November 8, 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.
Barbara Shoup's novel An American Tune is an intensely personal story of life in the 1960s, one that elegantly captures the effect of the Vietnam war on everyday lives.
ForeWord Reviews wrote of the book:
"Some writers have a gift for creating cozy scenes and comfortable locales despite a larger context of unease and violence. In her new novel An American Tune, Barbara Shoup accomplishes this: meticulously establishing pleasant, comfortable settings of seemingly well-lived lives, then undercutting them with the creeping shadow of a very messy reality. In this case it’s the Vietnam war."
What's left to say about the Sixties, really? Most of us Boomers are in our sixties now—and young people trapped at the dinner table listening to us tell our stories probably feel like we did, listening to our parents blather on about World War II and the Great Depression. Most of us fall into four categories: Terminally Homesick for Those Idyllic Times; Been There/Done That/Moved On; I Never Smoked Marijuana and If I Did, I Certainly Did Not Inhale; or Wrecked. I fall into a fifth, considerably smaller category: Still Trying to Figure Out What Happened to us.
An American Tune explores that question through the unraveling of Jane Barth, a girl from a working class background, who went underground after her involvement in a deadly bombing and, in time, became Nora Quillen, a wife and mother living a quiet life in northern Michigan. Its title comes from these lyrics in the Paul Simon song of the same name: "We come on the ship they call Mayflower/We come on the ship that sailed the moon/We come in the age's most uncertain hour/And sing an American tune."
It has a built-in playlist: each chapter is named for a song from the Sixties era—though the songs they're named for don't necessarily "play" in the story on the page. Instead, I wanted each song to play inside the reader's head, deepening its effect in the book by triggering that strange slippage of time that can occur when an old song comes on the radio and, suddenly you're the person once were, listening to it, rattled by the wash of joy or longing or ancient sense of possibility it brings. For me, now, hearing one of the songs on the playlist creates a schizophrenic effect. I'm my young self, fully alive in that other time; I'm also Nora/Jane, wherever the song is playing in her fictional life.
"Turn, Turn, Turn" The Byrds
Folk rock: cool music with ideas in it. Later, music with ideas in it would turn angry, but for a little time, smack in the middle of the Sixties, it captured a generation's awakening to injustice and made them begin to feel that they could and should do something about it. Jane is drawn to it. Sometimes, walking through the Student Union, she peers into to the campus coffeehouse, where thin, soulful-looking guys with beards and girls dressed in black sit on bar stools with their guitars, playing sweet, apocalyptic songs. But to go in might risk her relationship with her new boyfriend, Tom—and, at least right now, she just wants to be the girl he sees in her. So she walks away, toward the Commons and the safe rebellion the Stones and Kinks and Animals on music on the jukebox there.
"Unchained Melody" The Righteous Brothers
"All those stupid junior high movies, parents tongue-tied, mortified in the face of it. The threats, the whispering about how boys wouldn't respect you if you went too far—or, heaven forbid, all the way. The bad girls who'd done it anyhow and disappeared for a semester, a year maybe, nobody knew exactly where, though there was plenty of talk about them, lots of murmured speculation when they came back, sometimes dull and sad, sometimes wilder, more reckless than they'd been before. Of course, of course, they hadn't dared tell what it was really like. The way the world disappeared, the way your whole body sang into the void."
I'm guessing that "Unchained Melody," one of the greatest make-out songs ever, took a whole lot of girls brought up in the prim and proper Fifties to that forbidden place.
"Fortunate Son" Creedence Clearwater Revival
Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the fortunate sons of the American middle and upper classes have options that keep them out of war. Those who can't afford an education enlist in the armed services, gambling their futures for training that will translate into employment or the opportunity to use the GI Bill to go to college. My brother, not a fortunate son, ended up in Vietnam just in time for the Tet Offensive—and returned to face years of alcoholism and drug addiction. Jane's brother, Bobby, dies there.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, as Nora, Jane's memories of Bobby haunt her, just as memories of my brother haunted me during that time. She's grief-stricken, enraged by the way the Bush administration had so neatly made Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein seem like the the same person. She's addicted to the news about a war that seems more and more inevitable and which her husband, a Viet Nam vet, refuses to talk about or even acknowledge.
"White Rabbit" The Jefferson Airplane
Full disclosure: I pretty much missed the "real" sixties. I was married, with a baby, at twenty, struggling to finish college; alcoholism in my family made me scared to death of drinking, let alone drugs. So I had a long research chat with my friend, Waddy, a Vietnam vet who came back, lived in a Volkswagen bus with his dogs, and went the whole nine yards with the mind-bending stuff. His trip is, more or less, the one Jane took that summer Pete came back from Vietnam.
"Teach Your Children" Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
I love this song and still know it pretty much by heart—but, having raised two children of my own and seen countless students through adolescence as a high school teacher—it now strikes me as, well, condescending. "And you, of tender years/Can't know the fears that your elders grew by/And so please help them with your youth/They seek the truth before they can die." Our parents were in their forties, in the prime of their lives. For Christ's sake, they must have thought if they actually listened to the lyrics. As if we have one foot in the grave! As if they have the slightest idea what the hell they're talking about!
Nora and her husband, Charlie, worked hard to create an idyllic childhood for their daughter, in a small town on the shore of Lake Michigan—and both fell under the spell of it themselves. When Claire leaves for college, they feel increasingly distant from one another. Worse, Claire's emails full of news about her new life at Indiana University make Nora long to answer with her own stories about being on campus there when she was young—and she feels for the first time the full weight of her decision to keep her past a secret from the person she loves most in the world.
"Long and Winding Road" The Beatles
Your first real, serious love stays with you forever and, if your paths separate, you can't help but wonder what your life would have been like if you'd stayed together. Seeing each other years later, by chance or circumstance, you might feel the simple pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend or a déjà vu moment of desire. Maybe you feel angry or bitter or sad about things left unresolved between you. You might also feel like you've come home, which is what happens to Nora when she sees Tom, whom she loved when she was Jane. Unexpectedly, life has brought her back to where she began and, opened a door she thought had been sealed shut by her long-ago choices. For better or worse, she can't help but go through it.
"MacArthur Park" Richard Harris
You either love this song or loathe it. I'm in the love it camp, though I get how people can think it's one of the most idiotic songs ever recorded. I mean, really: "And we were pressed in love's hot, fevered iron/like a striped pair of pants?" Not to mention, "MacArthur Park is melting in the dark/All the sweet green icing flowing down/Someone left the cake out in the rain/I don't think that I can take it/'Cause it took so long to bake it/and I'll never have that recipe again/Oh, no."
I don't care. That song kills me every single time I hear it. I wanted its urgency, grief, and collapse in the chapter in which Nora's unraveling is complete. Moments of her past melt into each other, more alive, more compelling than the present moment and, at the same time, irrevocably gone. She can't go backward, but has no idea how to go forward—and is scared to death she never will.
Barbara Shoup and An American Tune links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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