September 14, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Padgett Powell once again proves himself one of our most talented and versatile fiction writers with the captivating Cries for Help, Various.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Powell's range is matched only by his sense of play, and this book is a skeleton key to an extremely gifted and quintessentially American writer, at home in any form."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I have the soundtrack for this book. I have the soundtrack for any book. If the book is genius, which few are, this soundtrack will celebrate it appropriately. If the book is dull sublunary crud (we paraphrase John Donne), which most are, this soundtrack can elevate the book into a hopping pleasing agreeable thing, perhaps distracting the reader from the book altogether, inspiring her to put it down and concentrate on the music exclusively, thereby feeling even yet better about the book, abandoned and forlorn on the bedside table while the reader now boogies in the bed, or mounts her partner in the bed, or gets up and dances beside the bed with or without the partner's joining her, hell he's dull sublunary lover crud himself. That's how good this soundtrack is. Trust me a bit.
My going to high school was a negative thing overall, and I will submit, against reasonable protest and without attempting prove it, that it was uniquely negative. Things did not start looking up for me in high school until I resigned my position as columnist (under the maudlin pseudonym Billy Shears) for our underground newspaper The Free Press, wrote my own somewhat more trenchant broadside in my own name called Tough Shit, and got arrested for obscenity. This led to my having to explain myself to a senatorial group of distinguished men at the college where I was to matriculate with the school's largest scholarship. This led to my being paired in the dormitory with the odd black boy out (there were approximately forty-nine white boys and precisely five black boys in the dorm). This led to my going into a lowcountry black bar with my roommate and, more or less directly, into presuming to be a writer today and presuming to tell you about a soundtrack for a book I would not otherwise have written. Were it not for Tough Shit and my amusing account of what it is like to be arrested for obscenity in Florence, South Carolina and Fred Daniels's pairing me up with Marion Jenkins, later telling me he did that because he did not want "some redneck to eat him up," I'd not be here talking to you this way today. Marion died of sickle-cell anemia in 1979. You can see him realistically portrayed as Jinx in my book Edisto. Where were we?
Oh yes. Fastforward forty years and I am on the balcony of my little suite on a cruise ship watching the seamen loose the big lines for our departure into a week of what is called a blues cruise. I have, incidentally, been talked into this venture by a high-school classmate. It will be forty or so musical acts entertaining four thousand or so blues-admiring folks during a week of tooling around the Caribbean, stopping twice in places people aren't that interested in (see the salt piles in Curacao, unless that was the flamingos). I am not particularly drawn to the whole idea. I know only one of the musicians, Marcia Ball, and you might say that she characterizes the musical offering of the cruise: good musicians who for the most part do not have large names.
When they get the lines undone and Ft. Lauderdale just begins to slide away in its low diesel grunt, I realize I have lost my mind, for real. The moment is exactly that of going back to high school if your high school had been not three stories high but ten, and if it had ever slid away from the curb with you in it and unable to get out of it without falling to your death, and if you had ever been trapped inside your high school for a week. That is the sudden, constant, inexplicable, or maybe explicable, emotion I have: complete despair. Lost my mind.
I try to survive. I do reasonable things to avoid the contagions at the food bars they begin telling us we are most likely to contract in the first several days, not so much in the latter days, of the cruise. I go to the music events and avoid looking at the people going to the music events (too much fat, too much skin, too much burnt skin). I endure; I do not prevail. I am marginally buoyant. Very weird towel origami appears on the bed every day. As I did in high school, I go underground. Slip out of the mainstream, locate the disaffects. I start going to the a.m. pick-up sessions at the small lounges scattered around the boat. And there I am saved, much as I was saved by hauling off and uttering Tough Shit and getting arrested and lifted out of sublunary high-school hell. I stumble upon Raul Malo singing in a lounge.
This has gone on too long with my insistence on this jejune high-school conceit. Let's wrap it up: Raul Malo is Frank Sinatra meets Ricky Ricardo. I will stand with that even though it suggests a degree of cartoonishness that is wrong. The voice is Sinatra-grade, the spirit Ricardo-frisky. Other musicians complain, when having to play with Malo, "Raul knows five thousand songs." Someone will suggest a song and Malo without hesitation will sing it. Someone will ask him in the restroom where he is from and he will say Miami and go back to the lounge and keep singing. He will stumble on a cable and say, lifting a beer, "It's the boat." A little laugh obtains, he sings another one. He says, "There's got to be another singer," the audience tenses, none steps forward, Malo sings another one, the audience relaxes. Malo sings and the hair on necks rises up it is so deft, so correct in phrase and weight. If he will sing until 5 a.m., you will stay there until 5 a.m. This is true.
The soundtrack for Cries for Help, Various, a book not correct at all times in its phrasing and weight, is everything and anything Raul Malo sings.
Padgett Powell and Cries for Help, Various 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)
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