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February 22, 2017

Book Notes - Jaimee Wriston Colbert "Wild Things"

Wild Things

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.

Jaimee Wriston Colbert's short story collection Wild Things masterfully portrays the intersection man and nature in its lyrical prose.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Colbert (Shark Girls, 2009) hones her clarion vision of the interconnectedness and vulnerability of life in this edgy, knowing, situationally complex, and emotionally intricate short story collection. …. Colbert’s divining sense of brokenness and our longing for wholeness makes for extraordinarily incisive, stirring, funny, and haunting all-American stories."

In her own words, here is Jaimee Wriston Colbert's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Wild Things:

I don't listen to music while I write. In fact, I so desperately seek silence at my writing desk I once tried factory worker ear plugs, some sort of hardhat version of ear muffs that's supposed to cancel out sounds, just to stop the relay of dogs barking, leaf blowers, lawnmowers, the noise of summer in suburbia. However, before sitting down to write, when I retreat into my head and let my characters show their faces, speak their needs, tell me who they are, that's a story often set to music, some song on a feedback loop that gets stuck in my head until I replace it with another. I could be hiking the trails, a beach, strolling down a city sidewalk and I'm humming this song, plotting the conflict of my story. Or listening to Pandora at night, sprawled across my bed, supposedly doing leg lifts for my knee injury, but instead I'm following lyrics into the heart of a character.

My new linked collection, Wild Things, is about loss—personal, environmental, economical. It takes place primarily in a rural area of upstate New York, where the decline of manufacturing has hit folks pretty hard. It's been tagged "rural noir," and I suspect the noir part has to do with the abduction of a young girl by a man who wants to "save her." References to this create a novelistic arc, and one reads to find out what happens to the girl, but the stories also read as self-contained episodes. In other words, the book is episodic, much like a playlist, and it brings to mind how my teenage kids used to create mix-CDs for me (I'm probably dating myself!), where the songs were all different but somehow worked as a piece—as if all these different artists had gathered together and decided to do an album. So that's what I'm inspired to do here, a playlist for my stories, songs that are representational of the individual, becoming part of the whole, listening to these voices: the lyrics, my characters.

In the Prologue, "Elegy," we begin with loss, a woman whose brother has died, who reappears in several other stories, but this one with its magical realist vision also foreshadows environmental disaster—an ocean receding until dead fish tile the sandy floor, the sea where she scattered her brother's ashes. "Ain't no Sunshine When She's Gone," Bill Withers, 1971, his mournful lyrics: "I know I know I know I know… only darkness every day … anytime she goes away." The Prologue ends with the image of an alala, the nearly extinct Hawaiian crow, tattooed on her brother's shoulder.

In the first story "Gravity," Birdie is obsessed with birds, the freedom of flying away that birds represent, as she deals with her opioids-addicted mother. "White Bird," by It's A Beautiful Day, 1968. "White bird, in a golden cage… alone." A plaintive song with a trilling instrumental opening that sounds almost bird-like. "She must fly, or she will die." Like so many in these post-industrial areas, no jobs or low-paid service jobs, Birdie is trapped in a waitressing life. Sounds like something from a Trump-playbook, but Birdie refuses to be victimized. One day she will escape with her dynamite-wielding boyfriend, or more likely leave him behind, and fly!

We move into the first of two title stories: "Wild Things – Ghosts," and what better to accompany it than Lucinda Williams' evocative song from her new album (February 2016) that bears its name: "Ghosts of Highway 20." Jones, the protagonist in this story is a haunted man, with a past that unfolds like the highway Williams' sings about. The story opens with his memory of being sent to meet the father he never knew, twelve years old, traveling alone in a bus across country. His dad picks him up in Portland, Oregon and drives him to the gritty seacoast town of Seaside, where he manages a rundown motel. "Call me Bruce," his dad says. Williams sings: "And my fears continue to haunt me… truck stops … rundown motels …rusty junkyards," in her raw, gutsy voice. From his dad Jones learns how everything beautiful in the world is in peril, and now as an adult who's lost his mom in a meth lab-explosion (and believes she's returned as a ghost), he abducts a pretty young girl, believing she was in danger of being raped by her drug-dealer boyfriend, holding her captive in his trailer to "protect her."

It's the Cowboy Junkies languorous version of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane," for the next story. "We Are All In Pieces" is about a teenaged girl whose heroin-addicted brother has disappeared, and her mom is strong-arming her into an abortion she doesn‘t want. Sadie, mourning her brother, knows that once the life inside of her is gone, she will be "as empty as the sky." Margo Timmins' enigmatic, evocative voice singing: "Anyone who's ever had a heart/ Wouldn't turn around and break it..." is the perfect accompaniment. Of course Lou Reed's history with the Velvet Underground is well known, and it's understood that 'Sweet Jane' is code for heroin.

