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August 10, 2015

Book Notes - Greg Shemkovitz "Lot Boy"

Lot Boy

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Greg Shemkovitz's debut novel Lot Boy is brilliantly evocative of place, an impressive tale of escape.

The Millions wrote of the book:

"Among its many virtues, this novel offers a peek behind the curtain of a world few people have experienced – the claustrophobic, corrupt, filthy, noisy, inefficient and mind-numbingly banal world of a Big Three car dealership. Reading Lot Boy, you’ll find yourself rooting for Eddie’s escape, while coming to understand why the American automobile industry went so far down the toilet that the U.S. taxpayer had to reach in and pull it out."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Greg Shemkovitz's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Lot Boy:

So much of this novel is about place, physical and emotional. If the narrator isn't feeling stuck in a service garage in Buffalo, NY, then he's struggling to make sense of his place as employee and son to his father. But physical place helps to emotionally define all the characters, whether they're in a showroom, a service garage, a bar, or, as happens quite often in this book, in an automobile. Each place has its own soundtrack and, with the exception of one character, that environment somehow curates the music for the characters in that setting. I did not intend for this but it seems that most characters, the narrator included, accept whatever song is playing at the moment, as if the music they hear is no more in their control than the blizzard conditions outside their window.

The following is a playlist of the music the novel's character might hear while off the page, when we're not looking.


"West Coast, NY" by Failures' Union

So much about this song speaks to the novel as a whole that it could linger behind any scene and somehow feel appropriate. It doesn't hurt that Failures' Union is from Buffalo, which seems awfully fitting for a novel set there. And, aesthetically, their sound takes so much from 90s rock that they reflect sort of the stasis of the story's setting. Beyond that, the song, as I hear it, is about a relationship between a narrator and his hometown, which couldn't be more on point with the narrator's struggles.

"Ahead by a Century" by The Tragically Hip

I told myself that I wouldn't place a Goo Goo Dolls song in this list because to state their presence on 1990s Buffalo radio is like saying it snowed that year. So, I'm listing the second most frequently aired song, the sort of tune that would appear on a rock radio station every hour without fail, a unique affliction to radio stations along the Canadian border. And it really could be any Tragically Hip song. But where most of their songs have a bluesy rock energy, this particular track has a certain droll monotony and fruitless pining that seems also to reflect the narrator's feelings throughout the book. And while I hated this song in the 90s, I would shamelessly turn it up if it ever migrated to a radio station in the South.


"My Own Worst Enemy" by Lit

Eddie drives so many different vehicles that he doesn't bother to bring his own cassettes or CDs (this is pre-mp3). Instead, he knows the radio stations by heart and is willing to endure what is on at the moment, which is inevitably Billboard hits from acts like Duncan Sheik, The Verve Pipe, and Barenaked Ladies. But he occasionally hears a song that makes him want to hit the accelerator. With its energy and playfulness, this Lit song reflects Eddie's careless antics, while the lyrics, maybe too pointedly, speak to how that carelessness also brings Eddie trouble.

"Ramble On" by Led Zeppelin

Like with 90s rock hits, Eddie is also willing to listen to most classic rock that comes on the radio, among his favorite artists being Led Zeppelin. This song reflects Eddie's desire to run away, perhaps to California. For this reason, in the novel, his coworker, Jack, repeats a line from "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & The Papas. "All the leaves are brown," Jack says. Unfortunately, Eddie doesn't care much for The Mamas & The Papas. But when he hears "Ramble On," he gets the same sentiment from the first line, "Leaves are falling all around, it's time I was on my way."


"Mo Money Mo Problems" by The Notorious B.I.G. featuring Mase and Puff Daddy

Spanky spends just as much time driving around as Eddie does, only he's usually in the Parts truck with the radio tuned to a certain hip-hop and R&B station. Ever the schemer, Spanky seems to think that Biggie's hit somehow relates to his own life, even when there's no way that a parts delivery guy from Western New York will ever be a high roller. Then again, when Spanky does come into a small pile of cash, problems also follow.

