May 25, 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.
"A poignant but rigorously unsentimental account of hard-won maturity."
O Magazine wrote of Vandal Love:
"If this unusual story—like its characters—occasionally seems to wander without a clear destination, the final stunningly poignant pages prove that Béchard knew exactly where he was taking us all along."
Despite their differences in style and genre, Vandal Love (a novel) and Cures for Hunger (a memoir) are, for me, interlocking books. I wrote the first draft of Cures for Hunger seventeen years ago, a few months after my father's death, and in it, I tried to make sense of my relationship with him as well as his life of crime. But in the process of researching French-Canadian history and meeting his family in Québec for the first time when I was twenty-two, I realized how much of Franco-American history was forgotten. I wanted to write the stories of these people who hadn't quite found their place in the country. However, I also needed to distance myself from my father's narrative and craved to write a book that aligned me with a different lineage, paying homage to the writers who'd inspired my love for literature.
Vandal Love was the product of this. The two books overlapped for several years before I focused almost exclusively on Vandal Love for much of my mid to late twenties. Only after I published it was I able to finish Cures for Hunger. The two playlists that I have made could as easily be for one book as for the other, or could be played together. They generally evoke travel, a feeling of being lost in the continent, of searching for a place and a new identity. Vandal Love is also a very silent book, the characters often wordless, locked in solitude, struggling to reach out to others. For one of the characters, Bart, only music allows him to express his rage and create a soundtrack for his life.
Aside from the songs listed below, I frequently listened to four albums while working on these books: Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, the anonymously composed Mass for the End of Time, and Eleni Karaindrou's Ulysses' Gaze. All helped me find certain moods, or simply created a space, a release from silence.
"Cold Cold Ground" — Tom Waits
Each time I listen to this song, I think of the violent absurdity of human lives, the random dreams that we constantly have to bury. Writing Vandal Love, I listened to it often. It helped me stay close to the fragility and desperation of my characters. I first fell in love with the song when I heard it in Jean-Claude Lauzon's film, Léolo, about a French Canadian boy who dreams that he is really Italian, the product of his mother having fallen on a tomato that an Italian man had masturbated on in Italy. For me, both Léolo and Vandal Love felt as if inspired by a similar sort of frustration: that of being trapped in a story that is too small and hopeless.
"Cap Enragé" — Zachary Richard
For me, all of the songs by this Acadian musician evoke displacement and the longing that results from it. "Cap Enragé" describes how close people lived to the natural world that both allowed them to survive and threatened their lives, a theme present in the opening of Vandal Love.
"Yankee Doodle" — Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell
The rhythms of this banjo duel suggest both the loneliness of America's vast and isolating landscapes, as well as the frenetic energy of its people. Writing Vandal Love, I often felt how the characters could fall out of the world, in a stillness pregnant with desire, and then, meeting another, rush back into conflict.
"La Maudite Guerre" — 1755
The song's name means the Damned War, and it describes the effects of the French and Indian War on a boy soldier who tells his beloved that he'll soon be home. When he finally gets back, she has married, and everything he loved is gone. The band, from New Brunswick, is named 1755 for the year that the British expulsed the Acadians, breaking up families and dropping them off along the eastern coast of the US. The song captures this sense of loss and longing, of people who can no longer find their place in the world because of circumstances beyond their control.
"King of the Road" — Roger Miller
This classic simply reminds me of a time when the drifter became a feature of the American landscape. In Vandal Love, I imagine songs like this playing in the cabs of the big trucks plying the highways. It was also a song that made me crave travel when I was a teenager, during my obsession with drifters, as described in Cures for Hunger.
"Mon Joe" — Paul Piché
The sadness and longing in this song call to mind Jude's search to connect with a woman and the feeling of comfort he briefly has with Louise. Its simplicity reminds me Westron Wynde (Western Wind), a fragment of medieval poetry written down as a song in 1530. It also evokes for me how François felt with Ernestine.
"Man of Constant Sorrow" — Bob Dylan
Like many of the other songs, this one is infused with the American landscape and its peoples' longings and struggles. At one point, I made a playlist that consisted only of different versions of this song, and listened to it so as to sensitize myself to how so many different voices could express such a deep and familiar emotion. A number of the versions were from the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? The artists in my playlist included Dan Tyminski, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice, David Grisman, John Hartford, Tim O'Brien, and Norman Blake.
"Walkin' to New Orleans" — Buckwheat Zydeco
With this song, I nudged my brain a little closer to the rhythms and sounds of Louisiana. It also evokes the silent people constantly trying to get somewhere: "I got no time for talkin' / I'm gonna keep on walkin.'"
"Crazy Train" — Ozzy Osbourne
When Bart first hears heavy metal music, he falls in love with its rage, with how powerful it makes him feel. With this as his soundtrack, he is no longer a helpless boy. The following line evokes Bart's story as he moves through the country, seeking truth: "I've listened to preachers / I've listened to fools / I've watched all the dropouts who make their own rules."
