January 23, 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.
Mary Miller's The Last Days of California is a splendid debut, both accomplished road novel and coming-of-age story whose characters are as impressively drawn as the landscape they pass through.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"In Jess, Miller has created a narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers."
The Last Days of California follows the Metcalf family on a 2,500-mile road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to California to await the rapture in Pacific Time. Jess, 15, and Elise, 17, have made playlists for the journey: Heaven and End of the World mixes, respectively. Unfortunately for Jess, she has limited herself to songs with the word "heaven" in the title, whereas Elise has cut herself a lot of slack. I’m not sure what’s on Elise’s playlist but Jess’s is full of some pretty tiresome stuff: "Tears in Heaven," "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door," "Stairway to Heaven," "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." I’ll be nice and spare you these.
"Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd
I can’t spare you this one, though. Jess wants to kill herself if she has to hear "Sweet Home Alabama" one more time, but unless she moves at least two states away, she’s doomed to hear it a minimum of four times a week for the rest of her life. I live in Texas now, but when I’m driving home to Mississippi, it starts playing on the radio in east Texas and doesn’t let up.
"Highwayman," Johnny Cash with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson
I once had a boyfriend who lived in a small town in Tennessee. He was a hippie who despised being called a hippie, a fellow who wanted nothing more than to spend his life paddling the Duck River and drinking cheap beer. I did this with him for a time but it wasn’t something I could do forever. Anyhow, I don’t miss him or the river but I miss when he would play "Highwayman" for me on his piano. He’d gotten the piano second-hand, of course, and it was for some reason in his bedroom. I’d sit on his king-sized bed, post-river, post-shower, drinking a beer, and make him play it over and over. I love every word of this song, especially the obscure ones like "baubles" and "schooner," but the end is my favorite: "Or I may simply be a single drop of rain/But I will remain/And I’ll be back again, and again and again and again and again…"
"Stuck on an Island," Liz Phair
A song about being young, naïve, and helpless. You’ve just crashed your dad’s car and he needs it to get to work and you’re trying to fix the damn thing with a rake, which obviously isn’t helping, so you just go ahead and do some more coke with Henry.
"Angel from Montgomery," John Prine
I love this line: "My old man is another child that’s grown old." Jess wonders what her father used to be like before he was an overweight man with diabetes and a penchant for gambling. She thinks, "He used to be a little kid hunting and fishing to put food on the table after his father moved to Florida with a red-haired woman," which makes her feel tender toward him. She knows he wasn’t always this way, that he was just a kid once, too, as subject to parental whims and failures as she is.
"The Passenger," Iggy Pop
I’m not sure Jess ever feels the kind of joy expressed in this song, but she sure spends a lot of time looking out her window cataloguing roadkill and abandoned buildings. "The Passenger" makes me want to rewrite the novel, a parallel version where the parking lots aren’t littered with glass, where the characters feel that the world was made for them and everything is something wondrous to behold.
"That’s Right (You're not from Texas)," Lyle Lovett
The bulk of the novel is set in Texas. When the story begins, the Metcalfs are in western Louisiana with the Lone Star State looming before them like a giant. When I started working on the book, I had recently driven from Austin to Jackson, Mississippi and was curious about all of the small towns I’d passed through. Texas never lets you forget for a moment you’re in Texas. The Texas flag is everywhere, the Texas star. Texans tattoo the outline of the state on their bodies. A lot of them still want to secede. The place has been good to me, though. They’re a polite people, a welcoming people (unless you’re from California, they don’t really like Californians, particularly during South by Southwest).
"Last Friday Night," Katy Perry
The girls are listening to "Last Friday Night" as they sit on the side of the road while some strange men, who might just as easily kill them, fix their flat tire. The song is full of pools and hangovers, mini-bars, epic fails, and law breaking. The question of whether it’s a hickie or a bruise is one I’m still wondering about, like right now.
"Piano Man," Billy Joel
This song makes me want to put my arms around strangers and sway. It makes me want to love them. Maybe I should go to the bar in my parking lot right now and make new friends? Even the recalcitrant father in this family can’t help but hum along when it comes on the radio. Play me a memory, Billy. Play on and keep playing.
"The Distance," Cake
I’ve heard it one too many times, I’m afraid, but I still think it needs to be included. The family is behind schedule from the first page; they’re driving east but might as well be going round a track. "The Distance" captures this tension and need. I dedicate this one to the father, who is really out there on his own. He’s dragged his family on a preposterous journey, spending money he doesn’t have, but there’s nothing for him to do but drive faster despite the fact that "the sun has gone down and the moon has come up and long ago somebody left with the cup."
"La Bamba," Ritchie Valens
At a flea market in a dusty West Texas town, the family stops to eat funnel cakes and turkey legs, drink two-handed Cokes. The mother buys things while the girls get their faces painted by a sad tiger-faced lady. And then Jess and her father sit on a bench watching a Mexican band set up their equipment. Jess hopes to hear "La Bamba," but figures they "only play it for white people." When they’re about to leave, however, as her father is asking her life questions she can’t answer, the first few notes begin to play.
"Streets of Fire," Bruce Springsteen
In a hotel room in Arizona, immediately before Jess hooks up with a dude she hardly knows, they’re listening to Springsteen. I’m not sure which song, though the guy says it’s from his second album. I think he’s wrong. I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Anyhow, the lyrics of "Streets of Fire" are perfect for this last night, the night before the rapture; the sisters are getting drunk and high and are sick of themselves and each other. They’d prefer to "live now, only with strangers/talk to only strangers." They’ll feel differently in the morning, but for the first time in days they’re totally and completely able to live in the moment.
Mary Miller and The Last Days of California links:
Drafthorse interview with the author
Full Stop interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for her short story collection
Lent Mag interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author
Read to Write Stories interview with the author
Redbook interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
School Library Journal interview with the author
Vogue interview with the author
Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists