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March 10, 2011

Book Notes - Roy Kesey ("Pacazo")

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

I have been a great admirer of Roy Kesey's short fiction for years, and wrote of his short story collection All Over that he "brings these stories to life with an energy level rarely seen in literary fiction."

Kesey's talent translates well to his debut novel Pacazo, a compelling tale of love, loss, and madness.

Bookforum wrote of the book:

"His novella Nothing in the World (2006) snares its protagonist in the last paroxysms of the former Yugoslavia, and the collection All Over (2007) succeeded best in its prize-winning story "Wait," a fantasia of the international community that springs up during a prolonged airport delay. Pacazo marries the freewheeling cool of the latter to the sympathetic darkness of the former, and generates a fresh and powerful reminder of what fiction can accomplish at full length."

In his own words, here is Roy Kesey's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Pacazo:

It took me eleven years to write Pacazo right.

During those eleven years, I listened to some music.

I never intentionally listened while I was writing, though. I don't/can't.

It's possible—even likely—that the music I listened to while not-writing seeped into the text at a later period. For example, during the final editing stages I was listening mostly to Lucero and The National and Big Star and Green Day and Kelly Joe Phelps and Spoon and Vic Chesnutt and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I'm not sure if I edited the way they sang, though. Probably not exactly.

Anyway, here's a list of songs that are actually mentioned or implied in the text of the novel. Altogether the book has about forty references to human (as opposed to bird or frog) songs, but not all of them are named outright, or even necessarily identifiable from the outside. Here I'll just cite the key ones. I'll quote the novel's commentary on the songs or singers, and then I'll comment on that commentary. It's going to be awesome.

1."I turn the volume all the way down and sing her a lullaby medley of Nat King Cole and Aerosmith. She is asleep before the first chorus. I have a wonderful voice."

My narrator, John Segovia, is being reliable here: he does indeed have a lovely voice. And he often uses it to sing his baby daughter, Mariángel, to sleep. Or back to sleep. In this case, the songs in question are "Stardust," "Love in an Elevator," "You Are My Everything," "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing," and "Rats in the Cellar." John wouldn't yet be in a position to sing "Janie's Got a Gun." Which is unfortunate.

2. "There are two men sitting in plastic chairs in front of the old green house. They slouch as if reminiscing but do not smile. The living room curtains are drawn but there are lights on inside. Soft music from the second floor. I nod to the men and they stare at me."

Because this is a brothel, the song is probably "The Sweetest Taboo."

3. "She flails but I sing to her, Deep Purple. Slowly she calms and Cabello Balboa's work is all but done, the Incas fitted in time and place and teleology as descendents of Noah."

Likely either "Hush" or "Child in Time." "Space Truckin'" would be your classic dark horse candidate here.

4. "She screams all the way to the bathroom, quiets when she sees the water running, laughs as she plays with the small bright water rings, screams again when I lift her from the tub, and I finish drenched and bitching. Then I remember to sing, Chabuca Granda, softly."

Chabuca Granda did more than anyone else, I think, to bring Peruvian vals and (later in her career) Afro-Peruvian music into the Latin American mainstream. Here is a video of her singing her most famous song, "La Flor de la Canela." (Her voice has weakened by this point, but it's still a neat video. Cf. especially Eusebio Sirio on spoons.) However, the song John sings to Mariángel is instead my personal favorite, "Fina Estampa."

5. "I check her gums and see no swelling; I take her up, turn in slow circles and sing, Mercedes Sosa this time, "Si se calla el cantor."

And at last for you purists a specific song reference right there in the text, which you can hear her singing (with Horacio Guarany) here. Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer who died in 2009, was one of the central figures of the nueva canción movement in the 1960s. She's maybe most famous for her extraordinary rendition of Violetta Parra's "Gracias a la Vida."

6. "They ask me to aid with the transcription and translation of the songs on the tapes their cousins send them from Los Angeles or Trenton."

A common favor for EFL students to ask of their teachers. In this case the most common songs would have been Alanis Morissette's "Ironic," Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," Oasis' "Wonderwall," and Toni Braxton's "Un-break My Heart."

7. "There is crying, Mariángel awake, and I go, lift her out and sing: Zambo Cavero, "Alma Traicionera." She stops crying halfway through the first verse. I walk, living room entryway dining room patio yard. At the end of the chorus she puts her hands over my mouth though it is a very good song and I have not finished. Cavero is a splendid singer and almost as fat as I am."

