January 27, 2014
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.
Drew Perry's second novel Kids These Days is an imaginative and often hilarious look at parenting in contemporary America.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Readers of Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Tropper should enjoy this compelling novel, the story of a man in transition that might also lure a few Florida fiction fans as well."
Kids These Days is about a man, Walter, who's agreed to have a child without quite agreeing to want to have that child. Procreative terror does not by itself a novel make, though, and so there is also this: His life blows up, and he and his pregnant wife, Alice, move to a beachfront Florida condo Alice's family owns so Walter can take a job with his brother-in-law, Mid—who at first seems to be a kind of distracted business mogul, but may in fact be a semi-competent small-time crime boss. There are wayward daughters, flying men, and parking-lot ice machines. There are fake pirates and secret agents. It's a novel, I hope, that's about America by way of Florida, about marriage by way of catastrophe, and about child husbandry by way of crushing, thorough fear of same.
It is possible—possible—that some of Walter's fears about being responsible for another life, for a child, are also some of my own. The playlist below is drawn mainly from the lullabies I sang both of our boys when they were infants—a time span that roughly covers the writing of this novel. I often was the person who sang the first boy to sleep, and by the second go-around, I was almost always the last man standing—we'd learned enough to let my wife give the last feeding, and then hand the child to me so she could flee to what little sleep there might be before it all started up again. One other song is from an epigraph that fronts the book, which is as follows:
The epigraph: Hall & Oates, "Maneater"
I'm thirteen when I first hear this song, and the way I hear it is this: on a cassette tape, on a boom box, in my friend's vacation condo at the beach where Kids These Days is set (our families vacationed in the same spot south of St. Augustine for 30+ years). He treats the whole album like the most important achievement of western civilization. I've grown up listening to the Oak Ridge Boys and survived my father's duet fetish—Willie Nelson & Julio Iglesias, Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder—and will later hurtle toward the entire playlist of VH1 Folk. In short: I have no idea what I'm hearing. It'll be years before I even understand the song, and years more before I realize that while it thinks it is about a woman who might chew you up, boy, so watch out, it's actually about being petrified of the child you've finally agreed to have with your wife. Because she—your daughter—will chew you up, for real. Even if she turns out to be a boy. Both times.
I started writing the novel before we had either boy, but I was writing and revising well into our second son's life (the boys are now 3 ½ and almost 1), and so these songs were not only the soundtrack of putting them to bed, but of my whole life, and certainly my writing life: A sleeping child means something besides achieving a sleeping child is possible. A cup of coffee. A shower. Time at the desk. The ability even to conceive of working on dialogue.
"Bird Stealing Bread," Iron and Wine
"Tell me, baby, tell me," the song begins, and that's what I wanted, pacing the kitchen in the dark, patting the kids down, and it's all Walter wants—for the child in Alice's belly to tell him everything's going to be OK, that he'll figure out how to live his new life. This is his central fear, and it is and was mine, too, even though the novel is of course, totally—totally!—fiction. And there's this, too: Even as Walter would like some soothsaying mystic to arrive at his door and reveal unto him a perfect future, none of us ever gets a thing like that, and he wouldn't believe it, anyway.
"Dixie Flyer," Randy Newman
I like the version with the full band better than just Newman on piano, though either will do in a pinch—and that bit that runs, "Drinkin' rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat/Tryin' to do like the Gentiles do/Christ, they wanted be Gentiles too/Who wouldn't down there, wouldn't you?/An American Christian, God damn!"—that's as good a prayer as I know. Walter spends a lot of his time in this novel riding in cars (a yellow Camaro, mainly), wondering what he has to do to fit in, to match up—and no answers are offered up here, because Randy Newman doesn't work that way, but one is soothed, somehow, by the Dixie Flyer, crossing the state of Texas, to the Land of Dreams.
