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June 23, 2016

Book Notes - Drew Nellins Smith "Arcade"

Arcade

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.

Drew Nellins Smith's novel Arcade is an engrossing debut.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Smith has created a narrative that entrances its readers, constantly giving us excitement and depicting with audacity the rawness of sexuality... a daring and compelling debut that sheds light on a rather unusual lifestyle. A sexy and poignant novel."


In his own words, here is Drew Nellins Smith's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Arcade:


Arcade is about a man (sort of) going through a breakup while (sort of) coming out. In discovering a peepshow arcade on the outskirts of town, he discovers an escape from the disappointments of his real life—a dead end job and the obsessive stalking of his ex. The arcade is a dark, unexpected world where closeted men meet for anonymous encounters. There, the narrator worriedly explores the possibilities, reinventing his identity with each passing man and trying to grasp the meaning of the arcade in the context of his life.

I listened to a lot of music while writing Arcade, especially the early drafts. There’s a time at the beginning of every project when I keep telling myself “everything goes in!" Which means that when I overhear a conversation that seems relevant or I catch a lyric that seems to be a great fit, I steal it right away. In subsequent drafts, things change and change and change, but these and other songs had a big influence that I hope echoes throughout the novel, even if direct evidence of them has been swept away.

I had a girlfriend in high school who was so masterful at creating mixtapes that every new song seemed organically related to the last one. Track two just sort of oozed into track three. I don’t know how she did it, and I certainly didn’t manage even a modicum of her musical elegance here. But at least I’m reasonably confident that my entry is the first in which Clint Black, Die Antwoord, and Screeching Weasel appear together.



1. El Perro del Mar "Change of Heart" (on Love is Not Pop)

“Change of Heart" is married in my mind to its music video, a strange and sexy Lynchian dream come to life in which two strongmen wearing almost nothing use their perfect physiques to move and hold one another in impossible positions. The spotlight on two men in an otherwise black arena recalls the arcade of my novel, as does the way in which they appear completely calm and serene until you look closely and see that they're breathing as hard as if they were in the middle of a boxing match. Depending on whom you believe, the opening lyric is either "a hand in the darkness" or "her hand in the darkness." Either way, hands in the darkness are what Arcade is all about, particularly when, in the background, a voice can be heard repeatedly "wishing you'd consider a change of heart."

2. Magnolia Electric Company “Texas 71" (on Sojourner)

“Texas 71" is an entry in what must surely be its own genre: mournful songs about highways. The titular arcade sits on a Texas highway and is itself a site where the narrator experiences a mixture of the dejection and bewilderment that Jason Molina seems to be singing about. Highway 71 runs through Austin, where I live, and it could be home to the arcade just as easily as any of the other roads leading out of town.

3. Elliott Smith “Thirteen" (on New Moon)

Elliott Smith has long stood as the quintessence of authentic acne-scarred romantic dreaming and alienation, so his cover of Big Star’s track about adolescent love has a special poignancy. There’s something so desperately sweet about these childish lyrics as sung by an adult, a contrast especially fitting for Arcade, which is largely about an adult man experiencing the kind of first-love heartbreak in adulthood that most people weather in adolescence. Turns out it’s something like having your tonsils removed—way less painful if you do it when you’re young, but even then it’s pretty awful. Bill Callahan’s “Teenage Spaceship" could have filled this slot, too.

4. A Tribe Called Quest “Electric Relaxation" (on Midnight Marauders)

Arcade alternates between two worlds: the narrator’s recent heartbreak and his exploration of a peepshow. His best, most relaxed moments are those when he can lose himself in the experience of strange encounters at the arcade. “Electric Relaxation," from Tribe’s 1993 Midnight Marauders album, is all about sex. I love when Phife Dawg breaks in and begins listing the types of women he’s open to: “I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, and Hatian." A real buffet of appetite and possibility.

5. The Descendents "Hope" (on Milo Goes to College)

A friend in college used to play this punk track while dreaming of connecting with one of our mutual friends who was busying herself with other guys. I can still call up the look on his face at the refrain “But I know my day will come. I know someday I’ll be the only one." The word “hope" doesn’t appear anywhere in the song, but it’s the perfect title for such a heartbroken anthem.

