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June 20, 2013

Book Notes - Kim Barnes "In the Kingdom of Men"

In the Kingdom of 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.

Kim Barnes' In the Kingdom of Men is a subtle and complex exploration of Saudi Arabian life in the late 1960s, as seen through the eyes of American expatriate oil workers.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Barnes writes poetically and intensely about personal conflict and subtly informs the reader about continuing Western misunderstandings of Middle Eastern culture."

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

In her own words, here is Kim Barnes's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, In the Kingdom of Men:

Why is it that so many of us feel such nostalgia for the music of our parents' generation? My first three novels have all been set in the 1950s and 60s, when my mother and father were just beginning to settle down and raise their family (they married very young). The music I grew up with reflected their journey from poor-dirt Oklahoma (my grandfathers were sharecroppers, bootleggers, and gamblers) to the wild lands of Idaho, where my father was a gyppo logger: Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Pat Boone, Patsy Cline, Roger Miller, Buck Owens—all flowed from the little cabinet hi-fi that gave us what music we had because no radio or television could reach us in our isolation.

My father's family was full of musicians. My grandfather was admired for his licks on the fiddle, and my uncle became (and remains) a regionally famous leader of a country-western band that played the hottest nightclubs within a 200-mile radius. (What I remember most about seeing him perform in the early 60s is the stylish outfits that he wore: pearl snap buttons, embroidered cuffs, and custom cowboy boots flamed with red and turquoise inlays.) My brother and I were sometimes left with my grandmother so that our parents might dance the night away at the nearest honkey-tonk, where my father was known for the excellence of his Swing and Dirty Bop.

When I was in grade school, my parents converted to the Pilgrim Holiness sect of Pentecostal Fundamentalism, which dictated that worldly music was a sin (as was dancing, drinking, smoking, playing cards, going to movies, bowling, and mixed swimming). The secular recordings of The Buckaroos were replaced by the gospel croonings of Jim Reeves and Jimmy Swaggart. In 1961, my mother bought my father his first "nice" guitar—a Gibson arch-top f-hole acoustic. Because he was sometimes shy, he would play with his eyes closed, but my memories of watching him sing "Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad" and "I'll Fly Away" remain vivid.

In our charismatic church, I spoke in tongues and danced in the spirit while the preacher's wife banged out chords on the old upright, but the one time I was caught at the keys, trying to sound out the notes to "House of the Rising Sun," I was told it was the devil's music and that I had poisoned the House of God. When we moved to a larger town, and I discovered FM, I would sneak my transistor radio (a Christmas gift from my grandmother) to bed at night, hide it beneath my pillow, and tune in Casey Kasem's American Top 40. Rock-and-roll marked the end of my old life as the obedient daughter and the beginning of my new life as a rebel and runaway. "American Pie," "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," "American Woman," "Spirit in the Sky"—it was a new kind of gospel that moved me to dance, that opened up the world I had been for so long separated from.

My most recent novel, In the Kingdom of Men, set in the 1960s, tells the story of Gin McPhee, a young wife who leaves the dusty farmlands of rural Oklahoma and follows her roughneck husband to the Arabian American Oil Company's operations in Saudi Arabia. Like me, Gin was raised in a fundamentalist environment, but what she finds in Arabia is a strange mix of what is haram—forbidden—outside the gates of the Aramco compounds and what is allowed inside the expatriates' homes. Although non-Islamic music is haram, the Americans had access to the latest albums at the suqs, or markets, in al-Khobar.

As I researched and wrote the novel, I worked to build in a sense of the music that Gin would hear during her adventure-turned-cautionary-tale, including the five daily calls to prayer that were chanted from the minarets. Because she was raised in such a protected and culturally isolated environment, it's all new to her, and the music in the book serves as a kind of background for her coming into her womanhood. I spent quite a bit of time listening to songs that were popular in the early-to-mid-1960s--the songs that defined my parents' young adult lives, and, as Elvis Presley gave way to The Beatles, the songs that my parents divorced themselves from, believing, as they did, that rock-and-roll would steal your soul. I know it did mine.

