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June 16, 2017

Book Notes - Nick White "How to Survive a Summer"

How to Survive a Summer

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.

Nick White's novel How to Survive a Summer is a timely and moving debut about growing up gay in the deep South.

The Washington Post wrote of the novel:

"Packed with story and drama … If Tennessee Williams’s 'Suddenly Last Summer' could be transposed to the 21st-century South, where queer liberation co-exists alongside the stubborn remains of fire and brimstone, it might read something like this juicy, moving hot mess of a novel."

In his own words, here is Nick White's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel How to Survive a Summer:

How to Survive a Summer centers around teenager Will Dillard's experience at a sleep-away camp in Mississippi hellbent on "curing" him of his same-sex desires. But it is also about this character's attempt in his adult life to face this traumatic experience and try to, in some way, work through it—forgiving the people who harmed him. As scenes from his childhood and the camp begin to resurface in his mind, he embarks on the long journey home to the Delta and, then, to the remains of the camp, itself, where he finds more than just memories waiting for him in the woods. Music is a necessary part in this story. Mother Maude, one of the founders of the camp, is a failed gospel singer, and it his her rendition of "Beulah Land" that jars Will back into his past. Throughout the book, there are other references to hymns, country music, folksy singer-songwriters, and Tina Turner (more on her later), and many of them find there way onto this playlist. I imagine many of these songs would have been on Will's iPod (as they are on mine).

"GRACELAND" by Paul Simon

This title track from Simon's 1986 album has always held a special place in my heart for its masterful use of simile and whimsy to describe a part of the world I know very well. I first became enamored with Simon's music when my mother introduced me to Mike Nichol's classic The Graduate. The movie was the first VHS my family owned, and at twelve, I watched it repeatedly, swept up in the sumptuous melodies Simon and Garfunkel provided for the soundtrack, and only halfway paid attention to the film's plot—something about love triangle with the lady from The Miracle Worker and that cute guy from Tootsie? Anyway, it wasn't until my early twenties that a friend of mind added this song to a mixed CD he'd made for me. I was leaving Mississippi for graduate school in Ohio, and my friend said that "Graceland" was at the perfect road-trip song. He was right. "Graceland" is about, among other things, a rueful pilgrimage to Elvis Presley's famous mansion. The first line immediately captures place and tone: "The Mississippi Delta is shining like a National Guitar." I love this image so much, and when I hear it, I think home and feel all the requisite emotions of happiness and gloom that come with longing for a place that no longer exists, or perhaps never existed at all. When I was drafting the novel, I would often take walking breaks, and this song was one that always seemed to put be back in the right headspace for evoking a geography where I no longer live.


Gospel plays an important role in the novel. The song "Beulah Land" is what first beckons Will back to the past. His aunt is a failed gospel singer, and her voice twined with this music have a profound affect on him. While not gospel, this song by Cash has the ethos of one: I've often thought of it as secular gospel/country ballad. The song tells of two lovers who come together when a woman puts an add in the paper, requesting a husband with "disposition sunny." Their relationship is cut short by the Civil War, and when they wonder if "this union can be preserved," we see at once the conflation of their romance with that of the fate of the country during one of its darkest hours. There's a certain cry in Cash's voice that I have always responded to, which you can trace all the way back to her biggest hit, "The Seven-Year Ache." "When the Master Calls the Roll" is one of my favorite tracks from The River & the Thread, which is, for my money, the best country album of the past ten years. Cash is so adept vocally at interpreting the drama of this ballad, and in the last moments, she is able to sound almost surprised by the sad outcome of this song, even if it may seem inevitable to us.

"HALLEY CAME TO JACKSON" by Mary Chapin Carpenter

From Carpenter's third album, Shooting Straight in the Dark, this song seems to be loosely-inspired by the closing passage in Eudora Welty's novel Delta Wedding. "Late one night when the wind was still," the song begins, "Daddy brought the baby to windowsill." As with Welty's fiction, I've long been in love with this bluegrass lullaby for its ability to capture place. Not much happens here: the Halley Comet is passing through, and a family in Jackson stands outside on the front porch to watch the fiery brilliance cut across the night sky. But the combination of guitar and fiddle, along with the whispery cadences of Carpenter, works to make this song into a lovely meditation. There's a delicacy here that deserves to be savored. "Halley Came to Jackson" is a celebration of family and tradition, and for those of us who are often cast out of these spaces for being different, this song becomes a necessary balm to a troubled spirit.

