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August 19, 2013

Book Notes - Ben Winters "Countdown City"

Countdown City

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.

Ben Winters follows up the impressive The Last Policeman with the engrossing and skillfully told Countdown City, second novel in his pre-apocalyptic trilogy.

The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote of the book:

"Winters is a deft storyteller who moves his novel effortlessly from its intriguing setup to a thrilling, shattering conclusion."

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 Ben Winters' Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Countdown City:


Countdown City is the second in my trilogy of mystery novels set as the world is ending. In this book, as in The Last Policeman before it, we are in civilization's last months before a massive asteroid impacts the planet and ends life as we know it. My hero, Hank Palace, is nevertheless doing his job, which happens to be solving crimes.

There are a lot of songs about the end of the world—as there are a lot of movies, a lot of TV shows, a lot of poems—and I make a quick joke of that fact in The Last Policeman, when my hero and his friends are drinking in a dive bar:

Some wiseacre has larded the jukebox with irony. Elvis Costello, "Waiting for the End of the World." Tom Waits, "The Earth Died Screaming." And of course that REM song, playing over and over and over.

"That R.E.M. song," obviously, is "It's the End of the World as we Know It (and I Feel Fine)", probably my generation's most famous song about the end of time. Although, really, who the hell knows what that song is really about. Lenny Bruce? Lester Bangs? What's that part about the furies breathing down your neck? I think I did a report on it, in a high school English class, and ultimately admitted I had no idea what all those references added up to.

The song that most inspired me most, at the outset of this project, was the one that turns up in the epigraph of The Last Policeman: Bob Dylan's "Slow Train Coming", the title track to his 1978 album about Jesus. I find the evangelical-Christian period of Dylan's career deeply fascinating, and that song a perfect evocation of end-times distress, although my version of the end-times and the one described in the song are quite different. Actually, the title of The Last Policeman was originally Slow Train Coming, and at some point I wanted to name every book in the trilogy after a Dylan song. Book two was going to be No Time to Think, and book three When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky. But apparently publishing houses aren't wild about borrowing titles from obscure songs by famous artists, and I'm happy with where we ended up.

The idea of the novels is to present intriguing mystery cases, and also to drill into different aspects of civilization by seeing what happens as it starts to break down. So, for example, Countdown City asks a lot of questions (hopefully not too ham-handedly) about promises: what does it mean to say you'll love someone forever, or fulfill the obligations of a mortgage, say, when the world is suddenly about to end? That's where I got one of the epigraphs for this book, from the Elvis Costello's "Riot Act": "Forever / doesn't mean forever anymore. / I said "forever" / but it doesn't look like I'm gonna be around much anymore."

When music actually appears in these books, it's in brief snatches over battery-operated devices: the internet is dead, electricity is gone. Recorded music is in the process of disappearing, along with everything else.

But there are a bunch of rock songs mentioned explicitly in Countdown City. One of the main locations, actually, is a somehow-still-functioning pizza restaurant with a rock ‘n' roll theme, which gave me an excuse to name a bunch of pizzas after famous songs: "The Layla, the Hazel, the Sally Simpson, the Julia." Playing on a tinny boom box is the fantastic Buddy Holly song "A Man With a Woman on his Mind," which I confess I chose so I could name Part I of the novel "A Man With a Woman on His Mind."

In Part II of the novel we hear "One Headlight," performed by the Wallflowers and written (as Detective Palace points out), by "Dylan's son, Jakob." This song turns out to be an old favorite of my hero's client, his old babysitter now looking for her runaway husband.

And speaking (as always) of Dylan, the master's music appears one last time in Countdown City. Detective Palace is reminded of an all-day outdoor music festival he once ill-advisedly attended, and he shudders at the memory of Soundgarden's version of "Buckets of Rain." And if anyone from Soundgarden happens to be reading this, accept my apologies: there is (to my knowledge) no such song.


Ben Winters and Countdown City links:

the author's website

Austin Chronicle review
Locus review
Publishers Weekly review

All Things Considered interview with the author
Concord Monitor profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Bedbugs
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
LitReactor 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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