Here, then, is a chronological arc of the music that appears in the novel and defines the time and place of Gin's story. It's a strange mix of the sacred and the profane, just as is the case with Gin's experience in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

"Hark! A Voice Divides the Sky," a hymn by Charles Wesley

Gin is raised by her grandfather, an Old School Methodist preacher, and this is one of the hymns they sing each Sunday. Charles Wesley was a leader in the Methodist Movement, and I became fascinated by the history of how Methodism gave rise to the very Pentecostal fundamentalism in which I was raised. I listened to this and other Methodist hymns repeatedly as I wrote Gin's backstory because I wanted to re-create the grim tone of her strict upbringing, but the sacred solemnity of its incantation is also moving and beautiful. It fills Gin with a conviction that "the world was fallen, that my only hope lay in the grace and glory of God, that Satan was waiting for me to falter at every turn…"

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken," by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

In the Old School Methodist faith, the other side of starched-collar Wesleyanism was the charismatic aspect of the religion that came to define its presence in the American Bible Belt of the South and Midwest. Although my great-grandfather was a Methodist circuit preacher, my grandmother, father, uncles, and great aunts were out of the Southern Baptist tradition, and I often heard them sing this song at family gatherings. I imagine that the song would have been a part of Gin's girlhood experience as well. In this rendition, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brings in Mother Mabelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff and other Grand Ole Opry greats.

"Crying," by Roy Orbison

As a young teenager, Gin begins to rebel against her grandfather's strict dictates and begins to sneak out of the little farmhouse and make her way into town, where she sits at the soda fountain with her peers and listens to the jukebox play "Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Miracles." It was Orbison's "Crying" that I listened to the most while writing the scene, maybe because it articulates the shift from the lament over the fallen world to the lament for a lost lover. It also foreshadows a turn that the scene takes into the dark undercurrents of small town life.

"The Famous Polka," by They Might Be Giants

Gin meets and marries Mason McPhee, a promising and ambitious young basketball player, who drops out of college to go to work on an oil drilling rig in Houston, where the couple realizes a kind of social life they hadn't known before. They gather with friends to dance at the famous Bill Mraz Dance Hall, where they learn to polka. I've never danced a polka, knew little about the music, and so began watching YouTube videos, especially of the King of Polka, Frankie Yankovich, which got me to laughing and jumping around a bit. I loved coming across "The Famous Polka" by TMBG. It helped break down my cynical regard for the music (which, later, will inform the response of Yash, Gin's Punjabi houseboy in Arabia, when she offers to teach him how to polka--the sweet, almost slapstick absurdity of the scene still makes me smile).

"Memphis," by Johnny Rivers

The flight from Houston to Saudi Arabia is the first plane ride of Gin's life. When I asked friends who traveled overseas in the 60s what it was like, they grinned. "Different," they said. There was an unspoken understanding that passengers would become fantastically drunk, and the entire cabin would be full of cigarette smoke. In Gin's words, "the plane took on the feel of a flying lounge," which, of course, requires music, and it's Johnny Rivers whom she hears piped in through the speakers.

"The Adhan (Call to Prayer)," by Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)

In Arabia, one of the first things Gin hears each morning and the last thing each night is the Islamic Call to Prayer. I listened to many recordings of The Adhan, but I kept coming back to this one by the former Cat Stevens, whose voice is recognizable, even in prayer.

"Tomorrow Never Knows," The Beatles

"This was Ruthie's talent," says Gin of her new best friend: "to take any dog-day afternoon and turn it into something special." Ruthie is Gin's more mature guide through the world of Aramco and the one who mentors her in the womanly arts of smoking, drinking (alcohol was illegal, but every American home had a kitchen still), and honing her sexual techniques to manipulate her husband. Ruthie convinces Gin to go into the town of al-Khobar without her husband's permission (eventually, all hell will break loose) because Ruthie wants to get the latest Beatle's album, Revolver. There is a way in which the pyschadelic nature of the entire album speaks to the surreal nature of life in the isolated desert compound and its Disneyland version of the American dream. I imagine Gin and Ruthie, drinking their homemade booze and listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows," and it feels just right.

