August 6, 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.
Mark Souka's Brewster is an affecting coming of age novel, written in sparse yet powerful prose. Though set during the Vietnam War, this book will strongly resonate with readers today.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Slouka's laconic dialogue resonates with regional authenticity, his late-1960s pop culture references ring true, and the stripped-down prose style in his masterful coming-of-age novel recalls the likes of Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver."
Fifteen years ago, when I was living on an airshaft in New York that acted as a giant echo chamber for smashing crockery, squalling babies, domestic arguments (and their happy reconciliations), a friend suggested I listen to music while writing. I dismissed the idea, then promptly caved. Every novel since then has come with a sound track so deeply connected to the story I was struggling to write that I wished every copy could have come out with an accompanying CD. With God's Fool, it was Chopin's Nocturnes; with The Visible World it was Satie's Gymnopedies and particularly his 3rd Gnossienne. But it wasn't until I came to my latest book, Brewster, my first all-American novel, set in the late 1960's, that the music left my head and entered the story itself.
The thing about the late 60's, like any historical period, was that it wasn't one thing, but many. In terms of music, what you listened to depended on who you were, where you came from, your age, your tastes, your race, and so on. People listened to Perry Como and Andy Williams, to Top-40 stuff on WABC and to alternative stuff on the alternative stations. Because there was less music to be had, and vinyl the only way to hear it outside radio or life itself, the new stuff carried a different punch than it does today. More importantly, because it was so disapproved of by so many (and we forget sometimes exactly how much anger and fear it evoked) some of it carried real political voltage. The times they were a'changin. Revolution – real revolution – was in the air. An unpopular war was raging. The corporate stranglehold on American culture was being loosened, finger by finger, and music –some of it great music - was the fuel on the fire. This was dangerous stuff.
"The Times They Are A'Changin," by Bob Dylan
It's a cliché of the late 60's, sure, but it still moves me, speaks to me: "And you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone," could have been an epigraph for Brewster. I considered it. My heroes are sixteen years old, fighting for their lives, struggling to stay afloat in a working-class town weighed down by ignorance, violence and grief. Friendship may save them. What was that about the personal being political?
"Long Time Gone," by Crosby, Stills and Nash
The opening bars of this one are the late 60's to me. Whenever I hear it I feel like I'm walking across a hot field in August of ‘69 and simultaneously looking back on that moment, that day, that time. It's hard to explain: to me, it embodies the promise of the 60's (which was real enough, despite the bullshit), and the loss of that promise; there's a hard-eyed nostalgia about it. "It's been a long time comin', it's gonna be a long time gone." Yeah, well. If I had to pick one song to represent the spirit of my novel, this would be the one. (Watch the documentary on "Woodstock" and see if you can ever listen to "Long Time Gone" again without seeing the two couples on horseback, on Yasgur's farm, before it all began.)
"Fortunate Son," by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one." Fogerty's anthem was about more than the 60's, more than Vietnam. "Fortunate Son," in its anger, in its pride, evoked an essential American type, a kind of anti-Mitt Romney: The man who insists on making his own way, who has sympathy for those less fortunate, who's willing to get his hands dirty. The kind of man (or woman) you want next to you in a fight; who doesn't calculate his profit margin before lending a hand. "Fortunate Son" wasn't just a protest song; it was a statement of character. I thought of that when writing the characters of Ray Cappicciano and Karen Dorsey, who I wanted to embody its virtues.
"For What It's Worth," by Buffalo Springfield
"Stop, children, what's that sound?" My narrator, Jon Mosher, mentions this song to explain all that he didn't hear, couldn't understand, because that's how it often is – the sound is only audible after it's passed. People love to look back and say they saw this or that, but for a writer writing about a certain time, it's important to remember how very hard it often is to see the moment when you're inside it. In a certain way, the 60's weren't "The 60's" until the 1980's.
"I Can't Help Myself," by The Four Tops
Because not everything was about the war. Because it was fun.
"Son of a Preacher Man," by Dusty Springfield
There's a scene in Brewster. A hot summer evening on the bank of a reservoir. The smell of cut grass, a full moon rising, water so warm you can't tell it from the air. Perfection. My kids (because they are kids) are wearing cutoffs; they're still wet from swimming. There's a transistor radio on the cement of the spillway. What other song could complete the moment except "Preacher's Son?"
Blonde on Blonde, by Bob Dylan
The whole damn album. Because nobody who was alive in the 1960's can separate that time from Dylan's voice, and because Blond on Blond was just so good. When you're trying to think back to a certain time, to what it felt like to be alive then, certain artists, songs, albums, can work that magic, can remind you (as subtly, as magically as a smell can suddenly bring back a certain day or face) what it was like. God knows that Dylan today, with his what's-not-to-like-about-China, I-just-did-it-for-the-money-so-fuck-politics attitude can make me slightly nauseaus, but his was the voice back then. Or one of them. "Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?" There were probably three kids in America who didn't substitute the name of their town for Mobile.
Nebraska, by Bruce Springsteen
This one may seem counter-intuitive at first, because it didn't come out till the 1980's, but while writing Brewster, I couldn't do without it. Springsteen sings about the dreams of the working class without slapping on the romantic glaze; he knows the music of desperation and loss and regret. Have I communicated how much I love his shit? Just listen to those opening harmonica strains in "Nebraska," or the way the guitar, like a percussive heartbeat, accellerates when the stoppered-up rage in "State Trooper" threatens to blow, and you feel that he's got something very special – an instinctive feel for that vein of violence (and loneliness) that runs just under the surface of the American dream. Great stuff.
Mark Slouka and Brewster links:
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