June 10, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kevin Desinger's debut The Descent of Man is a suspense-filled book that will please both fans of literary fiction and thrillers. Ingenious and original, the book reminded me (in the best ways) of the television series Breaking Bad as its protagonist's previously mild-mannered life hurtles out of control.
The Oregonian wrote of the book:
"Desinger is a debut novelist, but an experienced writer. His sure hand is apparent early on and does not waver. "The Descent of Man" is more literary than strictly plot-driven, but Desinger doesn't shy away from dramatic moments. Give one of Harlen Coben's everyday heroes a conscience, a wine cellar and a sensitive wife, and there you have Jim. "
In my teens I wrote a lot of bad poetry. I blame Paul Simon. My closest friend's girlfriend had a VW bug, and some nights I would chauffeur them out to the beach (this was Coos Bay, Oregon, in the late 60s, when the Vietnam War was winding down and Nixon was stinking it up in the White House). The driver got to choose the music, and I played and replayed all I could find of Simon and Garfunkel. My friends were absorbed with each other in the back seat (making out), and I felt alone in the best way I had ever known. "Sounds of Silence." I couldn't imagine what it took to write transcendent lyrics, but I had to try. "A Poem on the Underground Wall."
I was one year behind the Vietnam draft, making me a child of the hinge between the 60s and 70s. A group of us would gather in front of the TV when they drew the induction numbers; the war became a looming threat. We heard of upper classmen going into the Army and not returning. When the numbers started taking our friends, we talked about heading for Canada (cue Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild"). The year I was eligible my number was drawn but no one was drafted (now cue Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat").
Just out of high school, my brother and I tooled around Fairbanks, Alaska, in his Mustang listening to the soundtrack of Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye, having it resonate the way gangster music can quicken the lives of teenagers. The music was larger than we were, but we felt its pulse while we dabbled with cigarettes and night driving. Ten years later I finally watched the movie, and, except for the title song, all of the vitality drained out of the soundtrack. It had been reduced to the finite.
Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings" is an example of a song that is quiet even when cranked. It calls to mind a solo trip I made after grad school, from Iowa to Toronto, then out here to the west coast. I have an image of Lake Superior in the slanting light of evening as I drove the shoreline on the Canadian side; the song must have been scratching its way out of the pair of K-Mart speakers I had mounted to the transmission hump of my '72 Toyota Corona wagon. "As the night comes in a falling, the dogs will lose their bark." Still does it for me.
One of my favorite travel songs is Joni Mitchell's entire Hejira album. Perfect for the road (and reflects on that same road in many ways), but is strangely discordant with conversation. Like I imagine Joni herself, her music isn't for social gatherings or casual chat.
I prefer songs that are patient, non-repetitive, and tell a story. Emmylou Harris's "The Ballad of Poncho and Lefty" is a perfect example. "Small Change" by Tom Waits is another, with that lone saxophone and the gravelly voice of Waits taking you there. (And listening to them back to back just now, I find that their stories might be similar.)
Lyrics are like pottery glaze: A good glaze can save a poorly thrown pot, and a bad glaze can ruin a beautifully thrown pot. The well placed concrete detail, instead of the lazy generality, catches light: the camels in the driver's seat in the extended metaphor of Rickie Lee Jones's "The Last Chance Texaco."
Jim and Marla meet in the fourth chapter of my novel, with early Van Morrison rolling out of the speakers. Fans of Van have a lot of material to pick from. For me, the song is "Astral Weeks." In my taped collection of favorites this song is preceded by Leo Kottke's "Louise," a beautifully rendered, sparely told story. I can't hear one without thinking of the other. These two recall to me my early college days.
This was also when I first heard Bruce Springsteen, the rising star, when his lyrics had the same gritty texture that his world had. "Incident on 57th Street" is better in the various live versions, but I first heard it on his The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle album, which gives it better ghosts.
My wife Marianne & I were wooing each other back in '88, lost in the early days of love. She gave me a mixed tape of her favorite songs, one of which was "Under The Boardwalk" by The Drifters. After all these years I'm still amazed at how this song, and Marianne, can still draw me out of myself.
All this about stories, but I must mention two instrumentals: the Charlie Hunter Quartet version of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry," which is again sparely told, only here without words; and finally, "Fisher's Hornpipe" by Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor & Edgar Meyer, an all time favorite of mine from a favorite album. If serious musicians can enjoy themselves like this, it should be okay for a fiction hound like myself to take some of his music neat.
Kevin Desinger and The Descent of Man links:
Book Vault review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
Joseph's Reviews Blog review
New York Journal of Books review
Portland Book Review review
Portland Monthly 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)
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