack to The Legend of Boggy Creek, a low budget Bigfoot film that was the focus of my earlier book, Breathing the Monster Alive. Though I had never seen this film as a child, the TV commercials terrified me. When I had finally tracked down the film on video as an adult, I had unwisely convinced friends to watch it with me. It's preposterous execution, an early docudrama, was embarrassing and unsettling at the same time, but the appearance, in the middle of the film, of two inexplicable folk songs, lost me much credibility as a recommender of film. Just the same, these odes, one to the unseen mysteries of this continent and one to a young man who chases them, still suit Annie's late night encounter in Arkansas.

"Somewhere Only We Know," Keane: This song is a desperate plea from one person to another on the verge of their connection ending, hoping to resurrect whatever they had in the past, by revisiting the physical space where that intimacy began. This scenario is true for pretty much every character in this novel.

"Your Rocky Spine" Great Lake Swimmers: In the way the Explosions in the Sky songs capture the Texas passages and the Burwell pieces, the Minnesota sections, Great Lakes Swimmers' melancholy acoustic folk rock capture the tough sensuality of this part of the country where they originate from and where I was raised and continue to live. This is the lead song off their CD Ongiara, which is an approximate spelling of my tribal culture's word that was eventually bastardized in Niagara, by European settlers who couldn't master our syllables. I had to give them credit not only for catching the emotional, tonal truth of life here, the love for our difficult landscape, but for also making an attempt to use the indigenous name for the area.

"Gimme Shelter," The Rolling Stones: While the song was released just a little bit later than the time Tommy Jack and Fred Howkowski were in Vietnam, its presence was still strong enough in Tommy Jack's life that when he hears music that informs that time, he adopts it immediately. Perhaps Laurence Fishburne dancing to "Satisfaction" in Apocalypse Now is a more iconic image of this era and setting, but this is the song that haunted my friend Bill the most when he returned from Vietnam. In telling me about his time there, and the losses and wounds of friends, he concurred that major life-changing events were often just a shot away.

"Father to Son," by Queen and "Sons and Daughters" by The Decemberists: Both of these songs, vast distances apart in years and styles, offer glimpses into those desires parents have for their children that never exactly pan out. Each offer a kind of optimism that our experiences shouldn't really encourage, but it seems to me, when I hear these songs, this denial of reality is the only way anyone can commit to the idea of parenthood, knowing the heartbreak that follows. Each parent in this novel, biological, adoptive, even an inaccurately assigned one, tries to do right by their children, fails in ways they wanted to succeed, and succeeds in way they didn't anticipate.

"The Ghosts That Haunt Me," and "At My Funeral" Crash-Test Dummies: These two songs, both fairly self explanatory by their titles, are reckonings. The first recognizes we all have these ghosts but it switches into a love song, hoping that other person will help carry the load of our ghosts. The second asks, in the voice of someone imagining the end, that mourners remember him and what he brought in life, rather than what he will bring in death, but asking them to acknowledge his passing, just the same. This feels like a sentiment Fred would have had.

"Return to Innocence," Enigma: This song gives me tremendous conflict because I love its sound, and its lyrical content, a celebration of the ways we see the world before all of its disappointments find us, and Enigma uses indigenous vocables in amazing and startling ways. These instances are still, no matter how you cut it, moments of cultural appropriation, and if I am honest with myself, outside of loving the way this song works, this choice is really not too many steps away from other appropriation, including the film industry's complicated history of American Indian representation.

"Love Is Only Sleeping," the Monkees: The Monkees here play with a standard reversal device of narrative pop songs, where the chorus is first in one character's voice and then unexpectedly revisited by another. In Extra Indians, these characters often recognize that love for them may be sleeping in others, and later discover their love for those others was lurking, equally silent until a moment of awakening.

"Everybody Loves a Happy Ending," Tears for Fears: This is the title song in what looks to be Tears for Fears' reunion/swan song album, fifteen years after the last time they had worked together. A number of the songs explore the nature of guarded reunions and the acknowledgment of squandered years, though perhaps none as articulately as this one. The song opens with a hard line position, demanding that the listener "toe the line" but the rest is a litany of the time wasted in long, stubborn disputes. The characters in this novel have long had silent conversations with one another that have kept them at great, pained distances, despite their desires for reconciliation. In each case, none knows where to start.

"Hummingbird," Wilco: The perky, almost Broadway arrangement of this song belies the ache of its speaker, someone who desperately asks that those in his life remember to remember him, though his goal in life was primarily to be an echo. It seems, in addition to fitting Fred's life, to ask us to know this is all we ever become for those who have shared time with us. Fittingly, here, it is also off the CD, A Ghost is Born.

"(Where Do The) Souls Go," Gregory Hoskins and the Stick People: A simple enough question, this quiet piece builds that question to a satisfying crescendo. It never seeks to offer any answers, though, but more it is an expression of recognition, that this is one of those unanswerables we ask over and over. Just the same, asking the question still commits to the idea that there is something beyond our knowledge, that we don't just stop when our eyes close that last time.

"Ashes of San Miguel," Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers: A narrative song in which a living friend carries out the wishes of a dead one whose ashes are riding shotgun for the ride, the plot is not entirely analogous to this novel, but its sentiment and dedication carry it through enough for me.

"Now You're Dirt," Varnaline: This is a more harsh take on the burial of a loved one, the anger many people refuse to admit, stemming from all the conversations that are now lost forever. It feels like the kind of music that might have been running through the heads of many people at Fred's graveside service.

"Forever," The Eurhythmics: This song near the end of the reunion CD, Peace, like Tears for Fears' reunion CD, is yet another lament to lost years. Like the voice of this song's narrative, characters throughout this novel make impulsive decisions, believing in the adamancy of their ideas until the immediate hurt softens a bit, unaware that the things they've said and done are often irretrievable.

"Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People," Paul McCartney: This is a strangely sedate and resigned love song, or maybe a non-love song. It seems to be about two people who stay together because they are each what the other has left. This is the place Tommy Jack and his wife have found themselves for years, before his encounter at the novel's beginning alters their lives and their relationship forever. It's one of those Paul McCartney medleys where two disparate but thematically linked song fragments have been joined to make something larger than their parts, like the second half of The Beatles' Abbey Road.

"Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End," The Beatles: Of course, more of the medley that closes Abbey Road could also work here, but this last bit suits it better than the rest, with "Golden Slumbers" suggesting that the ways to find the path back may be lost, which leads directly into the recognition of the weight one carries in the knowledge of that loss. In the balancing of love accounts at the conclusion, there is some optimism; the path might not be lost forever for these characters. I felt they deserved at least that much hope at the end of the novel.

The rough version of this list was, embarrassingly, 185 songs long. I suppose that is an artifact of the years it takes to inhabit the world of one's characters to see them through to the end. Even now, as I finish it, I know I'll wake up in the middle of the night, tonight, regretting that I had not remembered to include just a couple more. Of the various outside activities a writer does to help a book along, this one has by bar, been the most enjoyable, and I appreciate Largehearted Boy's David Gutowski for his invitation and indulgence.

Eric Gansworth and Extra Indians links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (PDF link)

Buffalo News review
Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly 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)
musician/author interviews
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

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