Arturo Cavero Velásquez, another major figure in the world of Afro-Peruvian and Peruvian criolla music. I couldn't find video of him singing this particular song, but here he is singing "Mis Cenizas," with random photos.

8. "Now I sing, Silvio Rodríguez, verse and chorus and verse and chorus about unicorns. It is a beautiful if stupid song and she closes her eyes, lies motionless but unsleeping, perhaps another game."

Rodríguez, one of the two great Cuban nueva trova singers (the other being Pablo Milanés.) And here he is singing the song itself in all its beauty and ridiculousness.

9. "There is a lovely custom here. The night before a birthday is called the quema, the burn: at midnight one's friends gather in order to sing. They sing "Las Mañanitas," and they sing "Happy Birthday" twice, first slowly and solemnly in English, and then vigorously in Spanish. It is incomprehensible and splendid."

In fact it is not quite incomprehensible (except maybe for the part in "Las Mañanitas" where King David is singing to all the pretty boys) and it is indeed splendid.

10. "From the stereo comes a song of Rubén Blades. Here he is known as the Intellectual of Salsa. This may well be the same as speaking of the Intellectual of Codfish or Paste, but his music is smartly arranged and his lyrics often tell stories of social and other injustices."

My narrator can be a little mean. Here is Blades singing "Juan Pachanga."

11. "Few are willing to bet that the Old Bridge will fall. It figures on thousands of postcards, in many Peruvian songs, in all Piura-based documentaries and beer commercials. Its lamps are ornate and pleasing."

One of these songs, probably the best known, is "Rosal Viviente," a vals written by Miguel Ciccia Vásquez. Here is something of his that is impossibly cheesy if thought of as a music video, but it has some nice footage of the part of the world where the novel takes place.

12. "The Martians hate birds, seem invincible, but Slim Whitman yodeling "Indian Love Call" causes their heads to explode, and now Tom Jones appears as himself, sings not for the first time of how not unusual it is to see him cry."


13. "Like most Peruvian (wedding) receptions, ours commenced with ten or twelve runs through "The Blue Danube" such that I might dance with Pilar, with my mother, Pilar's mother, Pilar's aunts and nieces."


14. "The lights blare, Charly García sings suddenly of love and strange new haircuts, the fan spins and blows the last candles out."

- Charly García, the Father of Argentine Rock, AKA the King of Argentine Rock, AKA the Guy With the Two-Tone Mustache. The song in question in concert.

15. "Along the way we eat our sandwiches and drink our beers and sing with Aterciopelados, toasting Miss Panela and Chica Difícil."

A fun rock group from Colombia. I couldn't find good footage of either of those songs, but here's a video for their song "Complemento."

16. "I ask why she chose Juan Luis Guerra, and she says that he is a result of happiness, that I would do well to relax just a bit, that she has something in mind."

Guerra, Dominican, the Dean of Merengue. (Actually no one calls him that. But that's what he is.) Joy-making music. Here's his "Ojalá Que Llueva Café." Pretty cheesy video, though. Maybe cover your computer screen with a folded piece of construction paper? Or some fudge?

17. "The dysentery made itself known the next day, simultaneous vomiting and shitting blood for hours, fevers during which I would hear lines from songs I had never intended to remember."

Those songs would be "Jessie's Girl" and "You Give Love a Bad Name."

18. "Socorro sits beside Karina and in the corner are two thin men, one playing a cajón and the other playing a guitar, both singing, criolla. They sing and play with great skill and love, Quinteras and Pinglo Alva and Polo Campos, and we applaud, also with love, and sunlight sidles in through the bamboo shades."

Serafina Quinteras, Felipe Pinglo Alva, and Augusto Polo Campos: three more significant figures from the history of Peruvian criolla music. Here are Los Morochucos covering Pinglo Alva's "El Plebeyo."

19. "I quietly pretend to agree, and it is Mariángel's bedtime but she demands that Karina and I first sing 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' She communicates this desire by humming something like the proper tune, and rowing feverishly, as if chased."

This song will now appear periodically in your brain unbidden for the next six weeks. Sorry! To make up for it, here's a little-known version of the song as sung by Megan Fox, naked. (NSFW!).

Roy Kesey and Pacazo links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at The Collagist)
excerpt from the book (at The Nervous Breakdown)

Bookforum review
decouverterre review
Ladybug Storytime! review
The Monster's Flashlight review
The Rumpus review
Why Not, I Say review

Collagist interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for All Over
The Nervous Breakdown posts by the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-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)
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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