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January 13, 2017

Book Notes - Joe Halstead "West Virginia"

West Virginia

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.

Joe Halstead's debut novel West Virginia is a powerful and unsettling coming-of-age story.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This tale of family ties without a falsely satisfying resolution introduces a powerful and authentic voice."

In his own words, here is Joe Halstead's Book Notes music playlist for his novel West Virginia:

When David asked me to do this playlist, it made sense to keep things close to home, which is two places for me: West Virginia and New York City. The songs collected here span the divide that separates the hallowed folk songs of West Virginia and the secular sounds of New York. Country standards, bubbly electronic tracks, and searching tributes to home. These are songs I listened to on repeat when I wrote West Virginia, if that helps you, or you can think of it as a short sampler for the events of the book.

In West Virginia, they sing "Take Me Home, Country Roads" at the end of every WVU football game, and here you'll hear the best "Country Roads" cover ever: the Yoko Honna version. Sandwiched in there is the comfortable Nineties track, "Hate This Place," which I considered for the opening, but my love for John Rzeznik goes all the way back to third grade in West Virginia, so it appears toward the middle. "The Heart That You Own" is my favorite country song on this mix, its title at least, and not only because my heart has been stuck in one of those hollers for decades. "Skin and Bones" came out in 2013 and, in theory, is what it's all about. Eventually, the mix ends where it should, with the Earth perishing and the Universe giving way. Below, dig into a sixteen track experiment in making a playlist.

"Kill For Love" | Chromatics

When I think of Jamie Paddock in West Virginia, I think of a passing ghost, moving through space and time, in search of a home he was born far away from, living this transient life. "Kill For Love" by Chromatics creates the context for this, like a ghost spaceship broadcasting sparkly transmissions into the void, calling you back through whatever wormhole you were blasted out of. When Ruth Radelet sings, "I took a pill almost every night/In my mind I was waiting for change/While the world just stayed the same," it opens a portal from New York City to West Virginia and you just have to embrace this transience like Dave Bowman in 2001 and get sucked into the current.

"Dream the Dare" | Pure Bathing Culture

Another astral-sounding track about wormhole cartography and finding your way home, something Jamie Paddock is in desperate need of in West Virginia. This song, to me, has always had a lot of yearning--you've got the beautiful-weird melody and the honey/dreamcatcher voice of Sarah Versprille singing, "Come down storm crow, find your way home." There's some kind of weird mysticism at work here, something ritualistic and out-of-time, and I become a crow myself when I listen to it sixteen times in a row.

"Mistakes of My Youth" | Eels

The first third of West Virginia is, in part, about looking back on your youthful follies and feeling like all the mistakes and bad choices you've made have led you to exactly where you belong--and then you start hyperventilating about it all. To say that choosing "Mistakes of My Youth" is a bit on-the-nose is an understatement, but, then again, it's my playlist, and this track makes me cry. When Jamie Paddock is called to rediscover his roots while living in New York City, he has to reflect on all the choices that led him to that moment, and whether or not he deserves where he's at.

"Despair (Acoustic Version)" | Yeah Yeah Yeahs

When I wrote West Virginia, I was in the worst depression of my life, but after one listen of the acoustic version of "Despair" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I just said fuck it and stopped wasting my time. With just an acoustic guitar, Karen O delivers a devastating recital of what is, in my opinion, her finest work.

"You Better Run" | Dr. C.J. Johnson

I've heard some say that God is dead. I don't know anything about that, but what I do know is that when you put on a track like this, it will lift you out of the darkness and kick your ass into gear. Johnson in particular is on fire throughout, using his choir's sturdy backbone as a jumping-off point to salvation. I like to imagine this or some other powerful gospel song playing during transitions in life, like when Jamie Paddock begins his journey by hopping on the Amtrak back to West Virginia.

"Skin and Bones" | Avett Brothers

Jamie Paddock is a shapeshifter, but this is what he's missing for the first third of the book. The twangy, country voices. The banjo. The parts of who he really is, his true self without the mask. With "Skin and Bones," the Avett Brothers hit refresh on Appalachian folk and Bluegrass, and end up with a song both timeless and vintage. A flawless and captivating track perfect for those moments when Jamie is still looking for the good in West Virginia.

