October 7, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Tony D'Souza's Mule is a clever, fast-paced and suspenseful novel about a freelance journalist turned drug courier when the economy sours. If you enjoy the television show Breaking Bad, you will love this book.
Not surprisingly, the novel has already been optioned for a film.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"A smart and bracing ground-level exploration of the drug trade."
I started writing Mule, my new novel about a young professional couple who turn to drug trafficking to survive the recession, on November 8, 2009. I remember the date well because I had been working on a different novel for almost two years, when I realized it sucked. It was a nightmare: my wife and I were desperate for income. She'd been laid off from her retail job a year and a half before, and I couldn't get freelance writing assignments to save my life. Our daughter was 14 months, our son was 3 months. After admitting the novel had failed, I smoked a cigarette, then sat down and cranked out the first twenty pages of what would become Mule.
I just started writing about all the shit we had been experiencing: the humiliation of being laid off, the babies coming, living in constant economic fear. We have tons of friends in the drug trafficking world from our many years living in that culture in far Northern Cali, and I saw them surviving the recession well. So I just put my hero, James, in the situation we were in—broke, overwhelmed, and afraid, with no good alternative solutions—and pretty soon had him driving heavy weights of dope interstate and bringing in money for his family. Knowing the kinds of stress and trouble our real drug trafficker friends live with, it made for an interesting story. Good people forced to take big risks to survive. But also the intimate moments we were experiencing as new parents.
So here's my soundtrack for Mule. It's filled with lots of twists and turns, so I'm going to be careful not to give away any spoilers.
James and Kate are living the high life in the wild party scene in Austin, they're bright young things; the recession is yet to come and everyone is living large. They fall in love hard and fast…
Tapes n' Tapes—"Freak Out"
This frenetic song captures what it's like to hurry from party to party, to be drunk and high and alive, surrounded by people, not even having a clue where you are, or caring. What it's like to be filled with confidence, to grab somebody and kiss them in a crowd… what's it's like to fall in passionate love: "Will you look me in my eye? Will you run from what you seek? Will you see me in the light?...I hope you stay…"
Kate comes home and tells James she's lost her job. He can't get any work either. Their good life has come to an end just like that. She's pregnant and there's nothing they can do to change what's happening. They retreat across country to her parents' place in Nor Cal, where they live cheaply in a cabin as they wait for the baby to be born.
Jose Gonzales—"Down the Line"
This beautiful, brooding acoustic piece has a lot of resigned melancholy to it. The somber energy that builds in it suggests the motion and change that sometimes happens to us whether we like it or not: "I see problems down the line…I see darkness down the line…Don't let the darkness eat you up…Don't let the darkness eat you up…"
The first turning point in James' and Kate's transition into drug traffickers comes when she gives birth to their daughter. Despite the poverty they're living in, the landscape of the Siskiyou Mountains is unbelievably beautiful and sweeping. James drives her to the hospital in a snowstorm. She almost gives birth in the car and the world goes quiet around him as he worries she and the baby will die. It's then that he realizes that nothing matters to him but them.
The National—"Fake Empire"
The ethereal, out-of-body tone of this piece not only captures the landscape, but also James' sense of detachment and strangeness as he drives Kate down the mountain when she's in labor. The birth of a baby is such a wildly weird and emotional experience. I wrote this scene exactly how I felt when I saw my wife struggling to have our daughter, and then the relief when I held our baby in my hands. It gave me a whole new perspective on everything I'd ever thought before, made so much else seem silly: "It's hard to keep track of you falling through the sky…We're half awake in our fake empire…We're half awake…"
After hooking up with Nor Cal growers, James' early career as a mule goes pretty well. He's making a ton of cash, is on the road all the time, seeing America as he moves dope…his economic fears seem to have come to an end…and yet there is a darkness in him at times that he recognizes as greed.
Great road song for a road book, the beat carries you down the highway. The tempo is bright and shiny and optimistic. The lyrics, however, hint at more: "I change shapes just to hide in this place, but I'm still an animal…There is this hole…I try to fill it with money…"
James makes a major connection in Florida, where he and Kate have moved. Their lives change quickly. James has to work hard to please his new buyer. The money is changing him and Kate. The work of drug trafficking is turning out to be a more involved and stressful than they'd guessed.
Ace Hood—"Hustle Hard"
Everyone knows this track right now, and that's good. It's going to be one of the anthems of this shitty recession. Something James realizes in Mule is that the African American community has been dealing with the economic reality he's now facing for a long time. Certain situations happen to him that force him to be harder than he knew he could be. This song reflects James', mine, and lots of people's rage at the stress of life right now: "Mama need a house, baby needs some shoes….Guess what I'm a do: Hustle, Hustle, Hustle, Hard…Hustle, Hustle, Hustle, Hard…"
James and Kate suddenly have money. There's a reason people who get large in the business have to break out the hardware. It's not like they can call the police when they have a dispute with someone. You have to resolve it yourself, sometimes bringing pain to someone before it's brought to you. Especially when you have kids. Some pretty bad shit happens to James at this point in the book, a long, surreal scene that's as odd as it is bloody.
