October 12, 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.
Andrew Cotto's novel Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery is so lyrical and filled with suspense, Publishers Weekly likened it to "Raymond Chandler taking dictation from Walt Whitman."
The Brooklyn Rail wrote of the book:
"Cotto writes about New York exquisitely. Outerborough Blues, with its vivid maze of streets and people, is a poetic, shivering noir mystery, consistently elegant despite its gritty terrain of the heart, head, and sidewalk."
Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery, is about a drifter named Caesar Stiles who is trying to remedy a family curse while simultaneously finding a missing art student in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. It's a gritty story, layered with rhythm and elegance (like a great record). Music plays a key role in the novel in ways both obvious and oblique. The obvious manner in which music informs the novel is when Blues songs play at the The Notch, the restaurant/bar where Caesar works. It is noted early that a love of the Blues is the only thing he and his boss - the powerful and clandestine "Captain" – have in common. The songs that play at The Notch are supposed to mimic the mood of specific scenes. The less obvious influence of music was in the songs that I had in my head while shaping the ambiance of the book as a whole. These were the songs that matched the various moods or motifs of the novel. Songs that captured themes that appeared in my mind while putting them on the page:
"Digs" by Tom Freund
It's no accident that this song ended up being used in the book's trailer. With its slow, bluesy, flowing progression, the atmosphere of the story is captured beautifully while the lyrics speak to the novel's overriding theme of gentrification. I also love the style added by the organ work of Jimmy Smith. It's like Tom wrote this song to accompany my novel (or vice versa). I hear this tune in the opening scene of the film version I have in my head.
"Rollin' & Tumblin'" by Muddy Waters
This Blues standard – in arguably its best version - is playing on the stereo during the end of the main narrative's first scene. Caesar is at the bar, contemplating the request from a strange and beautiful French girl to help find her missing brother. Overwhelmed by a whirlwind of emotions and options and possibilities, Caesar "lit a cigarette...and listened to Muddy Waters ‘Roll & Tumble' as the French girl sulked and sipped her sparkling wine" while making his decision. The relentless slide guitar and the rapid verses laced with sadness mimic Caesar's circumstances.
"Saturday Night Fish Fry" by Louis Jordan
Not mentioned by name, this is the type of festive, rollicking R&B song that is playing at The Notch on nights when the joint is jumping, like it was in the narrative's second scene when "A 'jump' record spun as Louie Jordan, with his horns and rhythms, stomped a high-energy blues through the speakers." This selection speaks not only to the mood of the room but the culture of the crowd: An upscale and stylish African-American clientele who know how to roll up their sleeves and let down their hair.
"Boom Boom" by John Lee Hooker
This is a catchy tune with a sinister undercurrent, and it's appropriately playing at The Notch when Caesar enters late one afternoon to find the Captain holding court with his partner Montgomery. The two men joke with Caesar, but the rare camaraderie is threaded with the indication of threat. Caesar is just underway with his investigation yet the dangers that await his foray into the neighborhood's underbelly are first hinted at here. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
"Approach" by Chris Cubeta and the Liars Club
This song didn't even exist until after the novel's completion, but – upon hearing it – I was immediately reminded of an urgency that informs so much of the novel's drive: the character of Caesar is not going anywhere, despite his itinerancy. The steady, staccato strumming of the guitar chords and pointed drum rhythm reminded me of Caesar's dilemma of unsuccessful reconciliation. He's controlled – like the music; but flailing – like the song's subject. The tension this creates is palpable. What's worse than wasted time? This, ultimately, is what inspires Caesar to immerse himself in the mystery.
"Killing Floor" by Howlin' Wolf
When Caesar runs head first into the Captain's awareness of his mission, and the threats that it represents, there's no more apropos backing track than this: "Howlin' Wolf growled regret over a wicked guitar riff as I entered The Notch, sweaty and late. The joint was a mess. The Captain looked even worse." It's now on for Caesar – the threat he represents and the frightening reality it might manifest. This is a visceral and clutching song, one that fits perfectly into the bloody narrative that's about to unfold.
"Lonesome Day Blues" by Bob Dylan
The essence of blues and Americana and storytelling in this song stayed with me throughout the creation of this novel. I was never much a fan of Dylan until this record, but Love & Theft, and this song in particular, convinced me of his genius and inspired much of the story's atmosphere. The mythic depiction of American anti-heroes matched Caesar's pragmatism and grit. Our protagonist is flawed but aware of an imperfect world, one that he will do his best to endeavor through with a sense of swagger. I just love the muscular groove of this song that is so quintessentially American.
"If You Don't Want Me Baby" by Jimmy Reed
After the big night at The Notch orchestrated by Caesar, the younger man joins his boss for a celebratory cocktail or two: "I went behind the bar to get another beer, and put on some Jimmy Reed, the bouncing blues matching our ebullient mood." Such moments at The Notch were rare (and short-lived in this case), but the choice of Jimmy Reed was perfect while the moment lasted.
"Love Is Heavy" by Julianna Nash
The aching, elegiac beauty of this song always reminds me of Caesar. His tragic circumstances and broken plans, the spectral aspect of his past that so informs his present. His longing for place and connection so often belied by the flaws of his own character and the flaws of those he meets. I like to think that somewhere in reconciling this reality is where redemption lies for Caesar.
Andrew Cotto and Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery links:
Carroll Gardens Patch profile of the author
Chapters and Chats interview with the author
Christi Craig interview with the author
Huffington Post contributions by the author
The Measure interview with the author
MysteryPod interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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
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