"Almost Home" by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Once upon a time, I drove to a winery in Kentucky to hear Carpenter perform. It was just her, a guitar, and moonlight. She was spectacular, giving life to her big hits "Passionate Kisses" and "I Feel Lucky," but it was this song that left the biggest impression on me. Surrounded by mostly lesbians in the finest denim wear on this side of Mississippi, I lifted my arms and swayed to and fro without shame for the big country sissy that I was (and still am). No one in country music sings more joyfully about no longer caring about what other people think than Carpenter does. For most of us queer people, this journey to acceptance is long and fraught, but once we get there, the happiness is real and earned. For me, this song captures that ecstatic feeling of no long giving a fuck.

"YOU'VE GOT A LOVER" by Ricky Skaggs

I doubt Ricky Skaggs will ever read this, but if HE does, he will perhaps take umbrage with my queer interpretation of this song. But, Ricky, there's so much in the lyrics that leads me here: the mysterious gender of the the "you" in the song, the use of the term "lover," the reference to clubs. Country music is changing, and there have been, here and there, queer country artists, and I think this particular song is ripe for covering by one of them. But until that sweet day, I must live with this version, and Skaggs, with his twangy sweetness, doesn't disappoint. Oh, the joys of cruising in Music City! Cowboys have always been a pet sin of mine. And I don't hold it against Mr. Skaggs that he is straight. Nobody's perfect.

"TILL I CAN MAKE IT ON MY OWN" by Tammy Wynette

Tammy Wynette has often been referred to as the First Lady of Country Music, and it is easy to see why with gems like this one in her catalogue. A good country song, according to me, can provide the listener with the catharsis of wallowing in one's own heartbreak. If How to Survive a Summer is ever made into a musical (a boy can dream), then I imagine Will would sing something like this about midway through the book, when Zeus has stopped returning his calls. Tammy left us too soon, but when I hear this one, I am able to conjure in my mind's eye the big wigs, the sequins, the splashy makeup. And underneath all that fuss, this woman who makes being an ex-partner's doormat anything but pathetic—nay, she retains her dignity throughout.


Recently, someone asked me what made a queer icon, and I admitted that I didn't know—as with queerness, itself, the taxonomy for our queer role models resists classification. But if forced to give one enduring thread that runs through many of them—your Judys and Barbaras and Dianas—I would have to say that they are all great survivors. For me, Tina been my guiding light. In high school, I first read her memoir I, Tina, which in addition to telling the abuse she suffered at the hands of her then husband Ike, also details her beliefs in buddhism, in particular reincarnation. This song, the first track on her landmark Private Dancer record, details that belief of have a soul strong enough to endure all the ages of man. The sound of this track seems influenced by the power ballads of 1980s, but about two-thirds into the song, the beat pauses unexpectedly, and Turner, in her trademark rasp, wails that she is a "soul survivor." This is a battlecry, and I swoon each time I hear it.


At Camp Levi, the boys first semi-bond over their knowledge of Dottie West, and if you don't know much about her, then this is perhaps the best song to begin your education. Unlike Wynette's aforementioned song, West's "A Lesson in Leavin'" is a spunky clap-back to the man who did you wrong. West is cheering on the effects of karma, for she knows, sooner or later, this heartbreaker of hers will get his comeuppance. In heartbreak, a good rule of thumb: you'll want to listen to Wynette when you are still in love with him, and West when you're ready to kick his ass. Also, if you have never watched the TV movie about her life, Big Dreams and Broken Hearts: the Dottie West Story, starring Knots Landing diva Michelle Lee, then treat yourself. Featuring cameos from the likes of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rodgers, her longtime duet partner, this movie will give you a good idea about the wild and messy life of this one of a kind country music maven.


Speaking of queer icons, Cher has been a fixture in popular culture since the 1960s, and her version of this song was never one of her hits, but I love it nonetheless. A good chunk of one chapter in my book happens in Memphis, and no song captures that city as well as this one does. Also, for a good time, I suggest you go to YouTube right now and watch her music video for this track. In it, Cher is dressed in Elvis boy drag, and I am here all day for that. Yes, ma'am.

"CLOSER TO FINE" by Indigo Girls

Again, in my dreams, I sometimes think of my book as a musical, a dark musical with slasher flicks and evil conversion therapy, but a musical still, and like to picture the sort of songs the characters would sing to one another. This classic queer anthem by the Indigo Girls would make a nice finale piece for Zeus and Will to sing to one another. The book, I think, supports this notion that telling our stories can be healing for the person who is telling the story because it pushes him to making sense of what happened. The novel ends with a hopeful note, that Zeus and the narrator spend their nights, before sleep takes them, telling each other stories from their lives. There comes a kind of strong intimacy with these tellings, along with—I hope—healing too.

Nick White and How to Survive a Summer links:

the author's website

Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

Jackson Free Press profile of the author
NewNowNext interview with the author
Reading Glasses interview with the author
Rolling Stone profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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