December 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.
Ryan Bartelmay's debut Onward Toward What We're Going Toward is wonderfully bittersweet comic novel.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Sleuthing the distractions we entertain to cope with rejection and disappointment, Bartelmay's comic debut is a wistful take on the classic American reinvention tale."
When I was eighteen, I took guitar lessons from an overweight metal head. He breathed heavily, wore black sweatpants, and repeatedly dabbed his sweaty forehead while teaching me the finger positions of the major and minor chords. This all happened at a guitar shop in Charleston, Illinois. After two months of weekly lessons, he, one afternoon, announced he had nothing left to teach me. I had bought an acoustic guitar from him, and in my dorm room a few blocks away, I had a legal pad full of word groupings (I hesitate to even call them song lyrics). In my mind, I was paying him to teach me to be a musician. To say the least, I was a little confused.
I bring this up to illustrate a point. Music is important to me. Like a lot of people, songs, a lot of songs, actually, cause me to squeeze my headphones to my ears and close my eyes. I want to feel its emotion. I want to unzip it and get inside of it, let it warm me like a coat. At eighteen, I wanted to make others feel the way I felt when I listened to a particular song.
Unfortunately, I'm a terrible guitar player and can't really sing. Sing isn't even the right word. It's more like voice quivering. Whatever it is—I don't do it if anyone is within earshot. The metal head, it turns out, was doing me a favor.
Still, music is omnipresent in my life. It's always there—cooking dinner, driving, putting my daughter to bed, asking my wife to marry me, a soundtrack to my doings. So, it's inevitable that music was there while I worked on my novel, Onward Toward What We're Going Toward. In fact, I used it. My book is a sad one, full of emotionally grotesque characters taking pitchforks to each other's hearts, and I used music to lower me into the mood to get at what I was trying to get at. I worked on Onward… for ten years, a decade that straddled my upper twenties and lower thirties, and listened to countless songs. But, here are the greatest hits, if you will.
"Weekend in Western Illinois" by The Mountain Goats
I could have picked any song off Full Force Galesburg, a record I've listened to about a thousand times, but this one with the refrain, "…here in Galesburg," won out because of a direct mention of an actual Illinois town. Onward… is set in Middleville, a fictional town in Central Illinois, which is loosely based on my hometown, Morton, a thirty-minute drive from Galesburg. When I listen to this song, I like to replace Galesburg with Middleville.
"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Hank Williams
The book features a little bit of Hank, a lot of loneliness, and more than an average amount of crying. Additionally, I like to imagine there's a low murmur of pedal steel guitar on almost every page.
"Don't Stop Believin"' by Petra Haden
The original, Journey version haunts Mary Norwood throughout the book, but if I would have chosen that one, we would have missed out on this version's a cappella opening and Petra Haden's vocalization of Neal Schon's guitar solo. Not to mention, the book, like this cover, comes at things a little bit crookedly.
"Passing Afternoon" by Iron and Wine
This song is so delicate. I want to wrap it in bubble wrap and take it out at night, after everyone has gone to bed, when it can be properly held and cared for. By the way, I want Sam Bean to come to my house, so I can make him some soup and dress his wounds with gauze.
"I Don't Blame You" by Jeremy David Miller
Jeremy has been to my house. He painted my two-and-a-half year old daughter's bedroom—true story—and during a mid-day break, while we sat on the porch eating lunch, he told me he played music. I love the do-wop undertones in this song, and since Onward… spans four decades, one of which is the 50s, a song with do-wop undertones is necessary. Plus, the line: "We will make each other bleed." Lots of bleeding in the book. Lots of band-aids.
"Walk the Line" by Tallest Man on Earth
"Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings." Well, no matter what they say in the movies, it's not always a wonderful life.
"Death to Everyone" by Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Unfortunately, this song and the entire record, I See a Darkness, is banned at my house. I burned it out for my wife sometime around the early part of 2003. I still listen to it in secret, on headphones while huddled in the closet. Anyway, in the book, Chic and Diane Waldbeeser could stand to have a little more fun while "hosing," in my opinion.
"The House that Heaven Built" by Japandroids
After a run of four sing-songwriters moaning about the human heart in conflict, it's good to hear a song that makes you want to shake your fist in the air, even if it's still about the human heart in conflict, albeit sped up and wrapped in distortion.
"Something's Wrong" by Hurray for the Riff Raff
I cannot get this song into my head fast enough, but after I do, I sink into my chair and let its lo-fi pain course through me. Regarding the book, Chic Waldeeser, like the narrator of this song, is stuck in a "big ol' ditch" and spends most of the book trying to climb out.
"Orange Sky" by Alexi Murdoch
Another singer-songwriter ditty to lower you into the muck. You may think I burn candles while I write. I don't know why this stuff comforts me, but it does.
"Hold on Magnolia" by Songs: Ohia
Listen to this one after the soup is gone and bleeding has stopped. Light a candle. Look out the window and try to count the stars. It's January cold outside. If there was a dance number in Onward…, set, say, in a high school gymnasium, this would be the song and the characters would squeeze each other close and whisper its lyrics into each other's ears.
Ryan Bartelmay and Onward Toward What We're Going Toward links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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