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June 12, 2017

Book Notes - N. West Moss "The Subway Stops at Bryant Park"

The Subway Stops at Bryant Park

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.

N. West Moss' brilliant story collection captures the everyday lives of New Yorkers as well as the city they call home.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"...Moss' ability to probe the rich, complicated depths of those the city views as ordinary--its doormen, library workers, waitresses, and bench-sitters--and capture the profound currents of emotion found in the everyday animates this collection and makes it uniquely illuminating."

In her own words, here is N. West Moss' Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection The Subway Stops at Bryant Park:

Bob Dylan "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
Harry McClintock "Big Rock Candy Mountain"
J. S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations"
J. S. Bach's Cello Suite #1
Erik Satie Trois Gymnopedies
Peter Ecklund's "Waltz of the Secret Agents"

While this short story collection has many characters whom I have come to love, the chief among them, the one whose heartbeat pulses beneath the entire collection, is Omeer from the opening story, "Omeer's Mangoes."

Omeer, a doorman at a building across the street from Bryant Park, is an immigrant from Iran. He is a guileless man, a character type I seem drawn to in real life as well as in fiction – the kind of person who thinks the best of the world even as it is letting him down. It sounds absurd to state the obvious, but I love kind, honest people. I do. But I worry about them in such a cruel world unprotected by the armor of cynicism. And Omeer is that figure for me. Not only is he shy, he is in love with the world around him, more so perhaps because he is an immigrant to the U. S., and as is sometimes the case, Omeer has fallen in love with the country quite permanently, despite the ways it may shut him out or let him down. The fact that a cup of coffee in the Bryant Park Hotel costs $9, amazes and delights Omeer, who never seems to think, "I hate that it's so expensive, I hate that I can't even afford a cup of coffee on the street where I work." No, Omeer's mind would not work that way. The $9 cup of coffee is a sign that the country and street he loves is alive, that it commands respect. He is proud that they charge so much for a cup of coffee.

When I think of Omeer, I think of the live piano music in the park, which he loves to sit and listen to in the summer, but if I were scoring the soundtrack to his movie, Omeer's song would have to be the Harry McClintock version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" for all of its false cheer, hinting at the dark underbelly of the hobo life.

The pathos of that song is that it sounds quite jaunty. It's ostensibly about a "hobo" who says as he walks along the train tracks that he's "headed for a land that's far away / beside a crystal fountain" called the Big Rock Candy Mountain. In this world "handouts grow on bushes" and "the sun shines every day." This couldn't be more Omeer's point of view of New York City and Bryant Park. He sees everything as abundance. It's a place according to McClintock "where there ain't no snow / Where the rain don't fall / The wind don't blow."

But just as in the song, these are wishes in response to the horrible realities of life. You only wish for no snow, rain and wind when you are quite buffeted and chilled by them in reality. Thus the song is a kind of a prayer for what the narrator wishes was his life, as opposed to the hunger, fear and deprivation he suffers in reality. The very cheerfulness of the song is an antidote, the listener feels, to the hardships of real life. It reminds me of how, when confronted by a scary dog, our first reaction is to say, "Good dog!" in the hopes of what, diminishing the dog's ferocity? Are we hoping that saying so will make it true?

Omeer's lack of cynicism makes him vulnerable to his tenant's belittling ways, vulnerable to his wife's demands, vulnerable to his son's scorn, yet even as his life crumbles around him, or perhaps because it is crumbling, he is filled with increasing optimism. "He would be back in spring," the story concludes, "right here to listen to the music with his companions, the park like a cradle, rocking them all together. Incredible." He longs for the beauty of companionship, even as he is so utterly alone. The park to him, is what he hopes it will be, a place of abundance as in the song where there's "a lake of stew / and of whiskey too / you can paddle all around it in a big canoe." And while there are jails in the song, they are made of tin, "And you can walk right out again, / As soon as you are in." The optimism of this song, and of Omeer, in the face of the reality of the world, is what does me in.

The other prominent character running throughout the stories is my father, Lloyd Moss, who in addition to being my dad, was an announcer on WQXR in New York City for 53 years. He loved music, was a musician himself, playing the trombone in the Army in Korea a life-time ago. He liked classical music, but was knocked over by the jazz of the 1920s and 30s.

Dad was actively and slowly dying while I was writing this collection, and the sorrow of his diminishment and death were the canvas I was painting on, so to speak. The piece of music that reminds me most of him in his incarnation in the book is a song he would never have been interested in even slightly. It's Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

To be tragic in a Greek sense, the hero must fall from a great height, and for most of us, our fathers are our heroes. They are so high up for us, so massive, so filled with life and wisdom, that it is unthinkable that they should wither and die, and so our father's death is a personal tragedy to all of us. As much as this tragedy feels unique, it is quite the opposite, is one of the things that connects us to one another, and this Dylan song, where "the first one now will later be last" moves me for it's universality. i listened to it in my car a few years after Dad had died and had to pull over at the tragedy inherent in each of us.

"Admit that the waters around you have grown, /and accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone" seems like the story of each person's ultimate succumbing. It's the story of life, writ large and clear. I was simply bearing witness to this man, so in love with life, a man who owned FIVE tuxedoes (all from Goodwill). Who could ever have imagined him, able to recite dozens of filthy limericks, egging me on to late nights of Champagne when I wanted to just go to sleep already, how had he ended up barely able to make it from his apartment to Bryant Park across the street? There he would sit, listening to the piano music, and say to me over and over again, "Look at how lucky we are."

There's a bit of him in Omeer, and a bit of Omeer in him. I suppose that all of us stand in a river of change, and there comes a time when we each crawl out of the river and onto the bank, the change too much for us, the world flowing onward away from us.

The other songs in this playlist I see as the soundtrack to the movie version. The woman in "Dubonnet" is transformed by listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations on the piano in the park, and so that must be on the list, although after the story had been published, I was ill and recovering from surgery, and it was another piece of Bach's that I would have preferred to put in that story, which is J. S. Bach's Cello Suite #1. It is remarkably successful at achieving musical resolution. I swear that this piece of music helped to heal me, and I think it could have had an impact on poor, nervous, terrible Dubonnet as she sat in the park, although I don't know how it would come across on the piano, and it's hard to imagine a cellist in Bryant Park, but now that I've said that, I'll probably see one next time I'm there.

Because of the daily piano music in the park, and in the lives of my characters, and for the rather elegiac tone of the collection as a whole, I think Erik Satie's "Trois Gymnopedies" is appropriate. And if this were a movie, when Dad dies in the book, I’d ask that Peter Eklund’s “Waltz of the Secret Agents” be the sound-track because
that whistling is so beautiful and eerie that it reminds me of the journey a person takes when he goes off from this world to wherever he goes from there. "

N. West Moss and The Subway Stops at Bryant Park links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review

American Microreviews interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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