"Ain't That a Shame," by Pat Boone

Early Pat Boone is such a contrast to the Revolver-era Beatles, but this is exactly the kind of cusp that defines the time and place in which Gin finds herself. After drinking and smoking at the compound's private pool, Gin and Ruthie, along with a "Singles Girl" friend, Linda, end up back at Gin's house, where Ruthie pierces their ears. (I have vivid memories of my mother and aunts piercing one another's ears with darning needles.) After they have come down from their homebrew high and are settling into their hangovers, Ruthie tells Gin's houseboy, Yash, to put on some Pat Boone. It's like a comedown, an easing out of the risky into the easy and familiar, but it also speaks to the sentiment of the past, present, and future.

"Pearly Shells," by Don Ho ; "Surfin' USA," by The Beach Boys; and "My Girl," by The Temptations

In these three songs, we see the staid romanticism of the 1950s beginning to give way to the expressive 1960s, which is what Gin is experiencing in her own new life. In this scene, she has followed her friend, Ruthie, to a beach-themed dance at the compound's recreation center, where a Filipino band plays the latest hits out of the US. The fact that they are in the middle of the Arabian desert, inside a theocratic kingdom whose laws disallow secular music, dancing, and drinking, doesn't stop the Americans from engaging in the latest dance crazes; the Swim, the Pony, and the Watusi (although it's still the polka that Gin likes best).

"Our Language of Love," from Irma la Douce

Aramco imported the latest films to keep the workers entertained, and I was able to find the exact titles from archived company newsletters. I was floored to learn from my aunt that, among those films, was Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce, a romantic comedy set in Paris about of a cop (Jack Lemmon) who falls in love with a prostitute (played by Shirley MacLaine) but not before losing his job as a police officer, becoming her pimp, and getting her pregnant. The Saudi censors cut any images of touching and kissing between men and women but seemed unperturbed by the movie's premise. Gin's husband, Mason, is eager to take her to see the film. In this song from the soundtrack, the two actors sing a romantic duet.

"Welcome to My World," by Eddy Arnold

Who has a more soothing voice? My father loved Eddy Arnold, and so does Gin's husband, Mason. After a social dinner with his supervisor takes a rough turn, Mason asks Yash to put Eddy Arnold on the hi-fi, which calms the angry mood of the evening.

"Recondita Armonia" (from Puccini's Tosca), by Enrico Caruso

Carlo Leoni may be my favorite character in the book. An Italian from the coast of Eritrea, who was imported by Aramco with his fellow villagers and put to work as "expedient labor," Carlo has used his skills as a photographer to win the favor of sheiks, princes, and any number of company wives. He becomes Gin's guide outside the compounds and is something of a Lothario…and, of course, he sings opera. In Tosca, this aria is sung by the painter, Mario Cavaradossi, when comparing his love to a lady he was painting. I think Carlo would be most fond of the great tenor Caruso's performance of the piece.

Title song from Under the Yum Yum Tree, sung by James Darren

Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) is yet another sex comedy that was shown in the movie theaters of the American compounds. Gin's friend, Ruthie, loves Jack Lemmon, whose character is a playboy, and this is the new release that she most wants to see--and would have if not for the beginning of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Because she is Jewish, Ruthie is forced to evacuate to Rome, but the film continues to play an important role in the novel's plot.

"Panis Angelicus," written by St. Thomas Aquinas, performed by Josh Groban

No spoiler alert here. Let's just say that Gin moves from a world defined by fundamentalist Christianity, to a world defined by fundamentalist Islam, to a world defined by fundamentalist Catholicism—all a part of the kingdom of men. The performance that she hears of the beautiful "Panis Angelicus" (‘bread of angels") is sung by a Catholic choir, but I've chosen a very contemporary version performed by Josh Groban (a young American singer, songwriter, musician, and actor), which speaks to the timeless beauty of the music and, I hope, the archetypal nature of Gin's story.

Kim Barnes and In the Kingdom of Men links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Austin Chronicle review
Kirkus review
Oregonian review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Washington Post review

The Diane Rehm Show interview with the author
Spark interview with the author

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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