April 24, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Seth Greenland's novel The Angry Buddhist is the perfect summer read for me, a smart, funny, and dark literary political thriller. I wasn't the only one impressed, Showtime is developing a series based on the book.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
"Novelists too need to be nimble, and "The Angry Buddhist" is a wild entertainment as well as a novel about the way we live now that dares to dance with the profound."
The Angry Buddhist is the contemporary story of the three Duke brothers: a cop, criminal and Congressman. Darkly comic, the novel is set in the Mojave Desert of southern California in the boomerang shaped area that descends west from Twentynine Palms down to Palm Springs and then southeast to the Salton Sea.
To create an internal soundtrack that would allow me to envision the hypnotic and harsh desert landscape I listened to a lot of alt country music between writing sessions, stuff like "Dead Flowers" by Townes Van Zandt and "Crazy Mary" by Victoria Williams, an artist whose ethereal, otherworldly voice perfectly evokes both the majesty and the deep weirdness of the desert. (Travelers take note: She gigs regularly at Pappy and Harriet's, a barbecue joint near the desert town of Joshua Tree, Ca.)
So what happens in the book? The week before Election Day something involving all three Duke brothers goes spectacularly off the rails and threatens to destroy their lives. It's a deeply American story of family, patriotism and murder.
Jimmy Duke, the middle brother, has lost his job as a police detective on the Desert Hot Springs force when the story begins. He's quit drinking, his marriage has crumbled and he's taking an on-line Buddhist meditation course to deal with his anger. Plying the desert roads in his truck, Jimmy listens to a lot of country music on the CD player. Because he's dealing with personal and professional troubles absent a firm belief system, a song that vividly evokes his existential predicament is the Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson cry-in-your-beer duet "No Reason To Quit."
Randall Duke, the eldest brother, is running for a fourth term in Congress. Handsome and charming, he's a serial philanderer and a pathological narcissist. When I see him bounding on stage at a political rally the song I hear is "Made In America," by Toby Keith. The song rocks like the hotel maid Randall had sex with on his last vacation while his wife was getting a spa treatment. Here's the chorus: "He's got the red, white and blue flying high on the barn/Semper Fi tattooed on his left arm/Spends a little more at the store for a tag in the back that says USA/ Won't buy nothing he can't fix/With WD-40 and a Craftsman wrench/He ain't prejudice, he's just made in America." Re-Elect Randall!
Dale Duke, the youngest brother is a lifelong criminal who has just been released from prison where he was serving time for breaking and entering. He's a much more twisted version of Presidential siblings Billy Carter or Roger Clinton, the kind of black sheep a lot of politicians try to keep hidden but often burst out like a substance-abusing jack-in-the-box. Covered in prison tattoos, Dale dreams of a career as a rapper. He carries a notebook in which he jots his rhymes and sometimes speaks in doggerel verse. Trick Daddy's "Ain't a Thug" conjures him well.
Dale's sister-in-law Kendra Duke is Randall's ambitious but long-suffering wife. A former USC drum majorette, she had a brief career as a singer in a 70s revival band working state fairs before deciding to become Mrs. Randall Duke. Kendra is a glamorpuss who tries to project dignity. When she steps into a room, the song I imagine she hears in her head is one she sang at the Indiana State Fair twenty years earlier, the Isley Brothers 70s gem "Who's That Lady?"
Maxon Brae is Randall's chief aide and political brain. Imagine Karl Rove with a Smith and Wesson. Then make him a sociopath. Maxon is a closeted gay man in love with Randall. He's the guy who gets the phone call at 2:30 in the morning and is saddled with the responsibility of cleaning up after whatever disaster has occurred. He's very tightly wound and his musical equivalent would be found in the hyper-controlled beats of Kraftwerk or Gary Numan's song "Cars."
Randall's opponent is Mary Swain, a sexually magnetic former stewardess. Referred to by the national press as the "Desert Fox," she mouths the conservative line of a strong military and no taxes but dresses like a hooker standing at the bar of a four star hotel in Beverly Hills. She's not interested in music beyond what she hears while watching Dancing With the Stars, but a song that serves a heaping portion of the bellicosity she conveys in front of her adoring crowds is Pat Benatar's macho-feminist cocktail "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."
Her biggest supporter is the politically ambitious Desert Hot Springs Police Chief Harding Marvin. He's a former Marine in a bad marriage secretly pining for Mary Swain and campaigning energetically on her behalf. Tall and commanding with a shaved head, Hard experiences a reversal of fortune that completely upends his all-powerful notion of himself. Although Hard's own taste would run more toward Queen's "We Will Rock You," the song I hear as he rails against his fate is the more plaintive "Waitin' For A Superman" by the Flaming Lips.
Odin Brick and House Cat are two freelancers Dale Duke recruits to help solve an intractable campaign problem. House Cat is a former inmate of Calipatria State Prison with dreams of opening a bed and breakfast in a high desert town. Odin is ex-military, married to a Phillipina former stripper and desperate for money. When House Cat and Odin are driving their beater down a deserted desert road on a starlit night, the song crunching in my head is "Enter Sandman" by Metallica.
Nadine Never came to the desert to be a tennis coach at an upscale resort but lost that job and now works in a tanning salon called Fake ‘n' Bake. A lover of two of the main characters, she is bi-curious and a great deal of trouble. When she jams a salad fork in the neck of a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, she knows her time in the desert is drawing to a close. I listened to a lot of Best Coast last year and her song "I Wish You Were My Boyfriend" would be perfect for this character, but it's a little on the head. So as Nadine prepares for her new life, Nick Cave's "Death Is Not The End" plays her off stage.
Randall and Kendra have a teenaged daughter named Brittany. Extremely bright and equally disaffected, she has no time for either of her parents. A silent watcher, Brittany takes in everything her parents do and finds all of it wanting. I'll assign her the song "Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus and tell her it's meant paradoxically. She would probably tell me she hates that song and suggest I choose something like "California Uber Alles" by the Dead Kennedys.
Sigmund Freud, were he writing this piece, might conclude that The Angry Buddhist is about sex and death and that's partially correct. It's also about what happens when the people you love betray you and finding a way to keep going when everything you were taught to hold dear proves to be an illusion. How to encapsulate this in a song? Perhaps something like the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun." But irony is trading cheap these days so I'll cite Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain?" for the sense of impending apocalypse contained in it's sad, rolling melody and the Biblical feeling provided by a desert rainstorm that washes everything away.
Seth Greenland and The Angry Buddhist links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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