February 11, 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.
Ryan Blacketter's Down in the River is an impressive debut novel that effectively tackles themes of mental illness and grief.
Marilynne Robinson wrote of the book:
"[Ryan] has a marvelous eye for the emotional textures of the most commonplace experience, the kind that familiarity makes almost subliminal."
"Gardening at Night," by REM
When I was a kid growing up in Eugene, Oregon, a friend of mine went on to rob a mausoleum years later, when I didn't know him anymore. This song came to remind me of him. He was a bit off, slightly cracked, out doing something peculiar in the dark. Writing Down in the River became another kind of night gardening. I cast the protagonist as a very good but troubled kid with bipolar disorder, Lyle Rettew, who steals a corpse after the death of his sister. But going into this world for hours every day was not so frightening. Lyle was a gentle guide.
"Oscillate Wildly," by the Smiths
An apt song for anyone who has known the joys and sorrows of manic-depression. Lyle Rettew often feels his "night legs" and has to get out and run in the streets, that wonderful craving after wildness and speed. He runs back and forth across town, steered by capricious ghosts and voices. In this state, a person can throw himself headlong into a loathsome situation and believe it's fabulous, glamorous, even holy.
"Watch Me Jumpstart," by Guided by Voices
The first line, "Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled," champions that exciting moment when a person decides to do something inspiring and to never quit. During a manic high, Lyle decides to be a painter. He's not good at it yet, but he feels all the usual confidence and grandiosity, and believes that he can deny his poor-white background and become a great artist, possibly even sell his work to the pope.
"We Own the Sky," by M83
The kids in my book do all the things that kids have always done—drink stolen wine, jump trains, drive fast. Their sense of vitality and freedom, along with the unhappiness of home life, fills them with ecstasy and misery. This combustible mix compels them to risk their lives. Driving at night, very high, they feel that things are just right. What could make it better? Speed. Risk. There are few joys greater than a dangerous adventure with friends. This song reminds me of the lucky egotism of youth. Such small, unformed creatures, but with a giant's sense of imperviousness. Many kids will turn a corner onto the disappointments and squashed dreams of adulthood. But for now they, well, own the sky.
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances," by Daniel Johnston
Young Daniel Johnston's cracking voice and wonky, out of tune instruments are beautiful and heartbreaking. I love it when I see this innocence in people, the self that is beyond image and polish, beyond the pose of down-to-earth sincerity—even if, in the end, there is never a total escape from pose. And it's what I look for when I create characters. Lyle, for instance, has recently moved from the Idaho mountains to Eugene, Oregon. He loses his middle-parted haircut and denim jacket, but keeps the camouflage boots throughout the book. Maybe the boots suggest he can't escape where he's from, nor should he want to, necessarily. The part of a person that the cool kids say is wrong, might very well be the best thing about him. In Lyle's case, he has brought with him a certain code of the mountains, which includes caring for people and helping them out. This quality contributes to his innocence. He doesn't even know he has it.
"Highway Patrolman," by Johnny Cash
A tune about a police officer who looks out for his trouble-making brother: "I catch him when he's straying, like any brother should." Lyle's older brother, Craig, has forbidden Lyle to speak their dead sister's name, because their mother is too shaky to hear it spoken. He spends a lot of time chasing Lyle down and trying to feed him the lithium he quit taking. Despite his narrow faith and refusal to discuss their sister, Craig has devoted his life to caring for his family. Family is so often intolerable. At times getting past a sibling's passive-aggressive remarks seems an impossible feat. But then a crisis happens, and everybody pulls through, most of the time. Quite often our families are better than we think they are. I wanted to pursue this optimism in what is a pretty dark book.
"The Isle of the Dead," by Rachmaninov
This piece is spooky, but also tranquil and restful, like death itself might be. Although I worked hard to avoid anything that overtly suggests the gothic or horror genres, comparisons are inevitable. After all, Lyle runs out at night to a cemetery, in a hailstorm, and steals a body. Later his girlfriend is so exhausted with tramping around the city with him that he carries her, honeymoon fashion, partway up a hill, like some kind-hearted monster carting his virgin love (a simile you won't find in the book).
"Down in the River to Pray," by Alison Krauss
Where I grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, my dad was a parole officer and a drinker, and my mom was very religious. We were Charismatic Catholics, meaning we believed in the End Times. We attended Catholic Mass and at home watched 700 Club. My parents tried to speak in tongues a few times, without much success. We went to mountain retreats, getting "slain in the spirit." That's where a priest touched your head and prayed, and the force of his prayer sent you flying back into the arms of a church man behind you. At home, everything that happened was Jesus' doing—a missed car wreck, a new job. When the church discovered my dad drank beer, we were cut off the vine. Lyle's from a similar world. His family was cut away after his sister killed herself, so they moved to Oregon. A rebellious teenager, Lyle claims that he is "sick of Jesus." But he encounters moments of grace and redemption as he navigates his painful circumstances.
Ryan Blacketter and Down in the River links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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