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March 6, 2017

Book Notes - Joseph Scapellato "Big Lonesome"

Big Lonesome

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.

Joseph Scapellato's story collection Big Lonesome is an inventive and surprising debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Scapellato's refreshing stories engage at every point and are capped off with perfect endings. Scapellato is an exceptional surrealist, and he seems to have a firm handle on his own exuberance and quirkiness, his characters reminiscent of familiar archetypes but served with a twist. His subjects never wander far from cowboys, cowgirls, and the myths of the cinematic West. His short stories have a lean trajectory and economy. ..This debut collection is bracing and delightful."

In his own words, here is Joseph Scapellato's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Big Lonesome:

When I was a teenager, I wished a daily wish: that the way my favorite songs made me feel—an every-limbed euphoric blast—could be transmuted into a concrete material substance that I could physically touch, hold, and take.

I'd jump up and down, wanting to feel my feeling.

"Big Lonesome Beginnings," the first story in Big Lonesome, is about this wish.

Every song on this playlist is a song that hits something that I tried to hit in my story collection. This "something" might be the strange unfolding of a myth, or the investigation of a big feeling, or the evocation of a mysterious atmosphere. In any case: here are songs, albums, and artists that have made me want to make.

1. "Heart Cooks Brain," Modest Mouse, Lonesome Crowded West

I've listened to this album straight through I don't know how many times, on trips from the Southwest to the Midwest to the East Coast. It's the most perfect set of road songs I know. This track, early in the album, announces themes that other tracks explore, themes that Modest Mouse returns to in later work.

On the way to God don't know
My brain's the burger, and my heart's the coal


In this place that I call home
My brain's the cliff and my heart's the bitter buffalo

The tug-of-war between the head and the heart. How we try to think our way out of the troubles of the heart—how we try to heart our way out of the troubles of the head.

2. "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin

I saw The Flaming Lips for the first time at Summerfest 2016 in Milwaukee. I could belt out every word of every song they played except for one. This is not an uncommon experience for a fan, I realize, but because I don't make it to too many concerts, it was wondrously new to me. I felt like I was made out of magic.

This song is beautiful and haunting and powerful. The lyrics say: It's sad that we're all going to die, and the music says: Yes, but it's mysterious, and: Mystery is beautiful, and: Mystery is beautiful?

But life
Without death
Is just impossible
Oh, to realize
Something is ending
Within us

3. "Funeral Singers," Califone, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

I started listening to Califone around the time I started writing Big Lonesome. (Thank you again to David McLendon for turning me on to these dudes.) Their songs are stunning sonic vistas, landscapes stacked in studied close-ups and careful long-shots. They make a place and then they put you in it. You can feel the cracked concrete back-alleys of Chicago in their music—it's where they're from—but also the sun-blasted spread of the West—it's where they go.

Any one of their songs could've taken this spot on the list. But "Funeral Singers" makes for a good first trailhead.

The book is aching for the tree
Return, return, return to me
All my friends, all my friends
All my friends are weeds and rain

4. "I Wish I Was the Moon," Neko Case, Blacklisted

If I could sing with any skill, I'd want to sing like Neko Case. I don't care that I'm a man. There's a certain existential awfulness that only this album can carry me out of, and this song is the one that always does it. Everything about it knocks me over—Neko Case's voice is aglow with longing, making longing okay, making longing beautiful.

Who hasn't wished that they weren't who they were? That they could be somebody else—something else—anything other than a sorry-ass heartbroken heartbreaker?

Why not the moon?

How will you know if you found me at last
‘Cause I'll be the one, be the one, be the one
With my heart in my lap

5. "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had," Muddy Waters, Fathers and Sons

I'm not qualified to speak knowledgeably about the timeless genius of Chicago blues giant Muddy Waters—his mastery of guitar, voice, and songwriting, his groundbreaking and lasting influence on the blues. All that I can say is that I love listening to him. And that the songs of his that I love the most are the ones that work like "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had"—songs with the shape, speed, and wit of folktales, that meet life's assembly line of sorrow with warm humor.

I got a sweet little home
It got burned down, boys, ain't that bad?
Oh, you know, was my own fault
People they just said
Well, you know, you can't spend what you ain't got
You can't lose what you ain't never had

6. "Shotgun Blues," Abigail Washburn

Lately I've been learning to play old time banjo in the two finger thumb-lead style. Although I avoid listening to music when I write, I'm now in the habit of picking up my banjo on breaks. It's a way to rest from writing while still staying in an art-making space.

Because of this, I've been wandering the world of banjo music. This has led me to the land of the brilliant Abigail Washburn. In "Shotgun Blues," a dark and playful tune, she challenges the conventions of the murder ballad: instead of a man going after a woman, it's a woman going after a man. And this woman, unlike her male predecessors, doesn't do any actual killing.

Also: good God, does Abigail Washburn shred it on that banjo.

So get me a shotgun
And don't you run now
Cause if you run now
You know what I have to do

7. "Black Wings," Tom Waits, Bone Machine

This is a song loaded up with all of the offerings of my favorite works of fiction: dark wonder, humor and hurt, mystery and play and myth. In this song you feel a world. Every element of it is its own character, from Tom Waits' monster-voice to the legend-making lyrics to the haunted moonlight of the instrumentation.

Some say he once killed a man with a guitar string
He's been seen at the table with kings
Well, he once saved a baby from drowning
There are those who say beneath his coat there are wings

8. "First Song," Andrew Bird, Weather Systems

I'd like to end on a song about a beginning. When Weather Systems came out in 2003, I was amazed. In it, Andrew Bird had broken from the style of his previous work with Bowl of Fire—on this new album, he seemed to have found a new sound. It was exciting and thrilling and inspiring. This album would turn out to be the first entry in a sequence in which Andrew Bird would explore the many textures of this sound—his sound—turning it this way, turning it that way, honoring the wanting of the head and the heart at once.

In "First Song," I hear an artist's origin story.

It was now fine music, the frogs and the boys did
In the towering Illinois twilight
Make and into dark in spite of a shoulder's ache
A boy's hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness and the song woke his heart
To the darkness and sadness of joy

Joseph Scapellato and Big Lonesome links:

the author's website

Heavy Feather Review review
Kirkus Reviews review
PopMatters review
Publishers Weekly review

Necessary Fiction interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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List of Online "Best Books of 2016" Lists

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