"And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know…" Simon and Garfunkel's lyrics made famous in the movie The Graduate. Nowadays we'd refer to Anne Bancroft's character as a "cougar"—a hot older woman coming on to a younger guy. Monty in "This is A Success Story" has not hit cougar-status yet, but she's definitely too old for contemplating sex with a teenaged boy. She's a failed mom, daughter of a depressed mom who failed her by committing suicide, who escapes into sexual fantasy, in much the same way as Nora in "Erosion," who can't conceive a child, thinks of sex as "hurting" and likes it rough. We'll call Nora "Wild Thing," since not using that iconic song by The Troggs somewhere in a book called Wild Things would seem remiss. "Wild Thing, I think you move me…." Parallel to Nora's barrenness is the erosion of a land so adversely affected by climate change, literally swallowed by the sea.

I could be cheesy and do something by Three Dog Night for the story "Dog Days." But this story exposes the heart of income inequality and loss in a community that had good jobs and now has nothing. It's the heat of summer and only the Jehovah Witnesses move from broken-down house to broken-down house. In one, a man who once prospered, his uninsured wife dying from lung cancer, tells his son to drown their dog because he can no longer afford to feed it. "Youngstown," Bruce Springsteen's woeful ballad about the demise of steel in Youngstown, Ohio sets the tone: "Now sir you tell me the world's changed/ Once I made you rich enough/ Rich enough to forget my name."

Time for some of the finest jazz ever recorded, Kind of Blue, Miles Davis's masterpiece studio album released in 1959 by Columbia Records. I put this on when I'm "in a mood," so to speak, and am blown away each time by its complexity and beauty. Fortune in "A Kind of Extinction" is obsessed with the color blue. The ignored child of a Tea Party Mom, she spies on her neighbor, the "beatnik," who plays the saxophone, making her feel "all shivery," and she imagines aquamarine, like the dying glaciers her science teacher talks about, "dead ice—a kind of extinction."

Change of mood for the story "Finding the Body," where teenaged Troy, guilt-ridden over the disappearance of his girlfriend (the girl abducted by Jones), and even more guilty over an accident caused by his dad that paralyzes a beautiful young woman, becomes obsessed with this woman and begins stalking her. I can't think of a more famous stalking song than "Every Breath You Take," by The Police. I used to feel more than a little disturbed by Sting's voice whining out those lyrics: "Every breath you take, every move you make…. I'll be watching you." But the wheelchair-bound Lois turns it around on Troy, teaching him a poignant lesson about messing with older women.

"I'm Just Here Until I'm Gone" is my prison story, so of course we have to play Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Imagine his deep, rumbly bass—better yet, put it on! "When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry."

It's Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" for "The Man Who Jumped," because Janis had quite the problem with it in her earlier years, cocaine, misogynist hookups, all manner of failed jobs and dreams. Now she's with the depressed Ruth, waiting for rescuers to find the body of a man who jumped into the polluted Susquehanna River and disappeared. To the tune of Clapton's unrivaled guitar riffs, the story moves in fragments, each corresponding to the number of days it takes to find the body. "She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie."

The beautiful ballad "Trouble," sung by Elliott Smith on the Thumbsucker Soundtrack, accompanies the other "Wild Things" title story, "Migrants." This story gives us Loulie's point of view, the abducted girl, who's been held by Jones for months now and is yearning for her freedom. "Feels like every time I get back on my feet/ She {trouble} come around and knock me down again." Elliott Smith died of an apparent suicide in 2003. Risking a spoiler alert, I will tell you that Loulie does not.

"Suicide Birds" features crystal meth addiction, fracking, and ALS, not to mention a guy building a robot-wife out of Budweiser cans. Going with the drug addiction conceit it's "The Needle and the Damage Done," by Neil Young. "But every junkie's like a settin' sun…." And speaking of addiction, "Things Blow Up" is another story about Janis, who loses her twin brother to a meth overdose. The story remembers a time when they were together as young adults and the world still seemed hopeful, she and her brother wailing down the Massachusetts Turnpike, listening to Bob Dylan on the radio, singing "Knock knock knockin' on Heaven's door." The song hints at what is to come, but at that moment life is good, life wants to live.

"The Sea and the Rhythm" by Iron and Wine, is a passionate love song: "Your hands they move like waves over me…" My final story, "Aftermath," is about a long marriage, and despite Stella's anxiety over their runaway daughter, her husband's joblessness, pot smoking, and the massive destruction in their community from the Susquehanna's 500 year flood, it is their love in the end that sustains.

The Epilogue to Wild Things is "The Hoodie's Tale," featuring the mother of the abducted girl. With the sighting of a luminous, exotic rare bird, that's mysteriously appeared in several other stories, it is ultimately redemptive. And so I end my playlist with the iconic "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, and to his memory I dedicate this. "There's a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn't matter which you heard/ The holy or the broken Hallelujah."

Jaimee Wriston Colbert and Wild Things links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Tahoma Literary Review review

Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin profile of the author
Christine Sneed interview with the author
Eco-Fiction interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Natural Bridge interview with the author
The Other Stories interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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