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April 24, 2014

Book Notes - Ben Peek "Dead Americans"

Dead Americans

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.

Ben Peek's Dead Americans contains masterfully told works of speculative fiction, alternative histories that amaze and enrapture.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Although Peek's appropriation of other people's lives for his own purposes can be disquieting, readers will be seduced by the outrage that drives much of his fiction and Peek's undeniable skills as a writer."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Ben Peek's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Dead Americans:

Dead Americans and Other Stories is ten stories long and, at one point during the publication of it, I realised that I had begun to organise it much like an album. I wasn't terribly surprised.

For a long time, I harboured the desire to be in a band, to scream into a microphone, and grind out noise with a guitar and distort it. It never worked out because, as the description makes adequately clear, I had no musical talent whatsoever. Like most writers, I suppose you could claim that I came to it through a system of failure – music, painting, merchant banking, warlord, all of it, by the time I turned eighteen, had come and gone, and I'd take up writing, instead. I wrote short fiction (and the occasional novel) for fifteen years before the publication of Dead Americans, and it always struck me how much short fiction was much like music. You release tracks of individual narrators, forming tone, style, and subtext for it, but you do it not to create a singular tone such as with a novel, but to create a variety of styles and subtexts. For me, by the time Dead Americans was closing in on being published, I found myself veering between organising a landscape of short and tight pieces that were like short sharp shocks, and the longer pieces that created landscapes of distorted sound and darkness, much like the albums that I love.

This, then, is the soundtrack for Dead Americans and Other Stories.

'People Ain't No Good' – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Dead Americans opens with 'There is Something So Quiet and Empty Inside of You That it Must be Precious'. The story focuses on a small town cop, Williams, who finds the body of a young teenage white girl in the remains of a burned down mosque. The simple piano notes that start the song are the perfect companion to the scene of Williams standing outside the mosque with the corpse. The song itself contains the story of a marriage that has ended and it mirrors Williams' own marriage. His wife has left him, he hasn't seen child his seen for years, and he feels that his life has been lived.

'Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)' - Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

The British settlement of Australia and the search for a national identity has been the cause of much sorrow. From Terra Nullis, the cultural and educational whitewashing of indigenous history – there was no one, history books once claimed, here before the British – to the stolen generation, a horrific government sponsored program of forcibly removing indigenous children from their parents, awful damage has been done to the identity of Australia. It is in such a landscape that 'The Dreaming City', the second story in Dead Americans, sits. 'Gurrumul History (I Was Born Blind)' by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, a blind indigenous musician whose beautiful voice contains the heartbreak of past, but also the hope for the future, sings both in his native language and in English, and captures the struggle of two cultures that must co-exist if a healthy future for either is to be achieved.

'Man in Black' - Johnny Cash

'Johnny Cash', the third story, is filled with Cash's music, but the one song that is the companion to it is 'Man in Black', Cash's autobiographical piece about his clothing. In my childhood, my parents would take us out into the country for holidays. We would get up in the dark (you had to make good time and we could not afford a night in a hotel) and we would pile into the car, two adults, two kids, and a dog. They would take us out into big, dry empty pieces of land along roads that had no gutters and ended in ragged bits of tar on the side of the road. The trips would take anywhere between eight to twelve hours and my parents had a collection of cassettes that would rotate through the tape deck of the car, and it is here that I learned about American country music, and where I first encountered Johnny Cash.

Cash followed me through the years. He was one of the two male figures I associated with America strongly and, when I wrote the first of what would be called 'Dead American' stories, it was not a surprise that he ended up in there. He was a figure to juxtapose the image the States was presenting to the world under the Bush administration at the time (outside America, it wasn't pretty). Cash was an interesting figure, and the words of 'Man in Black' applied well then, and sadly, still apply, as the horror of war, the divide of wealth, and the struggle of so many men and women to be equal continues.

'It Don't Come Easy' - Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette's cover of, yes, Ringo Starr's original is, like much of LaVette's excellent covers, vastly superior to the original. LaVette has a beautiful, amazing, soulful voice, and in her voice, you can hear the lives of the two characters in 'Possession'. One, an enslaved prostitute, relates her story to a middle aged, solitary woman who has lived in the ruins of the earth. As LaVette sings, 'You have to pay your dues/if you want to sing the blues,' and both woman feel as if they have done that, one through her body, and one through her isolation. 'Possession' is the first of four stories set in a world where a red sun hangs high in the sky, and the environment has been destroyed, and LaVette's cover captures all you need to understand of the world from the first note.

'God Bless Our Dead Marines' - Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la

'The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys' is a war story inspired by my own awareness of the huge imbalance that exists between the West and other countries when it came to the West's capabilities, especially in war. I find it deeply offensive to read an article that laments the loss of one or two white soldiers while casually listing the number of non-white combatants in the thousands, each a nameless villain to be thrown in a mass grave.

My disgust finds a familiar voice in the work of A Silver Mt. Zion, the shortened version of Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la. A Silver Mt. Zion is how they called themselves on their first release, He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms... but 'God Bless Our Dead Marines' comes from the album, Horses in the Sky. The title of the story is my homage to many of their own long, brilliant, twisting titles, and the line, 'God bless this century', sung in such cynicism is one that I find strongly resonates with the story's meditation on war, the technological imbalances that devastate one side and leave the other with minimal casualties.

