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March 27, 2017

Book Notes - Daniel Jose Ruiz "Coconut Versus"

Coconut Versus

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.

Daniel Jose Ruiz's Coconut Versus is a moving coming of age novel filled with authentic characters.

Bruce Bauman wrote of the book:

"Daniel Ruiz, in taut and urgent prose, that often takes your breath away (like a punch to your gut), reveals the often turbulent life of Miguel Reyes as he navigates his way from confused child to manhood. With a cast of characters ranging from fierce to loving to humorous, Ruiz has given us an essential bildungsroman befitting America in the 21st Century."

In his own words, here is Daniel Jose Ruiz's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Coconut Versus:

Coconut Versus is a novel that really is about watching a character grow. It is about trauma, triumph, violence, sex, booze, and all the things that we like to pretend aren't part of growing up, and when you grow up as a ghost between spaces, well, there tends to be even more of the above to get you through it. I wrote the first draft of this novel at my MFA program at Calarts, so it really is a much younger version of me writing this, and as such, the music included is very much the music that my younger self would have favored. These are songs that I assuredly did listen to when I was writing this novel, and probably the first few edits as well, and each song also encompasses the specific locations of the novel where the main character, Miguel, finds himself.

1. "People are Strange" – The Doors
Exeter, California - This song captures a lot about that town and Miguel. It captures him perfectly as he feels strange at all times, but he is also aware that people in general are never as normal as we'd like to think. The 60s also never really left Exeter in some ways, and this is the kind of song that Miguel's father Jose would listen to and remember his own youth in those orange groves. It captures the nostalgia of a small town like Exeter, its haunting pull, and the almost surreal experiences and characters that inhabit such a place. Miguel truly learns that people are strange, there are many kinds of strange, and there is a great deal of loneliness and anger that comes along with being an outcast.

2. "Down Rodeo" – Rage Against the Machine
Tempe, Arizona - While it doesn't make a lot of sense to include a song about Rodeo Drive in the section about Arizona, the general feeling of isolation and the resulting anger matches perfectly with Miguel's experience in an upper-class environment like his neighborhood in Tempe. From my own experiences, there is a specific and unsettling sense of both betrayal and trespassing when a person of color with means enter into spaces coded as “white” and/or “wealthy”. One feels like they have “lost their roots” by escaping to some better place, yet this inevitably creates a false narrative that being a person of color must equate to poverty, and of course, the feeling of trespassing is ever-present when you are one of the few brown-skinned individuals in a location, or at least one of the few who is not at work there. These dual fangs in the heart lead to either sorrow or rage, and well, Miguel typically defaults to rage. A lot of rage.

3. "Mexican American" – Cheech and Chong
Los Angeles, California - This song (well more of a scene really) captures that sense of the dual identity of being Chicano/Latinx/second or third or fourth generation American. The line that never leaves me is “getting a B in Spanish”. While this is meant for comedic effect, this is exactly the type of media that Miguel's high school friends Smiley and Pesgato would subject him to in order to teach him how to be Mexicano. Miguel doesn't fit into what other Latinx kids think he should, and his friends do their best to fix him, even if they are unaware of the irony in it. For many, many second, third, or fourth generation Latinx people, America is their homeland, but there is a constant labeling of “other” where a Latinx cannot simply be “American”. As silly as the song is, it does capture that feeling of living between the lines, blending worlds together but really belonging in full to neither. A burrito is pretty damn American in truth, but then most never accept that since Mexicans (as in citizens of Mexico) would call it American and Americans would call it Mexican, just like Miguel.

4. "TV Party" – Black Flag
Irvine, California - What better song captures the consumerist ennui that permeates the modern collegiate experience? Well, at least what they show on TV. This is also the exact song Miguel would blast out of his car to annoy people. In Irvine, Miguel is a punk rocker both in dress and attitude in a suburban paradise, yet that paradise rings hollow. Miguel would rather just drink a few beers and watch TV as would most young men, but his friend Al constantly reminds him that there is a message to the song that Miguel needs to learn. If nothing else, it captures Miguel's lack of self-reflection at times.

5. "The Legend of Zelda (main theme)" – Koji Kondo
The 909 - It is hard for me to imagine life without this theme burned into my mind, and I know Miguel would hear this theme and think of his best friend, Scott. Part of Miguel and Scott's relationship is built upon the shared experience of video games, and as Miguel lives most of his life in isolation and shifting locations, the North-Star that is Scott exists because of this shared love. It may seem childish, but then for those of a tender age when Zelda, Mario, and Sonic were bursting into the fabric of American culture, these are not just hobbies but defining moments. It is easy to dismiss video games as mindless entertainment, and certainly some are, but at least for Miguel, a crucial and necessary friendship grew within video games. It is fair to say that without Scott, Miguel would have ended up somewhere bad pretty early on in life. This theme is so iconic, and for part of the 909 stories, it conveys that innocence of exploration in children, and how these explorations can be life-saving.

6. "Deceptacon" - Le Tigre
The 909 - Every coming-of-age story needs sex and love, and Miguel's lover, Sunshine, definitely listens to Le Tigre. This would definitely be one of Sunshine's anthems, and well, the song is a wonderful post-punk jam with a nice dose of feminist octane. Sunshine is that post-punk girl. She is low-key annoyed by Miguel's taste in metal, and her aggression is more veiled behind manic energy and a deceptive first impression. She is a sexual creature with no reservations, but she also knows that sex is a power play. As Sunshine is the defining love of Miguel's life, it is only fitting then for this song to be in rotation, especially in the last few chapters. A good playlist ends on a thumper anyway.

Daniel Jose Ruiz and Coconut Versus links:

the author's website

also at Largehearted Boy:

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