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June 6, 2017

Book Notes - Alan Drew "Shadow Man"

Shadow Man

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.

Alan Drew's novel Shadow Man is a compelling literary thriller.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"An unusually deft blending of styles, Drew's engrossing novel works equally well as psychological study and cop thriller, literary novel and genre piece."

In his own words, here is Alan Drew's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Shadow Man:

I cannot write without music—or at least I've convinced myself that I can't. Maybe that's a glass-half-empty way of looking at things. Let's be positive: music provides a sort of emotional spark that helps me imagine scenes. This is most successfully done in my car, unfortunately, where, alone and unable to embarrass (or frighten) my wife and kids, I listen to the kind of depressing, heavily minor-keyed music that induces me to imagine scenes in which I say exactly what I wish I'd said to someone I knew years ago. I'm the guy you watch in your peripheral vision at a stoplight who seems to be arguing with himself. This used to be a problem, but thanks to Bluetooth technology I now appear to be normal. But this trick of imagination is more difficult to achieve at my desk. Without the movement of the car, the music I write to has to have a propulsive force—though a quiet one. No thumping beats or thrashing guitars, no polite symphonic works or modernist jazz, no lyrics of course—but a sense of movement and tension. For this book, I needed music that would help me conjure Southern California while living in Philadelphia. Not only that, I needed music that would transport me back to a Southern California that is mostly gone now, that of south Orange County in the 1980s. That OC still held a tinge of the old west in its orange groves and strawberry fields, in its cowboys running cattle in the hills—though that world was quickly being bulldozed into oblivion.

"Dungeoneering," Tim Hecker
I kept Tim Hecker on a constant loop while writing this book, switching between albums when the feeling struck. Since Shadow Man is a sort of thriller with three different investigations intertwining, I wanted the book to carry a sustained tension, and much of Hecker's work, with its electronic distortion, its propulsive base lines, and its looping, subtle melodies captures musically want I wanted on the page. For this column, I'm throwing out "Dungeoneering" as the representative sample of Hecker's music, but I could have selected ten other songs. With Hecker, it's not about individual songs; it's about the whole work. You listen to a Tim Hecker album as you would a symphony. The album's form--its rising tensions and mini-climaxes, its musical codas and moments of melodic clarity--has a sort of narrative quality to it. His work is dense, urban, full of sharp edges and white noise, but there's a real beauty in it, too, a beating heart with melodies breaking through the din like moments of emotional truth. That's what I hoped to capture with this novel. So, if I pulled it off, I have Tim Hecker to thank for giving me the soundtrack.

"Guitar Solo #5," Neil Young
Detective Benjamin Wade, my protagonist, is the son of one of the last cowboys in Orange County. He has a few of his own horses, and in his off time goes riding the hills with his daughter. Growing up in Irvine, CA, I remember cowboys herding cattle in the open hills. That land is mostly gone now, clogged with faux Mediterranean McMansions or sliced with toll roads. Shadow Man, in part, is a eulogy for that lost California. When I wanted to capture that old west feel, I queued up "Guitar Solo #5," which Neil Young wrote for the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's film, Deadman. The east coast can feel claustrophobic to me, too many trees, too much green. The west—at least in my mind—is all about open spaces, about sweeping vistas. Young's guitar, with the reverberating feedback and echoing space between notes, captures that feel for me. When I listen to it, I can see the Irvine of the early 1980s, when cattle dotted the hillsides and orange groves spread to the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.

"Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes," Sun Kil Moon
The killer in Shadow Man is loosely based on Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker. In the summer of 1985, Ramirez terrorized Southern California--driving the freeways, turning into suburban neighborhoods, climbing through open windows, and killing people in their own homes. If you were in SoCal at the time, you remember this summer as a time of fear. As Mark Kozelek sings, "And everybody remembers the paranoia/ When he stalked the suburbs of Southern California/And everybody will remember where they were/When they finally caught the Night Stalker." I was sixteen that summer, and I remember one night my father came home from work and wedged broomsticks into the frames of the sliding glass doors. It was a hot summer, hovering in the 80s at night. We didn't have air conditioning in my childhood home, but we locked every window and door of that one-story house. I still remember lying in bed at night, sweating from the heat, watching the window above my bed, sure the Night Stalker was going to somehow break in and kill me in my sleep. It was the first time, I think, that I realized my body could be taken from me, the first time I really confronted my own vulnerability. But the song, as with my novel, is about much more than the Night Stalker. It's really about other kinds of terror—the pervasive violence that marks history, the dark secrets in suburban neighborhoods, the fear of growing older and facing your own mortality.

"Gimme Danger," Iggy and The Stooges
I never intended to write a thriller. The serial killer in Shadow Man was supposed to be on the periphery of the book, a fearful metaphorical pressure that would serve the greater concerns of character. Ben has another crime to solve, a subtler one, one born of a long-held secret, and I had focused the narrative there. The killer's point of view was not in the first draft of this book. That came later, when it became clear to me that I couldn't put a serial killer in the novel without the detective hunting after him—something I should have known from the beginning. I struggled, at first, to write from the killer's point of view. After a few days of frustration, I sat out in our sun room one night after my kids were in bed and listened to my iTunes library on shuffle—just to clear my head, to get away from words. "Gimme Danger" came on and the song hit me hard. For some reason, it was exactly the thing I needed to hear at that moment—from the edge in the guitars, to the threat in the lyrics, to the snarl in Iggy's singing. This song gave me the killer's voice, and these four lines became the epigraph for the novel: "Find a little strip, find your little stranger/Yeah you're gonna feel my hand/I got a livin' angel, want a little danger/Honey you're gonna feel my hand." What got left out of the epigraph is the next line: "Swear you're gonna feel my hand." The threat in that promise becomes the killer's calling card in the novel.

"Age of Consent," New Order
Ben Wade has a secret he's kept since he was a teenager. In the course of a murder investigation, Ben has to confront his past, and sections of the novel are written from the point of view of his teenage self. Since I was a teenager in 1985, the year the book is set, I needed to tap into my own teenage awkwardness to access Ben's hormone-addled brain. "Age of Consent," more than any other '80s song I can think of, was the soundtrack to my early teens. Following my parents' divorce, I escaped into music. I had a Sony Walkman, and I kept the cassette tapes of Low Life and Power, Corruption, and Lies on an endless loop—locked in my bedroom to escape my family, skateboarding around town, weekends skiing at Mammoth Mountain. New Order is not the kind of music Ben would like. He's old school—likes '60s and '70s R&B, classic rock. But Emma, Ben's fourteen-year-old daughter, is tuned into KROQ, the Los Angeles alternative radio station (which was truly alternative at the time), and she tortures her father's ears with post-punk and new wave tunes she likes to blast on the hi-fi. "Age of Consent" is a great alternative pop song. Also, the song's title speaks to an important thematic problem in the novel: when are you old enough to give sexual consent to your body?

"Handsome Devil," The Smiths
This Smiths song is not featured in the book. Instead, Emma plays "Reel Around the Fountain" for her father one night while cooking up tacos together. This is exactly the kind of song Ben hates—that whiny Morrissey voice, those precious, melodramatic lyrics. Worse, the sexual references in the song—"Fifteen minutes with you, I wouldn't say no" or "Slap me on the patio, I'll take it now"—cause him heart palpitations; his "little girl" has a new boyfriend, a loser surfer Ben doesn't like. The idea that she might not say "No" if she has fifteen minutes alone with the loser scares the hell out of him. But I'm with Ben on this one, not my favorite song by the Smiths. Instead, I'm going to put Handsome Devil here, which was my favorite song in the world for a couple months when I was sixteen. I knew the song would piss my parents off—the implied homosexuality, the sadomasochistic lyrics—but it really was this line I seized upon: "Let me get my hands on your mammary glands." An anthem for the shy sixteen-year-old boy, indeed!