"Hate This Place" | Goo Goo Dolls

This song is on here because, when I was in third grade, the new girl said, "Have you heard of this new band, the Goo Goo Dolls? Their lead singer is sexy." Ever since, I just wanted to be John Rzeznik.

"The Heart That You Own" | Dwight Yoakam

Confession: I love Dwight Yoakam, and "The Heart That You Own" is a prime slice of Appalachian hillbilly gospel from the Kentucky-born country star. That being said, it's undeniable that Dwight is also a Rhinestone/Hollywood cowboy. He's equal parts jangle and glitter, so comparisons to Jamie Paddock and other similarly fake hipsters are apt.

"We Don't Live Here Anymore" | Jakob Dylan

Ramshackle homeplaces, biblical flood imagery, haunting background singers, and an off-kilter vibe. Jakob Dylan makes music for going places and taking trips, the kind where you're unsure where you're going, or even if it'll be someplace you want to be, but it's also the kind where you discover something. Filtered through a T. Bone Burnett lens, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" is another trip to West Virginia's dark psychogeography.

"Dreary Moon" | Big Black Delta

There's a line in West Virginia: "There are times we all imagine ourselves as someone else, somewhere else, and this perfect world has no logic except, of course, that it's perfect, and then we forget the perfect world we live in isn't the real one, but by then it refuses to let us go." There are ghosts in both Jonathan Bate's voice and synths that seem to know this idea well. The aching melody and rich soundscape of "Dreary Moon," coupled with Bates's lyrics, "A heavy burden/A holy way/I can escape anything/But loving you," make this message forever applicable.

"The Wuthering Heights" | Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto's unsettling composition is the song I've always imagined myself dying to, so, if you believe that Jamie Paddock froze to death when he fell in the New River, then you can probably bet this was playing in his head as he entered into the Underworld. I hear The Wuthering Heights on the wind every time I drive over the New River Gorge Bridge.

"Can't Find My Way Home" | Blind Faith

You've been rambling into unknown territory, maybe wasted, maybe crazy, and you can't find your way back home. We've all been there. I had no particular tracks in mind when I wrote West Virginia, but "Can't Find My Way Home" by Blind Faith wormed its way into my subconscious at some point during the process. Accompanied by a light guitar, Steve Winwood sings of a yearning for home that Jamie Paddock might appreciate.

"Runaway" | Mr Little Jeans

You know when they find a squirrel or something frozen in ice and it starts running around real quick once it's been thawed? That's how Jamie feels when he finally breaks free of the shackles of home and blood toward the end of West Virginia. "Runaway" by Mr Little Jeans rides a cathartic beat and floats with a free-spirited weightlessness that forces us to ask, Is there sometimes freedom, even redemption, in running away?

"Say Goodbye" | Fleetwood Mac

"Say Goodbye" is a séance that evokes a feeling of saying goodbye to...well, everything that ever mattered to you. It's the song that ushers Jamie Paddock through the gates of West Virginia and back to the city. The old sound of folk married to the personal, delicate vocals of Lindsey Buckingham, illuminate the unknown future Jamie's about to enter.

"Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way" | Sufjan Stevens

At the end of West Virginia, Jamie Paddock gets stuck on a train and is forced to briefly withdraw into his faith, whatever that is, before forever letting go of who he once was. The folky drone of Sufjan Stevens's "Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way" is an introspective and truth-seeking track that makes for a poignant expression of Jamie's final transformation.

"Take Me Home Country Roads (Violin version)" | Yoko Honna

"Like Her Majesty" by The Beatles, here's a hidden track. While I've come and gone from West Virginia more times than I can count, I now feel forbidden to go back. Today, I live there only through the whines of the violin and the cries of Yoko Honna in this cover of "Take Me Home, Country Roads," as if it exists in some speculative mirror world.

Joe Halstead and West Virginia links:

the author's website

Chicago Review of Books review
Publishers Weekly review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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