"America," Simon & Garfunkel
One complaint my wife has about the lullabies is that they're all sad, she claims. I don't think this song is sad at all, even if it does make me cry almost every time. Still: "I've got some real estate here in my bag" might as well be the refrain playing behind the first scene with Walter and Mid together, standing in one of those bombed-out developments common not just to Florida but the whole country: Clear cut from forest, named Pelican Pines or Eagle's Nest, a McMansion or three and a string of white sewer stubs and the fervent hope that enough other fools will buy and build there and bail everybody out. How did we not see the crash coming? Who was ever going to live out there? In all those out theres?
"Help Me Make It Through The Night," Kris Kristofferson
It's apparently not true that Kristofferson landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash's lawn trying to get Cash to listen to his songs, but I don't care—it has a kind of "story-truth" about it, to use a Tim O'Brien term, and that's one of the ways this novel came into being: By chasing the strange, the madcap, the oddities that come together to make the world. There's a flying man in a motorized parachute who Walter comes to suspect may be a kind of lesser god. There's a pirate with a mannequin leg mounted upside down to the back of a flatbed truck. I stole both of those things from the actual world. Neither feel like they could be true. Both are. Those are the kinds of altars at which I worship.
"Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key," Billy Bragg & Wilco & Natalie Merchant
Oh, alright, maybe all the songs are sad. The novel's not sad, I hope, or not entirely, though it's not (I also hope) a straight comedy. "Ain't nobody who can sing like me," Bragg and Merchant sing, and it's what every character in the book believes, though none more than Delton, Mid's occasionally runaway teenage daughter. She's headstrong and impossible and maybe wiser than everybody else in the book. She's the future come to visit Walter—here's the daughter you fear with your whole soul, except that she's smart, and kind, so she's also the daughter you hope like hell you'll get to have.
"For Emma," Bon Iver
Is it still hip to like Bon Iver? Is it all too mainstream now? I don't care. I don't know what most of the lyrics are on any of his albums, and I don't care about that, either. There's no question this is a song about being in love, and that's one of the central conceits here—for all his many foibles, Walter loves his wife, Alice, with a certainty he finds nowhere else in his life.
"Atlantic City," Bruce Springsteen
Greatest rhyme in rock & roll: "Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty/And meet me tonight in Atlantic City." It's a beach song, at least if you close one eye, and a lament, and a fine, fine lullaby if the kid is still awake this far into the mix—but you don't sing all the words, because he's too young to be told that "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact."
"Dear Someone," Gillian Welch
"I want to go all over the world/And start living free." It's too much to explain here, and would give too much away, but there is at least one scene where Walter is give or take the only person left on the ground, as it were, and he's wishing like all hell he could figure out some way to fly away. He also spends the novel naming and renaming the baby, pairs of names for a boy or a girl, Azalea and Azaleo, Kitchen and Kitchenette—maybe if he'd just started all the letters in his head "Dear Someone," he'd have been in better shape.
"Rocket Man," Elton John
Another possible epigraph for the book: "I'm not the man they think I am at home." Here's why it's all so terrifying, what will keep you up deep into the lullabies, even if you've got the kid asleep: What if you can't do it? Not the easy parts like diapers and swaddling and carpool, but the other parts—the fathering parts? "I'd been wondering what you might tell a daughter about anything at all," Walter thinks, early in the book, "how you'd ever learn to stand there and answer all the questions she was bound to have. I figured what you'd want to do was look up what you could, lie about the rest, and hope she'd never learn to tell the difference. Or at least that she'd forgive you when she did."
"North Dakota," Lyle Lovett and Rickie Lee Jones
Last on this list is this six-minute ballad off a live Lyle Lovett album—Lyle Lovett, who I love, but who I am not really allowed to listen to in the house any more, and Rickie Lee Jones, who I also love, and who my wife has also banned. These are the compromises that make a marriage, I guess, but late in the lullaby mix you get to listen to whatever you want, and so this great song about drinking and longing and looking across the border ("So I drank myself some whiskey/And I dreamed I was a cowboy) closes things down. If the kid's still awake, god forbid, or if you're at the desk, mid-scene, probably best to switch over to something calmer, quieter. I write a lot of first drafts to Keith Jarrett's jazz trio work, for instance—but that's a playlist for another time.
Drew Perry and Kids These Days links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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