"Crossroads" by Bone Thugs N Harmony

To some extent Spanky is the happy-go-lucky goofball with heart in the novel. Where Eddie sees the world through a cynical lens, Spanky seems to accept his lot in life. And despite his vulgar vernacular and crude sexual desires, he wears his sentimentality on his sleeve. Spanky has no vanity or pride, and when this song comes on the radio, he has no reservations about turning it up and passionately singing along.

Service, Parts, and Sales

"Gimme Some Lovin'" by The Spencer Davis Group

Save for the occasional digression into blues music, the service garage is almost always teeming with classic rock, from The Rolling Stones to Billy Joel. This song carries a certain sense of camaraderie and energy that Eddie likes most about his coworkers. If something doesn't simply rock for rock's sake, it must be fun and playful, which is exactly what this song brings to the garage. I like to imagine that when this song comes on, the mechanics stop what they're doing, leave the rotors fastened loosely, and gather for a group sing along.

"Blinded by the Light" by Manfred Mann's Earth Band

Mechanics may not halt their work for this song but heads certainly bob to the rhythm. Selznick, in particular, is prone to sprawling on the concrete floor beneath his lift and closing his eyes to fully absorb the song's final harmony. Most of the mechanics would agree that this tune is among the few sacred rock classics, alongside "Whole Lotta Rosie" by AC/DC and "Somebody to Love" by Queen.

"I Guess that's Why They Call it The Blues" by Elton John

There's a Casey's Top 40 feel to the dealership showroom that would likely be playing Celine Dion or Toni Braxton if the showroom and its surrounding offices weren't lined with faux-wood paneling that can only be accompanied by a diehard 80s song such as this. With Stevie Wonder's somber harmonica solo, the song also reflects the dealership's struggling sales and waning morale.

Wilford Brimley

"At this Moment" by Billy Vera and the Beaters

Like the gang in the showroom, off the page I imagine Wilford and his crew listening to music best reserved for dentist office waiting rooms. With the key turned to On but the engine cut off, I picture Wilford, the cowboy, and his cronies letting the windows fog against the wintery night, while they sit in a parking lot and listen to this song all the way through.


"If it's Here When We Get Back It' Ours" by Texas is the Reason

Maybe the only character in the book who curates her music, Hannah favors an independent sound—emo, punk, and hardcore—that is often sad or unapologetic. Perhaps related, she is also the only character who has already paid for her mistakes, which makes her a much more complex character than comes through in Eddie's story. This song reflects how Hannah feels in relation to a world that has not been kind to her.

"Drag Queen" by Copper

Copper was a short-lived mid-90s Buffalo band, which included Texas is the Reason's Garrett Klahn on bass. This title track off of their only album reflects Hannah's angst and determination, as her physical transformation forces her to accept a new identity.

"Something I Can Never Have" by Nine Inch Nails

In her darkest moments, Hannah feels the emptiness and pain that this song carries so well. Where Hannah has a destructive side that resembles songs like "March of the Pigs" and "Gave Up," this song reaches those quiet moments when Hannah is loneliest.

Where those other songs may make up a soundtrack for the narrative, the following song played an integral role in helping me find a place for that narrative to end.

"The Furthest Point" by Failures' Union

When my editor asked me to either cut or rework the final chapter of the novel, my instinct was to cling to those final moments and cram them somewhere, anywhere, just to keep those little darlings alive. But when I tried to work the chapter elsewhere in the story, it felt out of place. How I came to terms with cutting the final chapter was completely by accident. While I usually write first drafts in silence, I'll have music playing when I revise. When I was considering how the book might end, with or without its original final chapter, I was listening to an album that had just come out by Failures' Union. Now, I like to think that I'm a cinematic writer. So, as I was reading what is now the final paragraph of the book, this song, "The Furthest Point," began to play, as if leading the story into the closing credits. It's the sort of song that reaches down your throat and devours your heart with its simplicity and brevity, and it convinced me that my book had to do just that—be simple and short and devour the reader's heart. I just hope that the story will do that even half as much as this song does.

Greg Shemkovitz and Lot Boy links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Novel Enthusiasts review
Small Press Book Review review

The Nervous Breakdown self-interview with the author
Triad City Beat interview with the author

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)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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