Uffie—"Pop the Glock"
A familiar anthem, it's always great to hear Uffie's sweet and innocent voice rhyming about capping people. You can almost see her snapping gum in pigtails while pulling the trigger. The subdued tempo of the song suggests rolling the streets late at night, making a plan, and getting yourself ready for trouble: "Me and he are cruising militia, better watch out my clan gets vicious…Crunk and crime are my bloodline… That's how we do…We do it hot…If you're out of line it's your Bang-Pop!"
Since James is on the road all the time, Kate is stuck with the baby, and starts finding her own ways of handling her loneliness. James is more addled than she can ever know by things that have been going on, because he's keeping big, dark secrets from her now. Still, he's a faithful husband who loves to come home and spend time with his girl. And every once in awhile, they enjoy their money and connect with each other just the way they used to.
This is my wife and mine's love song. And since James and Kate are based on us, it's theirs, too. The symphonic ecstasy of The Killers' most famous tune will be our lasting memory of our passion, pleasure, youth, and the unbridled sexual and emotional love that led to our kids. Every time I hear it, I think of my wife. "Don't you want to come with me? Don't you want to feel my bones, on your bones? It's only natural… Come and take a swim with me. Don't you want to feel my skin, on your skin?"
Back to business, James is overwhelmed by his own greed, and shocked by the sense of self-worth and power the money gives him. Not that much time has passed since he started getting behind the wheel and moving weight, but he's succumbed to money lust and knows it. A friend needs some help with a deal. A new, and different James shows up on the scene. Kate's pregnant with their second. James is taking bigger risks.
Damian Marley—"Welcome to Jamrock"
This track always brings out the thug inside of me. But when you listen close, it's not glorifying violence at all. It's a political meditation about the roots of crime and violence. I definitely wanted to talk about racial inequality in Mule. James gets away with what he's doing because he's white. An African American character tells James he likes seeing white people suffer in the recession for a change. Marley offers this: "Come on let's face it, a ghetto education's basic, and most of them youths, them waste it…That's when them get their guns replace it…And them don't stand no chance at all…"
James has some psychological problems to deal with now, and his drinking doesn't help. On the road, he spends a lot of nights in shitty motels, wondering about what's happened, and what going to happen to him and his family because of everything he's done.
The Be Good Tanyas—"Waitin' Around to Die"
My good friend Stewart Cummings turned me on to the Tanyas many years ago when we were hardscrabble construction workers in the Highlands of Scotland. I guess the Appalachians run all the way up to Canada, because the Tanyas own the sound. So beautiful, sorrowful, haunting. Nobody captures depression on the road like them: "Sometimes I don't know where this dirty road is taking me. I guess I'll keep gambling, lots of booze, and lots of rambling…It's easier than waiting around to die."
James and Kate live separate lives. Will their marriage even last? What has been the point of this mad and blind grab for money? James finds himself doing the one thing he promised her he never would. Does he even love Kate and the kids? Or just the money?
Amy LaVere—"Never Been Sadder"
Amy had to play her stand-up bass in her underwear on Craig Brewer's "5 Dollar Cover" on MTV, which I may be one of the only people in America to have watched because they put it on so late on Friday nights. Still, the song is a gem, especially that version. Her voice is mournful, the song simple, the loss huge. We've all been there, that moment when you know you've fucked up something good: "I've never been sadder. I've never been more sad. It feels like the beginning of something real bad…I wanted to be free. Now I am alone…"
Well, I definitely can't give away the ending of Mule. But it's crazy, violent, angry, wicked, murderous, and beautiful all at once. It sums up my own experience of the recession. It's about fear, love, hate, and family. It's so fucking hectic. My heart raced all through writing the last five pages.
Led Zeppelin—"The Battle of Evermore" and Jimi Hendrix—"Machine Gun"
I love the Celtic beauty of the strings of "Battle," the way the song mounts all the way up into pure shrieking and caterwauling. "…picks up your swords…the sky is filled with good and bad…shoot straight and then be gone…" I love the tension, lament, and blunt sonic power of Hendrix on "Machine Gun." "Machine gun, tearing my body all apart…evil man make me kill ya, evil man make you kill me…machine gun." Then the blaring feedback without any relief or end. Pure pain. Pure loss and lament.
Tony D'Souza and Mule links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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