February 9, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Tom McAllister's novel The Young Widower's Handbook is a moving and compulsively readable debut.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"McAllister's debut novel is at turns funny and touching, particularly in the vignettes sandwiched between the narrative, which delve into Hunter’s thoughts and feelings about his marriage and his wife. Expect comparisons to Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby."
I listen to music the whole time I'm working. If I'm lucky, I get so locked in that it fades into white noise, but often I at least start with some song or genre to try to establish a specific mood for that day's writing. I don't want to make it sound too ritualistic; there aren't specific songs lined up for specific types of scenes, but I like to use the music to create the atmosphere I need to feel fully immersed in the work.
The Young Widower's Handbook begins with an ostensibly healthy young woman dying suddenly, and follows her husband, Hunter, as he tries to piece his life back together. Because this is an emotionally heavy premise, one of the challenges I faced in writing the book was balancing the tone. If I pushed too hard on the grief, it would be a miserable slog for the reader, and if I pulled away from it too much, I ran the risk of writing an overly saccharine Chicken Soup for the Widower's Soul that didn't deal with the subject matter honestly. The effort to maintain a tonal balance is reflected in this playlist.
"Perfect Day" – Lou Reed
Because Hunter's wife, Kait, is dead by the second chapter, most of their relationship is relayed through flashback. In one flashback, we see some of Hunter's early, fumbling attempts to explain his love to her. In one scene, instead of talking, he plays Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," which I hope we can all agree is one of the most beautiful, melancholy songs ever written. When I was young and still learning how to talk to women, my go-to move was to handwrite the lyrics from songs I loved and give them to the girl I was interested in, and though now I realize this is a very bad approach, the teenaged version of me just didn't know what else to do. In high school, I sent this song to three different people. It was never well-received.
"Elephant" – Jason Isbell
This novel is motivated by the fear that one day I will wake up and my wife will be gone. She is the best thing in my life, and being a good husband to her is one of the few things I think I do well, and so most days, there was a real urgency to the writing. I was able to put myself deep in the mindset of having lost my wife, and at the end of the day I would be drained and miserable in a way I never have while writing before. Some days, though, I needed a little help to create that mood. Jason Isbell's song is one of the best I've ever heard about watching someone you love die. It's unflinching and sad, and so human, and it's perfect.
"Cold, Cold Ground" – Tom Waits
When you want to wallow in your misery and feel terrible and lost, this is a good song to listen to on a loop all day. I'm sure Hunter would have done exactly this when he was at his lowest points, letting Tom Waits' growling vocals and the mournful accordion wash over him. I included this song on this list too because it's a little weird and I wanted readers to sometimes feel unmoored by the progression of this book.
"Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" – David Bowie
During the early drafts of The Young Widower's Handbook, the first four songs on this list were by far the ones I listened to most. Each of them brings a different angle and sound to the concepts of death, grief, and mourning. No matter how many times I listen to this song, I find myself interpreting the chorus differently. Sometimes it seems hopeful and supportive, and other times, it seems desperate and flailing, and when you're really feeling lost in your grief, you can cover all these bases at once.
"Movin' Right Along" – Alkaline Trio
This is a pop punk cover of a song by The Muppets, which is included here because, a) Hunter takes his wife's ashes on a road trip across the country, b) this song always makes me smile in a completely uncomplicated and unthinking way, and c) there are moments of levity and hopefulness on the trip. Sometimes, even when you're at your lowest points, there are brief, unexpected moments of joy that force their way into your life. When Hunter sets out on the road, he heads toward the west coast thinking he's found a solution to his grief. He thinks he's going to find closure. He's excited to be on the road and doing something.
"Burnin' Up" – The Park (feat. Darondo)
Sometimes when you're on the road, the thing you need most is just a propulsive, funky song that grooves and keeps you awake and moving. The highway can be lonely and empty and relentlessly boring, and you need something to liven things up.
"One Day" – Kings Go Forth
The lyrics of this song make little to no sense, but it sounds so good I don't care. This is another uptempo song that matches the lurching progress Hunter makes across the country, as he seems stuck in neutral for a while and then suddenly finds himself charging through intense periods of activity where he's trying very hard to seem normal but coming off a little desperate.
"Now and Then" – Arlo Guthrie
About two-thirds of the way through the book, Hunter ends up hitching a ride with a group of strangers on their own road trip. The driver is a grandfather who insists on playing his own music, including this Arlo Guthrie song that features the line, "Now and then I don't feel lonely," at a time when Hunter is really reaching for reasons to believe he won't always feel so alone.
"It Serves Me Right to Suffer" – John Lee Hooker
Originally released as "It Serves You Right to Suffer," the subtle edit he makes in the title and lyrics in his Live at the Café Au Go Go (And Soledad Prison) changes the whole tone and meaning of the song. The original is spiteful and angry, and this one is more self-loathing, though not nearly as unpleasant to listen to as the title suggests. There's this underlying sense of menace and simmering tension that John Lee Hooker creates, pushing you to the edge of your seat with his voice alone and setting you up for the release that comes in the next track.
"Impossible Soul" – Sufjan Stevens
If I'm being completely honest, I only really love about 11 minutes of this song, but I love those 11 minutes so much I had to include it here. It's a long, disorienting, uncomfortable song that plays around with different instruments, samples, and chanted choruses, while singing about a broken heart. About 13 minutes in, it transitions to this incredible crescendo that is hopeful and joyous and encouraging, repeating these lines: "It's a long life, better pinch yourself/ Put your face together, better get it right/ It's a long life, better hit yourself/ Put your face together, better stand up straight." Every time I listen to it, "Impossible Soul" activates that mysterious part of my brain that just lights up and makes me love being alive, and the whole journey of the song—in its range of emotional expression, its nonlinear approach, its yearning for something better—matches what I was hoping to accomplish in The Young Widower's Handbook.
Tom McAllister and The Young Widower's Handbook links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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