June 17, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
James Boice's new novel The Good and the Ghastly may be the most fun book I have read all year, which may sound like an odd thing to say about a dark and often violent satire set in the 34th century. Boice proves himself a strong, clever, and inventive writer with this futuristic, fast-paced and often laugh out loud funny book.
Esquire wrote of the book:
"[The Good and the Ghastly] is [a] great [book]…that speak[s] broadly to what we want from a novel, and more specifically to what we should demand from emergent writers — reformulation, reinvention — something new about the world beyond them…. The conflict between a rising gangster and a vigilante mother who pursues him is open and epic in its curve. The prose, ringingly clear, sometimes maddeningly flat, is always well footed. As in his first novel, MVP, about a basketball star with a striking similarity to Kobe Bryant, Boice deals a somewhat slight, often sly variation on the world we live in now, so that even the money we spend on it may be a kind of ticket to a half hell we're reading about. It hasn't happened yet, but the book lives."
Rock ‘n' roll begins and ends with Bob Dylan. When I write, I try to make it rock ‘n' roll—that is, the adjective form of the phrase. Here I have chosen a list of Bob Dylan songs that are appropriate to my new novel The Good and the Ghastly. Bob Dylan is a big inspiration to the main character, Junior Alvarez. He admires Dylan's cutthroat determination and sees a similarity between it and Alexander the Great and applies it to his own life, which happens to consist mostly of crime and evil. Junior Alvarez lives one thousand years from now, in Second America in the 3300s. He listens to Bob Dylan songs. A millennium from now, Bob Dylan will still be remembered. That is because he is the greatest. And so here we go…
"Someone's got it in for me…." Junior pays the price for living the way he does, which is putting himself and his desires and his own ambition above all else and all others. There are lots of rewards, of course, but more so there are consequences. One of which is that he has earned himself a formidable enemy. There is paranoia. ("They're planting stories in the press," Dylan sings. This happens to Junior in the book. But the stories aren't planted—they're truthful.) He never knows peace and quiet. He "covers up the truth with lies." He puts lots of people "in the ditch, flies buzzing around their eyes." He finds out "when you reach the top, you're on the bottom." This song is about a wind of idiocy blowing through everything. The Good and the Ghastly is about a wind blowing through everything, too—not just everyone but all times and eras. It's not a wind of idiocy but of something else. Evil? The conflict between good and evil? Ambition? The human will?
"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
Badass song for a novel about a badass dude. Although I think it applies more to the other story focused on in the novel, which is about a badass woman. She devotes her life to avenging her son's death at the hands of Junior Alvarez. On one otherwise normal day, her life is shattered when her teenage son comes home covered in blood, severely beaten by a teenage Junior Alvarez in a youth gang melee. The son reassures his mother he is all right. It's just blood, he says. No big deal. Don't call the cops. Don't do anything. There's nothing you can do. He's wrong about everything but that last part. The mother's life is altered irrevocably. The battle between the good and the ghastly begins. "It's all right, ma. It's life and life only."
"Subterranean Homesick Blues"
There is actually a chapter in the novel called "The Subterranean." But that's not the only reason why this song is appropriate. Junior and Josefina are both subterranean in their opposite but equal ways. They are alienated from society by themselves and their circumstances and the size and strength of their wills. Also, there is a section early on in the book about Junior as a young teenage hooligan full of piss and vinegar—hustling pool and broads—and I think the tenor of this song perfectly captures that cocky street hustler swagger.
"Here Comes Santa Claus"
This song is deranged. And funny. And good. So is my novel The Good and the Ghastly—anyway, I hope. Also, the weird present-day take on a classic piece of Americana is right in line with the novel, which does a lot of twisting and vandalizing of such convention (hopefully) for shits and giggles.
Joey Gallo was this charismatic gangster who never fit in with the standard established image of the Mafioso. "Always on the outside of whatever side there was," Dylan sings. He was into art. Philosophy. And crime. "Always caught between the mob and the man in blue." Very similar to Junior Alvarez, who I created by drawing inspiration from Joey Gallo and also Whitey Bulger, who would be Joey Gallo's Boston counterpart. Both got far on an image—real or fabricated—of being stronger than they were, and also of being these sort of Robin Hoods, these everyman hoodlums with hearts of gold fighting on the side of the people. Both took on the Mafia head-on, even though they were these solitary people operating with small ragtag forces. "He did ten years in Attica, reading Nietzsche…." Junior spends time in prison not only reading Nietzsche but also another great ancient philosopher: Oprah.
The defiance this song drips with is all Junior Alvarez. He has decided he is not going to waste his life, no matter how much they try to get him to. At one point he works as a janitor. He can't stand it. He has this profound sense of death—he knows that when he dies it is over. No second chances. He wants a great life, to do impossible things. He is going to do nothing unless he wants to do it. Being American. Even one thousand years from now, after America has come and gone and come again, that means going to absurd lengths to live the life you want, to manifest the designs for yourself that you carry in your skull.
