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June 8, 2016

Book Notes - Chris McCormick "Desert Boys"

Desert Boys

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

Chris McCormick's Desert Boys is an enthralling novel-in-stories that exhibits an exceptional sense of place.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Tender, heartfelt, fully realized stories about family, friendship, and love.… When we leave Antelope Valley we immediately want to go back, so achingly good are these beautifully conceived stories."

In his own words, here is Chris McCormick's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Desert Boys:

"Battlescars" by Ozma
The book begins in a makeshift paintball field in the desert, where three young friends navigate the space between play and violence. Their bodies are welted and bruised, but a kind of comfort lies on the other side of that pain, the comfort of belonging to something outside the body, the comfort of love.

"California" by Joni Mitchell
Not only because the book is set in California, but because this song strikes me as one of the early Vietnam-era songs lined with resignation: "They won't give peace a chance / that was just a dream some of us had." Less anger than earlier songs, less idealism, and more focus on returning—resigning—home. My book is set against the new wars, and that resignation, which has turned to apathy, is familiar and frustrating to some of the characters who wish they'd been around before the dream died.

"Boys Don't Cry" by The Cure
One of the great songs about how the pressures of performing masculinity make all the stuff of honest relationships—direct communication, the ability to apologize, vulnerability—more difficult. The song feels cheerful, but the lyrics expose how tone can be a performance, too.

"Irreplaceable" by Beyoncé
At first glance, Beyoncé's demands in the song of 2007—"To the left, to the left"—seem muscular and stoic and exactly how autocratic we wish we'd be during a breakup. But the double-negative lyric—"Don't you ever for a minute get to thinking you're irreplaceable"—is more nuanced than its alternative, "You are replaceable." Beyoncé isn't just ordering her man to leave, she's also convincing herself she has the strength to do it. At least that's how Daley Kushner—in college in 2007, far from home and out of touch with his best friend after a messy, exposing fight—might interpret it.

"Ain't Got No, I Got Life" by Nina Simone
A black man who once served as his desert high school's Confederate mascot is putting together a potential bid for the mayorship of Oakland, California. He and his partner, Jenna, grow to resent the white frame of an article being written by another alum of that desert high school. Nina Simone provides the soundtrack to a fraught conversation about the ownership of stories and the ownership of bodies.

"Je T'aime… Moi Non Plus" by Serge Gainsbourg
Toward the end of the book, our dude Daley is invited to Paris, France, by far the longest distance from home he's ever been. He goes to a club where the music is more throbbing than Gainsbourg's ever was. But never more intimate, never more rasped, never sexier. Gainsbourg is the Paris of Daley's imagination, the Paris where orgasms are recorded as harmonies, where sexuality and love, physicality and soul, are more difficult to parse than they are in cheap clubs promoting sex.

"The Fairest of the Seasons" by Nico
This song was written by Jackson Browne, and a lyric from it—"Should I stay or should I go, and do I have to do just one?"—serves as the book's epigraph. It's a beautiful, sad song about leaving and longing, loving and belonging, all of which make up the heart of Desert Boys. I also like the irony of the song's title in the context of the high desert where the book is set, where no season feels fair. I think that's part of the point of the song, a kind of deep yearning for an invisible middle ground between staying and leaving, a time and a place that may not exist.

Chris McCormick and Desert Boys links:

the author's website

excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Michigan Quarterly Review interview with the author
Ploughshares 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)
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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