February 17, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Craig Lancaster's novel The Summer Son is an intense story of family rifts past and present. Seamlessly switching back and forth in time to tell his tale, Lancaster populates the book with unforgettable characters, especially his protagonist Mitch and his abusive father.
When I was writing my second novel, The Summer Son, I planted the story firmly in two eras that I know pretty well: late 2007, when the narrator, Mitch Quillen, is struggling against the collapse of his career and home life, and the summer of 1979, when Mitch is 11 years old and spending time with his violent father in the small town of Milford, Utah.
Here's where I cop to my surface similarities with Mitch: In the fall of 2007, I too was dealing with changes on the homefront, although mine were rooted in an impending marriage and the purchase of our first home (why I would, a couple of years later, use this same period as the milieu for Mitch's unraveling is best left to psychologists, amateur and otherwise). And in 1979, at the age of 9, I too spent a summer in Milford, Utah, with my father.
Music provided moorings for the story, both in how I drew the periods and in centering my memories of them. As my age steadily advances, I find that I have trouble remembering important junctures by any means other than recalling what I was listening to at the time. So it was with The Summer Son.
"Transit Lounge," Crowded House
In the first two chapters of the book, Mitch fields mysterious phone calls from his long-estranged father, Jim, and is compelled by his wife (with whom he's fighting) to fly from his home in San Jose, California, to Billings, Montana, the town where he was born, in an effort to come to terms with the man. It was easy for me to imagine this song, from the 2007 album Time on Earth, filling Mitch's ears as he heads toward an uncertain collision with the man whom he blames for most of what has gone wrong in his life. "Leave the boots and saddle outside / You can make her happy again …"
"Photographs and Memories," Jim Croce
Mitch's departure for Montana launches twin storylines, as he moves forward in 2007 through a confrontation with his father and works backward through his memories of the summer of '79 and tells his wife, for the first time, what happened that led to the breach between the men. On a puddle-jumper flight from Salt Lake City to Cedar City, Utah, he looks askance at the twin-prop airplane and remembers that "Jim Croce and those guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd died on a plane just like this one."
"Sometimes I Remember," Pernice Brothers
One of my favorite parts of the book is when Mitch gets up early one morning in Billings and drives across town to look at the house where he was born. It's a poignant scene, as the current owner ends up inviting him in and Mitch realizes that nothing in the house really fits his memories of the place. It's a feeling I know well; I've been back to Mills, Wyoming, where I spent the first three years of my life, and toured the house we lived in. I thought I knew it, but I didn't. It was smaller than I recalled and laid out differently. For Mitch, this realization has some profound implications.
"Damaged Son," Jay Farrar
Once in Billings, Mitch faces the task of sorting out his memories and finding a way to reconcile with a man he barely knows. This launches a cycle of tentative moves forward that end up crashing back to earth in frustration and anger. The first lines of this song resonate: "Could have been mixed up or a lack of understanding/Could have been explained/Events unravel too fast …"
"Sad Eyes," Robert John
The young version of Mitch spends some long days in the fields with his well digger father, and his only consistent source of amusement is to try to tune in the radio. Nearly 30 years later, he references this song, saying that if he hears it on the radio, he's instantly transported back to Milford. I'll simply add that as a period piece, it just screams late '70s, with the synth undertones and overly dubbed vocals. Check out the promotional video on YouTube if you dare.
"What Sarah Said," Death Cab for Cutie
Mitch is no stranger to loss. Indeed, it permeates his life. He's unable to escape the shackles of memory with his mother, whom he holds up as a saint; with his brother, Jerry, many years dead and yet still casting a shadow on Mitch; or with Jim, who's still alive but on the outskirts of Mitch's life. The most startling line of this song – "Love is watching someone die" – hangs heavily around Mitch's neck.
"When You're in Love With a Beautiful Woman," Dr. Hook
This number, laced with guitars and keyboards, is the theme song for my summer of 1979, and it plays a bit role in the book, as young Mitch argues with one of his brother's friends about its merits. The paranoid message that belies the bouncy beat has some currency, too, both in Mitch's memories of his own summer and in his current difficulties with his wife.
"Sweetness Follows," R.E.M.
In many ways, this book is about perspective – about how two people can see the same event, but from different vantage points, and interpret it in wildly different ways. Because of what he's experienced, Mitch has set up a construct that helps him define his life: his father is bad, his mother was good, and so it goes. And while Mitch might well have a good reason for viewing his world in this way, it doesn't necessarily mean he's correct. This song has always struck me as coming from a similar sensibility. "I used to wonder why did you bother? / Distanced from one, blind to the other …"
"Just When I Needed You Most," Randy VanWarmer
The rift between Mitch and Jim dates to Mitch's being sent back home to Washington without a word of explanation from his father, and it's the different interpretations of this event that prove pivotal in the unfurling of the story. If you set aside the romantic overtones of this song, the words fit the mold that's set for the next few decades of Mitch's life: "Where I'll find comfort, God knows …"
"Reunited," Peaches and Herb
Another of the summer-of-'79 songs, this one ably fills the bill at a number of junctures of the book, as Mitch makes peace with his memories, his father, his misplaced deification of his long-dead mother and brother, his wife and children and his legacy. The book is undeniably hard-edged, but in the end, there's always hope. There has to be hope, right?
Craig Lancaster and The Summer Son links:
1st Turning Point interview with the author
Billings Gazette interview with the author
The Book In guest post by the author
Bozeman Daily Chronicle profile of the author
Charles Apple interview with the author
Inside the Writers' Studio interview with the author
Three Guys One Book guest post by 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)
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