March 28, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Fred Waitzkin examines themes of ambition and love with clarity and honesty in his compelling new novel The Dream Merchant.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Waitzkin offers a singular and haunting morality tale, sophisticated, literary and intelligent. Thoroughly entertaining. Deeply imaginative. Highly recommended."
The Dream Merchant tells the story of a charismatic and caring but morally ambiguous salesman. Just as quickly as Jim achieves wealth and sky rocketing business success, he loses everything, leaving wives, lovers, friends and customers ruined and abandoned in his wake. As an old man he meets Mara, a beautiful Israeli woman, 40 years his junior with dark ambitions of her own. Jim tells her his rags-to-riches-to-ruin saga, but along the way he develops an insatiable and desperate need for this girl who will almost surely leave him as he has left so many others.
"It was still early and she was already inciting him with little jokes about tonight, dares and touching. He couldn't focus on finding work and he cared about money only to please her. Jim's days were pacing toward their cluttered bedroom. Nothing else mattered really, except to pull down her white tennis shorts and begin kissing her neck and under her lovely arms until she was giggling and he wouldn’t stop…He would do anything to keep her."
Music is everywhere in The Dream Merchant although sometimes you need to listen closely. My musical addictions and particularly my love for jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms came from my mother who was always playing LPs in our Long Island home. She was an abstract painter and she worked to the music of Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Erroll Garner, George Shearing. Their improvisations were always blasting on the hi-fi, which drove my salesman father crazy. At first I also hated Mother’s revved up dissonant music, but over time it seeped into my pores and became the back beat of my life, along with drumming. As a teenager, at my mom’s urging, I studied Afro-Cuban drumming and have pounded the skins ever since—mostly these days I teach the rhythms to my 15-month-old grandson, Jack Waitzkin, who is a natural. Believe me, this baby has rhythm.
In my writing, the rhythms of words and sentences inspire development of characters and plot. Prose rhythms take me to unexpected places. I write tapping my foot. If the beat is wrong, I cross it out. Sometimes my rhythms are quiet, but they are always there. In the Brazil sections of The Dream Merchant, the drumming gathers and becomes more insistent—try to listen for it—at least for me it gives urgency to the narrative.
When I was a young child, three or four years old, my mom would sing this song to me: "Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time./Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?"
The haunting melody of "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" came from a Russian lullaby that bore into my soul. I didn’t know then, of course, but this song was the anthem of shattered dreams of the Great Depression written by "Yip" Harburg and Jay Gorney and made popular by Bing Crosby. I only knew that Mother sang it to me over and over again, and as I grew older I mused upon the dissonance of having everything and all of a sudden having nothing at all. It was so terribly compelling that life could encompass such swings, almost like living and dying: "Say, don't you remember, they called me Al;/ it was Al all the time. Why don't you remember, I'm your pal? / Buddy, can you spare a dime?"
So many nights I just wanted the nameless man to remember his buddy, Al—to give him his due-- and it bothered me like hell that he didn’t. When I wrote The Dream Merchant, this line became a motif in the book. But more, "Brother" coursed through my being, pushed me to compose lusty opulent scenes as Jim soared to the top of the hill of life, and then I worked to capture his spiritual and material emptiness when he went broke. Some nights I sang the song to myself going home on my bike along the Hudson River, and it settled me down and kept me on course.
In The Dream Merchant, jazz comes center stage in the person of Ava, a lost-soul-beauty who is Jim’s second wife and the great love of his life. During the course of an unlikely and torrid love affair with a big celebrity and cultural icon (best to leave him nameless for now), her lover introduces Ava to the improvisational genius of Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Monk, Coltrane and George Shearing. Their musical ecstasies become the pulse of Ava’s shattering affair. Afterwards, she fends off loneliness and despair in a complicated marriage playing Joe Williams singing "Going to Chicago, sorry but I can’t take you…"—this becomes her anthem of grief and yearning. Eventually she introduces the music to her unusual son in much the way that my mom once played "Brother" for me.
The last movement of the novel takes place in the deep rain forest of Brazil, and it is no secret that this section draws inspiration from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Jim builds a lawless and violent gold mining operation, several hundred kilometers south of Manaus. In reality, it is a small empire in the jungle that mirrors Jim’s avarice and runaway ambition born from a thousand disappointments and mangled values. His camp is surrounded by hostile jungle, populated by hunting jaguars, disease, and marauding gunmen who would take over Jim’s "garimpo", steal his gold, and kill him along with his gunmen and workers. Jim’s hundreds of miners dig for gold in mud pits and live in the forest surrounding the camp. They do this filthy dangerous work to save money to bring home to poor families in the cities. Each night radiating into the forest there are sounds and smells of bacchanalian feasts and orgies. Jim’s working girls are gorgeous but extremely costly. At the periphery of the camp huge speakers blast the alluring love ballads of Frank Sinatra into the jungle—"Come Fly with me", "I’ve got you under my Skin", "My Funny Valentine", "Witchcraft"-- and the men in the forest are reminded that Jim’s women are irresistible. They are lured into Jim’s honey pot of endless desire and ruin by the great Sinatra.
Here is a list of songs and artists that I listened to when composing The Dream Merchant. Some are mentioned in the novel as well:
"Lullaby of Birdland" -– George Shearing
"Someone to Watch Over Me" -– George Shearing
"Lonely Woman"—Ornette Coleman
"Haitian Fight Song"—Charles Mingus
"Sister Sadie"—Horace Silver
"Song for my Father"—Horace Silver
"Nica’s Dream"—Horace Silver
"My Funny Valentine"—Frank Sinatra
"Come Fly with Me"—Frank Sinatra
"I’ve Got You Under My Skin"—Frank Sinatra
"My Funny Valentine"—Chet Baker
"Time After Time"—Chet Baker
"Brother Can You Spare A Dime"—Bing Crosby
"Brother Can You Spare A Dime"—Al Jolson
"Round About Midnight"—Thelonious Monk
"Blue Monk" —Thelonious Monk
"Misty" — Erroll Garner
"Teach Me Tonight"—Erroll Garner
"Autumn Leaves"—Erroll Garner
"Blue Train"—John Coltrane
"My Favorite Things"— John Coltrane
Kind of Blue—Miles Davis
Sketches of Spain—Miles Davis
"Sweet Sweet Baby"— Grace Kelly
"People Time"— Grace Kelly
"Going to Chicago"—Joe Williams
Fred Waitzkin and The Dream Merchant links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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