'Love Will Tear Us Apart' - Joy Division

'The Funeral, Ruined', is a companion piece to 'The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys'. It focuses on a soldier, Linette, who had been on the 'winning' side of the war – the imbalance that I talked about previously has left its scars on her, just as it does on the real men and women who fight in the West's wars.

Linette has returned home to live in a city beneath giant crematoriums after an injury. The trauma of what she has experienced is something that she can not let go, and it haunts her and her relationship. The lines from 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', where Ian Curtis sings 'You cry out in your sleep/all my failings exposed' speaks particularly to her lover's letters, sent to her before he performs an act that deeply offends her. The song, released on Joy Division's album Closer after Curtis' death, echoes all the darkness of his personal life, including failing of his marriage, and it finds an easy perch here in Linette's life.

'A Little God in My Hands' - Swans

Swans latest single, 'A Little God in My Hands', is from their upcoming album, To Be Kind, and the moment I heard it, I knew that it settled into the Red Sun world just perfectly. The story, 'Under the Red Sun', which is the first Red Sun story I wrote, is set in a world where the ash falls from the sky, where bodies are dug out of the ground and reused in weird science fueled horror that mirror Mary Shelley's creature from Frankenstein. To hear the loud, drawn out screams of the instruments in the Swans' song is to feel the narrator's internal frustration, and to hear the cry of 'What's my name?' in the final parts is to feel his conflicted identity, his loyalty to his family and to his love.

'Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)' – Nancy Sinatra

Reportedly, Nancy Sinatra's dark, haunting version of 'Bang Bang' (originally recorded by Cher) was mostly unknown until Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, but I had grown up with it to the exclusion of Cher's original. Perhaps it is unsurprising since, in 1966, when Cher released her version (written by her partner at the time, Sonny Bono), at least four other artists, five if you include Nancy Sinatra, released the song on an album that year.

It is the Sinatra version that I will always remember, though. To me, Nancy Sinatra and her smokey voice are a part of American royalty, sitting beside Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, the Kennedy Family and their various deaths, poor, sad Marilyn Monroe and, of course, John Wayne. I don't believe that a collection called Dead Americans could be called that without a story about John Wayne and so I have a story entitled just that.

My story is not truly about the person that Marion Morrison – Wayne's real name – was, but rather about the persona that John Wayne the actor had. It is a story that draws itself from the honest, rough, figure he cut. The unapologetic but still politically incorrect opinions of women he gave, the pride, the masculinity, all that went into forming the model for a type of American male. Sinatra's song plays in my story when, through a strange moment, Wayne ends up in a Walmart, and buys himself a gun – because at that moment, no other song could play.

'Hells Bells' – Sunny Hodge

'Octavia E. Butler' is a story based on Octavia E. Butler's work. An African American science fiction writer, she produced her work in a male dominated field, and took the traditionally white, masculine genre forms and made it her own. What better song, then, to sit beside a story that is drawn out of her body of work, than a cover of AC/DC's 'Hells Bells'? Sung by Sunny Hodge, a largely unknown musician whose piece opened the album, Backed in Black, a female only tribute album to AC/DC, it is simply amazing. Hodge takes the masculine driven piece of guitars and drums of rock and strips it back. It is entirely her own, which is exactly how it should be when one talks about Octavia E. Butler.

'Jezebel' – The Drones

The final piece in Dead Americans is 'theleeharveyoswaldband', the story of a meeting between a blogger, Zarina Salim Malik, and a musician, Lee Brown, who she has helped make famous. At its heart is a story about emptiness, about the cruelty and kindness people do to one another, and it is very much the companion piece to 'There is Something so Quiet and Empty Inside of You That it Must be Precious'. However, whereas the elegant, dark notes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds defined that first song, the rough, wild notes and violent imagery of the Drones' 'Jezebel' drives 'theleeharveyoswaldband', providing the emotional insight into the life of Lee Brown, who is at the centre of the piece. It would play, not in the final moments, not as we leave the strong, but from the moment Lee opens the door and lets Zarina into his trailer, and would not stop until the final words of the piece are said.

'Jesus Never Lived on Mars' - Lee Harvey Oswald Band

'Jesus Never Lived on Mars' is the bonus track of Dead Americans, the hidden piece of a band that I never knew existed, but which my girlfriend told me (she is American herself, and thus knows of many terrible, obscure bands that I don't). The Lee Harvey Oswald Band is exactly how I imagine theleeharveyoswaldband of the final story to sound, before Lee Brown was abandoned by his band mates and he became a solo sensation. A distorted bit of punk rock, it isn't terribly surprising that Lee Harvey Oswald Band never took off in huge ways, but you have to admire any band that would name their songs 'Jesus Never Lived on Mars' and 'Getting Wasted with the Vampires'. It would be 'Jesus Never Lived on Mars' that would play after a long silence at the end of the album. The kind of long, album silence that you'd only reach by accident, and which would cause you, once again, to wonder why bands put bonus tracks on their albums.

It mirrors my experience with bonus tracks, at any rate.

Ben Peek and Dead Americans links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry

Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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