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August 4, 2016

Book Notes - Robin MacArthur "Half Wild"

Half Wild

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.

Robin MacArthur's stunning Half Wild is one of the year's finest short story collections.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"MacArthur is able to render complicated situations precisely and depict tenderness and harshness with an equally deft hand."

In her own words, here is Robin MacArthur's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Half Wild:

I grew up in an off-grid house deep in the woods my parents had built by hand, and our electricity came from a couple solar panels and a gas generator, so we were frugal with it. But when the sun shone enough to fill our bank of batteries in the basement we would pull out my parents' LPs from the 60s and dance around that dim-lit living room like music-crazed banshees. In other words: music was holy, music was electric, music was grace.

The stories of Half Wild are peppered with songs—mostly country songs and 60s rock and roll. As a musician myself, I can't imagine the world without music in it, and so my stories can't exist without stories in them, either—moments of reverie, escape, expansion, grace.

These stories are rural and the music is, for the most part, too. I think of Half Wild as a country song of sorts, rife with incantational place names—Vicksburg, Silver Creek, Whiskey Mountain. I think of the book, in some ways, as a love song to the half-wild places and people I've known and loved, and, like every good country song, a more universal exploration of the reasons we're both drawn to the landscapes where "all our changes were," and why we're hungry to leave. Here are some of the songs that (literally) appear in the book, and others that fed it in other ways.

1. John Prine, "Spanish Pipedream"

John Prine is one of the most masterful short story writers out there (and surely the most economical). Every song on his first self-titled first album is a mercurial and majestic piece of short prose. I almost chose "Hello In There," because it's one of the most crushing and true songs I know, and gets to the heart of why I make art—a simple attempt to say "hello in there." But I chose "Spanish Pipedream" because it's the anthem of Vermont's back-to-the-land movement, which Half Wild is peppered with—dreamers who came to these woods to blow up their TVs, grow peaches, and find Jesus within the land.

2. Red Heart the Ticker, "Letter from Mt. Philo"

Weird to include a song of my own on this list? Yes. And yet…I've always felt this song is an extension of Half Wild. My husband wrote it while I was putting the finishing touches on my stories. It's on our new album, Tigers of the New England Forest, whose themes (tigers, fierce New England) echo the themes of the book. The character in this song who disappears has always reminded me of Maggie from "Maggie in the Trees," and the "fierce New England" in this song is a perfect summary of the landscape of Half Wild—its hollows and campers and cabins and balsam and spruce-thick forests with their wild creatures—coyotes, fishers, bobcats, mountain lions—lurking.

3. Josephine Foster, "I'm a Dreamer"

Oh, Josephine Foster. In the "Women Where I'm From," the last story in the book, the narrator's mother, Joan, sits down at the piano and plays drunken and one-handed Bach. If Joan broke out in song this is what she would sound like: the drunken slur, the despondency and yearning, the refusing-to-die romanticism. There are a lot of dreamers in Half Wild—being one is not always easy.

4. Gram Parsons, "Return of the Grievous Angel"

Hannah and Joan listen to The Flying Burrito Brothers in "The Women Where I'm From," and Hannah thinks about Gram Parson's body being burned in the desert, about "the strange ways we choose to die." Gram and Emmylou singing together represents, in some subtle way, for both Hannah and Joan, some impossible (or unfound) love. There's also the chorus to this song--Twenty-thousand roads I went down down down, and they all led me straight back home to you--which is what most of the characters in Half Wild could say about the fictional town of Vicksburg, and all they left behind there.

5. Gillian Welch, "Pocahantas"

Gillian covering one of my favorite Neil Young songs. Neil Young shows up more than once in the collection. As do the Abenaki, Vermont's native people, (Pocahantas's distant relatives), who are mostly invisible here in southern Vermont where I live. But they're woven into these stories in quiet ways, as they are woven (thank god) throughout this living landscape. The way Neil moves time around in this song astounds me every time and is a literary inspiration. I also can't imagine not having Gillian Welch on a playlist related to my work—her stark aesthetic, haunting voice, and brilliant songwriting have influenced my work in uncountable ways.

6. Birdie Busch, "Sitgreaves Pass"

Birdie! How this song un-shells me. Such a stunning landscape painting, that shows perfectly how the poetry of things (turquoise rings, silver good luck charms) enter--immediately and with punch--into our bloodstream. Birdie's a dear friend of mine, and though this song is set in the desert (near where my grandmother lived as a girl), its painted landscape captures the pronounced melancholy and yearning and startling clarity that can come when one has a direct encounter with a landscape, as many characters in Half Wild do.

7. Otis Redding, "Love Man"

In the story "Karmann" some musty hippies put on this Otis Redding song and shake their skinny asses (awkwardly) in the smoke-filled and pine-walled living room. I did a lot of dancing in the living room to Otis Redding LPs as a kid. Vermont is a despairingly white landscape—thank goodness for all those Otis Redding LPs of my youth for encouraging me to get my butt up off the couch and dance.

8. Neil Young, "Helpless"

If there were one song to summarize this book, and what it's about, it would be this one: There is a town in North Ontario/dream comfort memory to spare/and in my mind I still a place to go/all my changes were there. The perfect summary for how we are fundamentally shaped by the landscapes of our youth. Clare, at the end of the story "Karmann," lies down in her bed at the end of the story and listens to this song. Vicksburg will be, for Clare, and for many of the characters in Half Wild, the place in her mind she will always go to, the "place where all her changes were."

Neil Young appears again at the end of the book, in "The Women Where I'm From," as Hannah and Joan and Kristy and Jesse listen to Rust Never Sleeps out on the porch of the old commune. Like Johnny Rotten, Joan chooses to "burn out" rather than to "fade away." What would we do without songs like these to weave their way into our stories, giving them nuance and depth and wings?

9. Red Heart the Ticker, "Old Smith Corona"

My husband wrote this song for me as I was cranking on these stories in the corner of our wood-bound cabin. I am impatient for you/as you sit in the corner working/the old Smith Corona that you swear by/fills the space between us with its tapping. A soundtrack to my (literal) typing of these stories. And filled with a similar, winter landscape-infused (go figure!) yearning.

10. Lucinda Williams, "Jackson"

I listened to Lucinda's album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road obsessively when I was in college and, later, while living in New York and Philadelphia. Though the album is about the south, the album captured the essence of what home was for me—the gravel roads, the trailers, the darkness and beauty and haunted landscapes and, at that point in my life, my near-sick longing for everything I'd loved and lost there. The Vicksburg in this song (obviously Vicksburg, Mississippi) is the namesake for the Vicksburg of Half Wild. Lucinda sings, "Once I get to Vicksburg, I won't even feel a nerve, once I get to Vicksburg, I won't even feel an urge." Vale in the story "Barred Owl" makes a very oblique reference to the song—"Vicksburg, like the song…though most people don't know the song." Now all of you do. If my book could sound like any one song, it would sound like this—slide guitars and tambourines and harmonies and Lucinda's wild voice, the voice of a survivor, made of wood and grass and lake water and wood smoke and tarnished, glistening steel.

Robin MacArthur and Half Wild links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Here & Now interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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