6. The Band “Don't Do It" (I prefer the version on The Last Waltz, but you could also use the one from Live at the Academy of Music 1971)

This cover of an old Marvin Gaye track seems a perfect summary of the kind of breakup written about in Arcade, in which one party pleads for a second chance. The refrain “Please don’t do it, don’t you break my heart" could be straight from one of the narrator’s desperate phone calls, though his pleading would be nowhere near as persuasive as that of Levon Helm’s, horn-backed appeal. When he yells, “My biggest mistake was loving you too much," I feel like shouting “Hallelujah!"

7. Die Antwoord “I Fink U Freeky" (on Ten$ion)

At the arcade in the novel, the clerks play whatever music they want, sometimes so loud it drowns out the sounds of porn. Depending on which clerk is running the place, one might hear tejano, hip hop, heavy metal, or classic rock. Or, once in a while, when some weirdo art student lands a job there, really fun, really strange stuff like Die Antwoord, the members of which I idolize whenever I watch their videos. “I Fink U Freeky" seems like the kind of phrase one might actually overhear at the arcade. Their track “Ugly Boys" is equally fitting.

8. Clint Black “A Better Man" (on Ultimate Clint Black)

Another song that has probably been heard at the arcade a few million times, played when the place is under the command of a different kind of clerk—a country boy lying to his folks and friends about where he’s working. The earnest lyrics, “I’m leaving here a better man for knowing you this way" take on a perversely ironic dimension when played over the squeals of implant-laden coeds and the undisguised sounds of man-on-man sex. The narrator of Arcade who, like me, grew up in a small Texas town, probably wouldn’t change the station if “Better Man" came on while he was cruising the city in his pickup. There’s something sort of great about Clint Black circa 1989.

9. Fly Young Red “Throw That Boy Pussy" (on Throw That Boy Pussy Reloaded)

A friend told me this track was sort of a viral sensation when it came out, which is something that would normally repel me. But it demands inclusion for a few reasons. 1) There aren’t enough hip-hop songs about gay sex, and this one is pretty damn catchy. 2) His insistence that his hookup give his real name, not his jack (or Jack’d) name recalls the fake names used by Arcade's narrator when he hooks up with guys. 3) However much courage I thought I had writing a book as explicit as Arcade, fellow Texan Fly Young Red has me beat, coming out of the Houston hip-hop scene with something this ballsy and in-your-face.

10. Screeching Weasel "I Wanna Be a Homosexual" (on Kill the Musicians)

One of my favorite things about punk is its potential for a call and response aspect. When pre-Broadway-musical Green Day released their song “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield" in 1992, Screeching Weasel released “I Wrote Holden Caulfield" the following year. They did it again in this response to Sloppy Seconds’ "I Don't Wanna Be a Homosexual." In a sort of proto-coming out, I once played this for a predictably horrified family member. I recall a specific shrieking objection to the line, “Shock the middle class, take it up your punk rock ass!" Naturally, I turned it off before the final verse, which still pops into my head all the time. Specifically the line, "You don't have the balls to be a queer!"

11. Wu Lyf “L Y F" (on Go Tell Fire to the Mountain)

I don’t know what it is about this album that makes it so great to write to. Maybe it’s that so few of the words are actually discernable, and yet it has such a powerful sound. I played it for a friend who hated it and had no idea what I could like about it. So it’s definitely not for everyone. I sometimes listened to this album on repeat when I was writing at night. When I was really engrossed, this track would come on and I’d think, “Sheesh, back to the first song again already?" Those were good nights.

12. Smog “Hit the Ground Running" (on Knock Knock)

I once knew someone who aimed to conclude conversations with an “up and out," a sort of cheery final thought intended to bring an air of lightness to an interaction, especially after downbeat talks. This song is my up and out. However melancholy the end of Arcade might be, I like to imagine this song on the narrator’s stereo as he heads out on a drive in the final sequence. The repeated sentiment of the chorus, a perfect mix of optimism and uncertainty, is rendered even more hopeful when a choir of children takes over singing the words, “Now I don’t know where I’m going. All I know is I’ll hit the ground running."


Drew Nellins Smith and Arcade links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Bay Area Reporter review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Los Angeles Times profile of the author
Out interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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