April 3, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jim Ruland's novel Forest of Fortune is one of the finest examples of the new golden age of literary crime fiction.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Powered by adept characterization, darkly lyrical prose, and an unexpected but oh-so-perfect ending, this is the literary equivalent of a slot machine jackpot."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My novel, Forest of Fortune, is informed by the five and-a-half years I spent working at an Indian casino. One of the characters, Alice, is a Native American woman who is haunted by trains. The inspiration for this character comes from a period in my life in the 1990s when I went to grad school in a mountain town on the edge of the Navajo reservation.
1. Metallica, "Call of Ktulu"
As a teaching assistant, I taught English composition. My very first class met at 8am on Mondays and Wednesdays. Edgar Bitsui, a Navajo student, made an instant impression. He was dressed all in black and had long dark hair. He sat in the back row listening to heavy metal through his cheap headphones. At exactly 8am he turned the music off, crossed his arms, and stared at the floor for the rest of the period.
2. Salt-N-Pepa "Push It"
David Suneagle was the first Indian I ever met. I was a deck seaman in the navy and he appeared one day while our ship was berthed in Yokohama. Or maybe it was Subic Bay. Suneagle was from Oklahoma and was built like a defensive lineman from the waist up and a point guard below. He used to run while wearing a trash bag with holes cut out for his head and arms. We all learned the hard way not to go drinking with Suneagle. One night in Tijuana he gave me a beer and told me to chug it down. I did and vomited on the spot. It wasn't beer; it was a Long Island ice tea. Suneagle laughed for days. It was not unusual for Suneagle to be brought back to the ship by shore patrol. The rumor was he'd get physical with prostitutes. He slept in the rack above mine, arms folded across his chest like a pharaoh.
3. Wall of Voodoo, "Mexican Radio"
During teacher orientation, I learned that in Navajo culture it is considered disrespectful for young people to look their elders in the eye when they are being addressed. This explained why it often seemed like my Navajo students were mentally checked out during class. Even though I knew this wasn't the case, I found it difficult to look past my biases.
4. Santana, "Black Magic Woman"
During grad school I lived in a studio apartment that had an auspicious address: 13 Blackbird Roost. My upstairs neighbors were a couple: A sturdy-looking white woman who wore her hair in a braid and a Navajo guy who was at least a decade older than her. He worked for the railroad as some kind of engineer. They were both taking classes at the college. One night, things got rowdy and the music was turned up loud to drown out a fight. Carlos Santana's "Black Magic Woman" played over and over again, and now I fucking hate that song. I don't know who hit whom first, but the next day the railroad engineer had a black eye and his girlfriend moved out.
5. Beethoven, "Ode to Joy"
Edgar loved A Clockwork Orange. Not the movie, he insisted, but the book. He claimed to have read it over 30 times and I believed him. His essays were filled with Nadsat, the unusual argot Anthony Burgess invented. Edgar peppered his essays with "gulliver" and "krovy" and all of the rest of the clockwork speak I'd loved when I, too, was a teenage misfit. Edgar refused to use capital letters, even in his name. In an essay in which I'd ask students to write about a change they had experienced, Edgar wrote about the time he went to a lonely desert mesa and transformed into a wolf.
6. Cypress Hill, "How I Could Just Kill a Man"
After his girlfriend left, my upstairs neighbor went off the rails, so to speak. He stopped taking classes and spent his evenings drinking with disreputable friends in his apartment. Their parties went long into the night. Eventually he lost his job and he started partying around the clock. One day I watched three men walk up the stairs to his place. Each carried a case of beer and a heavy walking stick, as if they'd journeyed from someplace far away. A woman leaned over the railing. "Hey, baby. You wanna party?" I didn't want to party. I wanted a good night's sleep. I was afraid to complain out of fear of being clubbed to death so I spent my nights in the bars, compiling my own regrets.
7. PJ Harvey, "Down by the Water"
One of my colleagues coerced me into joining the English department's co-ed basketball team. We were a sad, undisciplined group. If we had a nickname it would have been "The Sedentary Six." We were hopelessly out of shape and were routinely destroyed by our opponents. One day we went up against an all-Navajo team. They were short and wore glasses. I thought we had a shot, but was quickly disabused of this notion. Every one of them could shoot the three. They ran us off the court and left us gasping for breath in the thin mountain air.
