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June 11, 2013

Book Notes - Craig Nova "All the Dead Yale Men"

All the Dead Yale Men

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.

Craig Nova follows up his acclaimed 1982 novel The Good Son with the equally impressive All the Dead Yale Men.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"'Long-awaited' is an overused phrase in publishers' promotional blurbs, but Nova's follow-up to his acclaimed 1982 novel The Good Son merits that description as much as any recent fiction, and it has been well worth the lengthy wait. Nova now brings forward more than one full generation his account of the Mackinnon family…[their] roots are in a richly described Delaware Valley, but this dark saga is also set in a seamy New England familiar to readers of George V. Higgins' classic The Friends of Eddie Coyle or Geoffrey Wolff's Providence. It is told with comparable verve, wit, horror, and beauty—even when vulgar, even repellent—and with images and set pieces that will haunt the reader long after they've put the book down. This gripping and intelligent chronicle of love, legacy, and betrayal (the title may suggest a genre mystery, which this surely isn't) captures a complex clan entangled in a questionable moral universe. Nova's Mackinnons, both here and in The Good Son, leave their edgy mark on the modern American literary landscape."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is Craig Nova's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, All the Dead Yale Men:


Never, in any book I have written, has there been such a definite, precise playlist as for All the Dead Yale Men.

This takes a little explaining, but the most haiku like version is that I was operating as an "executive producer" for a movie for another book of mine, a novel called Cruisers. I did this, took the job, because I wanted to have some control over what the movie was going to not only look like, but what it was going to feel like. And, at one point, when so many screenwriters had failed to produce a script that was good enough to shoot, I offered to do the script myself. I have had some experience as a screen writer, and have worked for Touchstone films and for some Canadian producers (where I did many, many drafts of a screen play for a book of mine called The Good Son, which is the novel to which All the Dead Yale Men is a sequel).

But, when I was doing the script, I was writing All The Dead Yale Men in the morning. Then I'd take a break, and do ten pages of the script.

Here is where the playlist for All The Dead Yale Men comes in. As someone who grew up in Hollywood, and as someone who has worked as a screen writer, and had friends who had books made into movies, I am naturally a student of film. And so, when I was doing the script for Cruisers, I thought I would write in the sound track, since I was inspired by one of the best soundtracks, from a dramatic point of view, in the history of film. This, of course, is Michael Mann's soundtrack for the Last of the Mohicans. Here's what makes it so good: he mixes songs behind a scene, so that the feeling of the sound advances as much as the drama of the acting and story. For instance, he mixed Enya with a Scottish Reel.

For All The Dead Yale Men, I wanted at least two tones, one a sort of hard driving, exciting pace- setting series of songs, and then a sort of ache (the book is about violence and love gone horribly wrong).

I should say that All The Dead Yale Men is about a father, a prosecutor, who blows his top at just the wrong moment, that is, when his daughter, who has done everything right, blows her top, too, and takes up with the wrong man. The father's name is Frank Mackinnon. The daughter is Pia MacKinnon.

But little did I know that when I was working on the script, I was really picking a sound track for the book I was writing in the morning. You can't just turn a book off, and in this case, when I was looking for music for the script, I really had a sort of emotional echo of the morning's work.

The director and I went our separate ways, as happens about 99 percent of the time in the movie business, but I still had the sound track. I took one look at it and realized that it wasn't for the script at all but for All The Dead Yale Men.

It would take too long to say which songs I wanted to dissolve into others, but I can say why I choose some of them that reflected on the book.

This is a very, very strange collection of music, and I have just been listening to it....

But, the first item is "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On," Jerry Lee Lewis' all time hard driving rock and roll. This, I now realize, reflected the energy of the book, the on rush of events, suicide, blackmail, the threat of violence, and violence itself...it all seemed to have a sort of hard driving quality that was right there in Jerry Lee Lewis.

Then there was the song for the ache, or one variety of aches in All the Dead Yale Men, and that was from Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien."

Most people listen to this, but don't know what the translation is, and there are a couple of lines here that put me in the right mood to write a character who is about to face a regular shit storm.

These are the lyrics in French:

Non, rein de rein
Non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal; ça m'est egal

This is roughly translated as

No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
Neither the good that’s been done to me,
Nor the bad; it is all the same!

Now, the thing that got to me is that she doesn't regret even the good that has been done to her. This means, or meant to me, in writing a character who has come unglued, that he is at the bottom.

And one other line that goes with All The Dead Yale Men from this song is:

Je repars à zéro

Or translated, "I start from nothing."

So, one of the main characters in All The Dead Yale Men is a prosecutor, and while profoundly appalled by the deals he cuts with murderers (a guy, say, who throws his girl friend's baby out of a window of an apartment on the fifth floor because she bought the wrong Enchilada microwave dinner), the prosecutor, Frank MacKinnon, tries to keep his feelings separate, until one day he blows up. He demands justice and it causes him trouble. He goes through a sort of moral portal where, when he emerges, he is in the position of

"Je repars à zéro."

In fact, I kept thinking this almost every morning when I started to work, since not only is this true for a character, it is true for all writers, each time they sit down.

I should say I am in Paris right now, when I am writing this, and somehow this line seems more hard hitting than ever.

It is at this point in All the Dead Yale Men that the prosecutor's daughter, who, as I said, has done everything right, gone to Yale, been accepted at Harvard Law, decides she has been in a cage, and breaks out. Here, I kept thinking of a Total Chaos song:

There's a man in the back
He wants to get you on smack
Your first impression he's insane
But now he's trying to get your mind
Smackman - he wants your freedom...

This came to mind, of course, because these days it is very easy, too easy, to get into what can only be called real trouble, which, in many ways, is what All The Dead Yale Men is about. Real Trouble.

And a Janis Joplin song came to mind, too, which everyone knows but which reflects on what this smart young woman is beginning to do with the wrong man at the wrong time and when her father has blown his top:

I'll say come on, come on, come on, come on and take it!
Take it!
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.
Oh, oh, break it!
Break another little bit of my heart now, darling, yeah,
Oh, oh, have a!
Have another little piece of my heart now, baby,
You know you got it, child, if it makes you feel good....

And two other songs came into play. When I was thinking of the young man this bright young woman takes up with, Ray Charles came to mind, in "Born to Lose."

Finally, underneath it all, the main character, Frank Mackinnon, finds his grandmother's note books, where a lot of the family secrets are hidden. This is a matter of somehow reaching across the grave, and when I was thinking about such a moment, and the effect of it, the mysteriousness of it, and the fact that in the background, as a moral presence, I had Marcus Aurelius' meditations, I often listened to Russian Choral music, such as "Lord Have Mercy," sung by the Russian State Symphony Cappella.

This was an important item, in that the book addresses, and tries to show, in a dramatic way, just what Albert Camus meant when he wrote this fragment in his notebook, "That wild human longing for clarity..."


Craig Nova and All the Dead Yale Men links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
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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