"Flight of the Icarus" — Iron Maiden
As with "Crazy Train," this song offers Bart a soundtrack for the epic narrative he imagines, and yet it also suggests how easy the fall will be.
"Iron Man" — Black Sabbath
In the same vein, "Iron Man" is part of Bart's mythology, the abandoned or rejected man who returns with more power to take his revenge. It was very much an anthem in rural Virginia when I was growing up.
"Fade to Black" — Metallica, or Iron Horse Bluegrass
This song captures Bart's despair, the feeling that he can't stop failing no matter how hard he tries. I listened to both the original version as well as the Iron Horse Bluegrass version that reminded me of how much an expression of the American landscape heavy metal quickly became.
"Le Blues d'la Métropole" — Beau Dommage
This Québécois classic calls to mind the years during which François grows up in Montréal, the time of Expo '67, and the feeling of change in the province after the Quiet Revolution.
"Sweet Dreams" — Eurythmics
Both this song and the next one are a good transition to Cures for Hunger. François listens to it sadly: "He was on the Trans-Canada. The Eurythmics were singing Sweet Dreams, and he considered this age of change and its magic." The song was also one of my father's favorites when I was child. The line, "Everybody is looking for something," spoke to him, and each time it came on the radio, he liked to point out to me how true this was.
"Sacred Chants of Shiva" — Craig Pruess
This thirty-minute song often provided me with a sort of meditative white noise to write when I was in distracting settings. The way the song attempts to fill all of the auditory registers and draw the senses inward made me think of the trancelike state that Harvey seeks in Vandal Love. It was a song that also helped me focus when I was writing Cures for Hunger.
"Misguided Angel" — Cowboy Junkies
I listened to this song often while working on the many incarnations of Cures for Hunger. The day that I returned to my father after a five year absence, it was the first song that played on the radio when he started his truck. I was never able to forget it.
"Gravity" — Alison Krauss and Union Station
All of the songs on the Lonely Runs Both Ways album resonate with my own travels and my sense of the United States, the people I met when I was a teenager, wandering or escaping my father.
"The Weight" — The Band
Growing up, I loved songs about lost people trying to find a place or to get back to something good. This song held all of that for me, as well as the strange and incongruous encounters I had in my travels.
"My Ride's Here" — Bruce Springsteen
Written by Warren Zevon and Paul Muldoon, this brilliant song evokes for me the leveling power of death, even for those with the greatest dreams. I listened to it frequently in my last year of working on Cures for Hunger. Springsteen plays this version in memory of Zevon, who had just passed away.
"Friend of the Devil" — Grateful Dead
There are numerous versions of this song that I love, among them that which Grisman and Garcia did together. Listening to it, I remember people like my father, always on the run, always trying to justify their failures and to find a dream they never seem to be able to reach.
"I Shot the Sheriff" — Bob Marley
The mentality of the man on the run is perfectly crystallized in this song. The fact that he shot the sheriff but "did not shoot the deputy" reminds me of how my father thought. He would tell me something terrible he did but then find a way to redeem himself. In the song, the sheriff is killed because he is bad. But if the narrator were bad, too, he would have also shot the deputy. He didn't, which is proof of his goodness, that he was a victim of circumstances.
"Highway Patrolman" — Johnny Cash
The storytelling in this song and in many of the others on Cash's album Murder are reminiscent of how my father talked about his past. This particular song doesn't resonate in content, but its emotion—the narrator's struggle to protect his brother even when he is opposed to him—recall for me how hard it is to reconcile the blood bond with our personal values.
"Revelator" — Gillian Welch
"Time's the revelator," Welch sings in the chorus, wary not only of her own words but those of others who might try to speak the truth. Above all, I relate to the song's feeling—a sense I had when I was a teenager, of trying to find something and knowing I wouldn't. All I could do was wait out what I was living through and let myself feel it.
"Have You Ever Seen the Rain" — CCR
This Credence Clearwater Revival song speaks only of the elements, of the cycle of sun and rain, as if this is all that exists, like our joy and pain. It's a feeling I've often had. The way the natural world occupies the senses sometimes seems like the nearest thing to the truth, and I often felt this writing Cures for Hunger, describing my father and me together or alone in nature, the closest we ever came to being content.
"Helpless" — KD Lang
When I was a teenager, trying to figure out where I was heading, I often listened to Neil Young. This song, though composed by him, is covered by KD Lang on her Hymns of the 49th Parallel album. Lang's version is the one I listened to more often in the final years of writing Cures for Hunger. It captures the way that our memories of the place from which we come master us. We never quite feel complete outside this place. Some part of us is always there, even when we are looking for a new home—a theme that is also central to Vandal Love.
The Iowa Review review of Cures for Hunger
Kirkus Reviews review of Cures for Hunger
Kirkus Reviews review of Vandal Love
Minneapolis Star Tribune review of Cures for Hunger
Publishers Weekly review of Vandal Love
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