8. John Lurie, "Italian Walk"
It was a lonely town, the kind of town where you could hear the trains pass no matter where you were. My apartment was close to the tracks and I'd walk along them and as a short cut to the bars. Joe's. Charlie's. The Monte Vista Lounge. Joe's was a good place to end the night because it was also a package store, which meant that when last call came at midnight I could buy a six-pack of tall boys and a pint of bourbon and head for the tracks. There was an old abandoned depot that the trains didn't stop at anymore. Someone had spray-painted the words POOP DECK on the wall, so that's what we called it. If you stood on the edge of the Poop Deck you could feel the awesome power of the trains as they blew by. We'd all heard the stories of drunks who'd been annihilated on the tracks. Sometimes it was a student. Sometimes it was an Indian. It was an annual event in our town. The train didn't just hit you. It sucked you in and spat you out in pieces. After the whistle sounded and the train roared by it got really quiet on the Poop Deck as we tried not to think about how cold it was, how utterly lost we were.
9. Anthrax, "Indians"
One night I went on a date at an Indian bar on the other side of town. What made it an Indian bar? Was it a place where Indians went or did an Indian own it? I never found out, but the young women who worked there had to wear short shorts all year round. It was the holiday season and bitterly cold. There was a homeless man who'd been given a ham in a can, and he was offering pieces on the end of a fork to everyone who came through the door. The woman I was dating liked to party. She was a little older than me and her drinking was causing problems at a job that I pretended to care about. She was a magnet for trouble, and on this night she attracted the attention of an armed cowboy who tried to recruit me into a white power organization in Idaho.
10. Junior Parker, "Mystery Train"
There's one story I don't know if I believe, but I can't not tell you. There was a fellow grad student who lived in a hippie house alongside the tracks where one could always find good drugs. He was obsessed with the trains. He claimed that the trough between the rails was deep enough for a person to lie down in so that when the train passed over him, he would come to no harm. Naturally, he was full of shit, but an argument ensued as to whether such a thing was possible, if even testing the theory was the ultimate in foolishness or bravery because who would believe you if you actually went though with it? I'd learned to love the mournful sound those trains made as they barreled through town, but after I heard that improbable story the sound of far-off trains filled me with dread. Every time I heard it I imagined lying on the tracks, waiting for death, gambling on annihilation.
11. Ned's Atomic Dustbin, "Grey Cell Green"
On one of the many occasions I had too much to drink, I started a fight outside a bar and got my eye busted up pretty good. I had to cancel classes for a week. I told the not-so-nice lady in the administrative office that I'd come down with a case of pink eye. It was pink all right. A lot of other colors, too. That week I went hiking in the Grand Canyon with a friend. We took the steepest trail into the canyon and walked all the way to the Colorado River. It felt good to be in nature, all that shit, but the trail was so steep it took us two days to climb out. On that second night we had to pitch a tent on the trail. Madness. All of my photos from the trip are in black and white and that's how I think about that time now: black and white and full of shame. It was a long time before I could look anyone in the eye.
12. KRS One, "Sound of da Police"
Shortly before I moved out of the hellhole on Blackbird Roost my upstairs neighbor was evicted. A construction crew came in to assess the damage and make repairs. They tore out the carpet, drywall, everything. The contractor told me the water and power had been shut off for months and the tenants pissed in the corners like animals in a cave. I moved into a room in a house on Calle Contenta ("Happy Street") and my life began to improve.
13. Eric Dolphy, "Out to Lunch"
A few years ago, I got a package in the mail from Edgar. It was the tattered copy of Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs I'd lent him during office hours one day. The book was so old that it had a bookmark from the comic book store that I used to go to as a kid. He sent me a long letter that said a lot of nice things that I found hard to reconcile with the person I'd been. He'd been accepted into an MFA program. The student had surpassed the teacher. A passage had been highlighted and I have no idea which one of us is responsible: "The lighted café was a diving bell, cable broken, settling into black depths."
14. The Orb, "Little Fluffy Clouds"
Not too long ago I went back to that mountain town with my wife and daughter. I've given up drinking for good and without the attendant bad behavior hijacking my priorities a lot of the shame and most of my regrets about the place have slipped away. I drove around town not really recognizing anything. It was like being inside one of the essays I used to assign: Compare and contrast the things that have changed and the things that have stayed the same. I was grateful that I'd never have to ask someone to write an essay like that again, and if I did find myself in that position, I'd take them outside and tell them to look at the clouds, tell me what you see. My family had lunch with Edgar and his wife and young daughter. We ate pizza. Or sandwiches. I can't remember. I was kind of stunned to be there. The two of us together with our families. How did this happen? How did we come to this place so radically transformed? What did we do to deserve these miraculous lives?
Jim Ruland and Forest of Fortune links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)