May 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.
Philipp Meyer wrote that Aaron Gwyn's novel Wynne's War felt like "Cormac McCarthy meets Tim O'Brien." Paul Lynch compared the book's storytelling to the "tradition of McCarthy and Conrad." I agree with both of these assessments, and recommend this brilliant novel.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Many folks have wondered when American authors would begin producing memorable fiction about the Iraq-Afghanistan wars; with this well-researched, heart-pounding novel, Gwyn stakes his claim."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
"Stayin' Alive," Bee Gees
I'd like to reclaim this tune from John Travolta, disco, and, if possible, the Bee Gees. If I were to direct a film based on my novel, I'd start with this song. Imagine: you're sitting in a movie theater. The house lights go down, those seemingly interminable trailers finally terminate, and the screen goes black. You hear that funky bass-line, then see a Black Hawk helicopter flying over a sea of sand, shot from above. The next shot is of the passengers, a squad of Army Rangers, all geared up and ready, and the next shots—as we hear about how we can tell a woman's man by the way he walks—are a series of montages of these men assaulting an insurgent compound, fighting close quarters, room to room. Our protagonist, Elijah Russell, is a 22-year-old corporal from Oklahoma, a tall, lean cowboy with jet-black hair. All the emotion has been burned from his face. There's a gunfight. Bullets spark off the mud walls. We cut to the Rangers, back aboard their helicopter, heading back to base. They've lived to see another day, managed to stay alive, though we can see that they've been beaten ragged as their cammies, nerves frayed down to nothing. Still, Russell and his fellow squad members maintain a stoic composure. Until nighttime, that is, when the demons come, and Russell, hiding out in one of the burn-shitters on the firebase where he's stationed, feels like he's going nowhere. He clutches his buzzed skull with his fingers. He weeps into his palms. He wishes for somebody to help him, somebody to help him here. And then the song enters another verse, it's a new day at Forward Operating Base Marez here in Northern Iraq, and we see Russell and the other Rangers on a Black Hawk, headed out to do it all over again.
[Note: Oddly enough, EMTs are taught to mutter "Stayin' Alive" under their breath when performing chest compressions during CPR: it has the exact same tempo as a healthy human heart at rest.]
"Profits of Doom," Clutch
Russell is transferred from northern Iraq to Afghanistan, and arrives at Firebase Dodge—a fictional American outpost located in the mountains of the very real Hindu Kush—by helicopter during a Taliban mortar attack. See if this tune gets your heart pumping. The guitar effect that opens this song—a groovy riff played through a Wah pedal—has always reminded me of helicopter's rotors. The lyrics' relevance will be self-evident, I hope.
"Buffalo River Home," John Hiatt
When Russell makes it to the Special Forces camp, he soon discovers why Captain Wynne wants him: Wynne is preparing to lead an assault on a Taliban compound in the contested tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he plans to conduct this operation on horseback (which is how U.S Special Forces actually infiltrated Afghanistan in the fall of 2001). Wynne needs Russell to train both the horses and their Green Beret riders. I think John Hiatt's "Buffalo River Home" is the perfect song to break horses to: see if you agree.
"The Man Comes Around," Johnny Cash
When you reach that point in the novel where Russell finally meets the mysterious Captain Wynne, cue this haunting track from the Man in Black. It's one of the last songs Cash wrote before his death. The hairs on your arms will (indeed) stand up when you hear Johnny Cash reading from the Book of Revelation at the song's close:
"And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts,
And I looked and behold: a pale horse.
And his name, that sat on him, was Death.
And Hell followed with him."
"Isadora Duncan," Vic Chestnutt
There's an unexpected and unconventional love story in my novel, and I hope listening to the greatest (unconventional) love song will help set the mood. Even after his death, singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt is still one the best open secrets of the alt-country scene. His album, Little, which kicks off with "Isadora Duncan" is a haunted masterpiece.
"American Horse," The Cult
This fantastic tune from The Cult's acclaimed Sonic Temple album will offer readers a welcome breather after Russell, Wynne, and the Green Beret riders narrowly escape a hairy encounter with the Taliban.
"I See a Darkness," Johnny Cash
You probably shouldn't have two Cash tunes on your novel's playlist. Actually, you probably shouldn't have less than two. There's a death of an important character late in my book and Johnny Cash's "I See a Darkness" is the most beautiful eulogy I could imagine.
"Atlantic City," Bruce Springsteen
The second track off Springsteen's best album, Nebraska, was recorded by the Boss in his bedroom on a four-track cassette recorder. Springsteen did all the playing and singing, then re-recorded the songs with the E-street band The original demos ended up sounding better, so Springsteen released those as the album: spare, stripped down to the primer, heart-rending. "Atlantic City" is the one song you need to listen to if you ever decide to start your life over again, and ride west into the sunset.
—BONUS TRACK FOR THE EPILOGUE—
[SPOILER ALERT: DON'T READ/LISTEN TO UNTIL YOU'VE FINISHED WYNNE'S WAR]
"Last Pale Light in the West," Ben Nichols
The title track from a solo album written and performed by Lucero front man Ben Nichols, "The Last Pale Light in the West" is a moody homage to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, that blood-soaked apotheosis of the Western genre. Each of the songs from Nichols's EP is dedicated to one of the characters in McCarthy's novel ("The Kid," "Toadvine," "The Judge," etc.) with the exception of this title track which attempts to capture Blood Meridian's general atmosphere and serves as a soulful elegy for the apocalypse that was the American Wild West. I hear it playing as Captain Wynne and his remaining horsemen ride off into the sunrise of a strange new country.
Aaron Gwyn and Wynne's War links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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