"Bela Lugosi's Dead," Bauhaus
Emma is working hard to piss off her parents, too. She's angry at them both—they've gotten divorced a year before, her father is over-protective, her mother is already dating. What better song to drive your parents crazy than this gem? Every musically hip kid I knew in high school in the '80s declared loved for Bauhaus and this song in particular. I suspect few of them—including myself—liked this song as much as they said. But it was a marker of cool. It was a way to flip your finger at the conservative hell of master-planned Orange County which thrived on conformity and fear of the outside world. In the novel, it's also a reminder that the killer is out there, lurking in the hills, a menace that loves to prey on such communities.

"Rise Above," Black Flag
For a certain kind of teenager, Orange County is a very isolating, provincial place. You can see that frustration expressed in the early 1980s through the hardcore punk scene, which thrived at the time. There's a young man in the novel, Tucker Preston, a skater kid and college student, who has had a troubled childhood. He's angry at the world and pens the names of punk bands all over his backpack and skateboard—X, Social Distortion, The Adolescents, The Dead Kennedys. In "Rise Above," Henry Rollins yells, "We're tired of your abuse/Try to stop us; it's no use!" It's a good mantra for Tucker, a damaged kid trying to get control of his life.

"The Love Sermon," Al Green
"I want to do everything for you/That ordinary men won't do." This is the sweet spot for Ben. Old school R&B. Ben still pines for his ex-wife, Rachel, but he's on the edge of a relationship with the medical examiner, Natasha Betencourt. But his secret, which has helped to destroy his marriage, is also beginning to compromise his burgeoning relationship with Natasha. When this song makes the scene in the novel, it's unclear who Ben is thinking about. It's also unclear whether Ben can be the kind of man he wants to be; to be so, he has to deal with his troubled past. But more than that, the religiosity in Al Green's music, the idea that this is a "sermon" is important to the book. Ben wants something pure, a love that is untarnished, something that feels "holy."

"Who Are You," Tom Waits
As Ben and Natasha work together to solve what seems to be the murder of a teenage Mexican strawberry picker, Natasha suspects Ben is hiding something. There's a revealing moment in a bar, where Natasha is sure Ben is lying to her. He's not following all leads in the case, she realizes; there are conspicuous connections between Ben's past and the dead boy. Central to the narrative then is Natasha's investigation of Ben, and her discovery of his dark past. In a very real sense, she's trying to discover who Ben is, this man she feels she loves. In that scene in the bar, "Wait's Shore Leave" is playing on the jukebox. But "Who Are You" feels like a theme song for Natasha's questions about Ben. The song was not released until 1992, but the refrain, "And just who are you, who are you this time?" captures the longing, the confusion, and the anger Natasha feels towards this emotionally-opaque man.

"Hatred of Music I," Tim Hecker
When I wrote the violent climactic scene for this book, I listened to this song constantly. The crescendoing dissonance, the off-kilter plinking of the piano suggested to me a final confrontation that ends everything, yet leaves the world unsettled.

"Common Burn," Mazzy Star
An hour before writing this, Pitchfork broke the news that Keith Mitchell, the long-time drummer of Mazzy Star, had died. This lends an air of melancholy to a song that figures in my mind as the lovely point of rest for Ben and Natasha. In a book about troubled intimacy, I wanted a genuine intimate moment, where everything is exposed, not in a fraught painful way, but in a calm accepting manner. This song didn't come out until 2011, but it feels like the kind of track that could form the backdrop to such a moment between them. It's intimate and quiet, yet it's a song troubled by questions about possible infidelity that darken the beautiful calm of the music. Just in real life, after you experience a traumatic event things are never the same. Things might be okay, but they're always tinged by the echo of that experience. Such is true with Ben and Natasha.

Alan Drew and Shadow Man links:

video trailer for the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

The Big Thrill interview with the author
Omnivoracious essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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