"A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"
A popular theory about this song is that it is about Cold War anxiety of The Bomb. So going with that, I should mention that The Good and the Ghastly takes place in a post-apocalyptic future. Though it's not the post-apocalyptic future you are thinking of in which zombies and robots roam the earth, etc. Maybe that sort of thing has already happened—zombie wars, etc. My book takes place a thousand years after books about such things have taken place. Whatever has happened in the aftermath of the apocalypse, man has survived it and gone on to rebuild civilization from scratch. Still having his human nature, what he builds is basically the same thing that led to his near-annihilation. So history is repeating itself all over again, with things slightly off. America is called Second America, for example. Everyone has a Latino name. And so on.
"The Times They Are a-Changin'"
Not in my book they're not. Not if you zoom out far enough.
"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"
How he starts out all earnest, strumming his acoustic guitar, and begins singing something that sounds like it is going to be weighty and important and serious like "The Times They Are A-Changing" or something but after one line he starts cracking up and cannot stop and just completely loses it for apparently no reason at all (either the band did not jump in like they were supposed to or he was just fucking high)? Love that. The Good and the Ghastly has that spirit. Kind of tongue-in-cheek, not too serious and stuffy—it's only rock ‘n' roll, after all. It's only a book. Also, once Dylan finally gets it together and the band starts the song for real this time, it is raucous and zany and pretty ridiculous but contains all these references to Captain Ahab, who was a big inspiration to me for the character of Junior Alvarez.
"Like A Rolling Stone" (1966 "The Royal Albert Hall Concert" Live Version)
This was recorded during Dylan's legendary tour when all the purist folk types were aghast that he was playing rock ‘n' roll. Just one year earlier, Dylan played the same venue alone with just his guitar and harmonica and it was like being in church—everyone sitting and listening quietly and approvingly to the earnest troubadour like the pure and holy children of God they believed they were. But it's 1966 now and things have changed. And Bob Dylan does not care if he has anyone's approval or not—not even his fan base. And so the same crowd has just now sat through a set of crass, crude, blasphemous, scalding rock ‘n' roll. The crowd is indignant, heckling him between each number. So far Dylan's basically just ignored them and kept playing. And now is one last song. The band is tuning up, and in the uneasy awkward quiet someone in the crowd cries out, "Judas!" The crowd cheers. Dylan says nothing for a moment. Then he says, "I don't believe you. You're a liar," and he turns to his band and sneers, "Play fucking loud, man" and kicks off this defiant, vicious, distorted rendition of his big rock ‘n' roll hit "Like A Rolling Stone." I love that. Junior Alvarez would have done the same thing if he were a musician. The song "Like A Rolling Stone" still exists, more or less, in Junior's time. The only memory he has of his father is him stumbling home drunk from the bar bellowing it while all the other fathers are going past him in the opposite direction, heading off to work.
"When the Deal Goes Down"
Latter-day Dylan is better than olden-day Dylan. Because his words always mean something now. He knows what he is talking about now. Before he was just channeling his own talent and instincts and did not seem to know what he was saying exactly or what he meant—a lot of times it maybe just sounded good to him. Anyway, this song I think is about being committed to someone until death. "I'll be with you when the deal goes down." Junior and Maria meet as youngsters and end up together through old age. She is one of the few constants in his life. She is his base. I think she probably has a rosier view of the relationship than he does. She does not know exactly how he makes his money, but she knows enough to not want to know more than she does. She just wants him. And the support he gives her children. She has love to give. She has given it to the wrong men. She believes this is the right one to give it to. Her children need health insurance, after all.
"Tears of Rage"
This is Josefina's theme song. Josefina is the mother whose son Junior beats to (eventual) death. "Tears of rage, tears of grief." Though she is not one to wallow in grief. Nor is she one to even let herself cry many tears of rage. As she says, "I'm Italian. We don't tolerate shit. We fix it." She'll go to whatever lengths are necessary to fix the wrong that has been inflicted upon her and her child.
"It's Not Dark Yet"
Everyone has to face death. Or aging, then death. Even those who believe they are immortal. This song I think would be a good soundtrack for the end of the novel. It is about death closing in after all the running. "I've been to London, and I've been to gay Paree. I've followed the river and I got to the sea… It's not dark yet but it's getting there." This encapsulates Junior's decades on the run and the inevitability of death. I think it is interesting how Junior faces it. "I was born here and I'll die here against my will." Also appropriate. Read the book, you'll see.
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door"
Because any list of Dylan songs that regard a novel about death must include this one. There are no better songs about death than Dylan songs.
James Boice and The Good and the Ghastly links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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