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July 20, 2017

Book Notes - Anthony Tambakis "Swimming with Bridgeport Girls"

Swimming with Bridgeport Girls

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.

Anthony Tambakis's novel Swimming with Bridgeport Girls is a moving, funny, and entertaining debut.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Tambakis's outstanding debut is entertaining and sometimes sad, a superb portrait of a troubled but wisecracking gambler. Think Carl Hiaasen meets Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Gambler."

In his own words, here is Anthony Tambakis's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Swimming with Bridgeport Girls:

My editor Jofie wants Swimming with Bridgeport Girls made into a movie just so he can buy the soundtrack. The narrator, Ray Parisi, relates every part of his life, and love with his ex-wife, to one song or another, and even his dog is named after Springsteen (I’m the very same way, though my dog is named after Joni Mitchell, and I do not have an ex-wife, nor a current one, though it now occurs to me I didn’t need to mention that last part, and that this now could seem like an OK Cupid ad—I really should erase this entire parenthetical, but I’m in Austin right now, and it’s 102 degrees, and I don’t have the energy to hit the back space bar that many times). Anyway, here’s some of the music that inspired the novel and is embedded in it:

ROMEO & JULIET (Dire Straits)

On the Ray’s first road trip with the girl who would become the great love (and regret) of his life, they drive down to D.C. from the Jersey shore in the middle of the night, listening to Dire Straits’ Making Movies (side one of which features TUNNEL OF LOVE, ROMEO & JULIET, and SKATEAWAY, making it one of the most perfect sides of pop music ever recorded). During ROMEO & JULIET, she scrawls “You n’ me babe—how ‘bout it?” on the dash in lipstick, mimicking Mark Knopfler’s closing refrain and capturing that soaring, slipping, scary feeling when you’re standing on the precipice of big love, a canyon opening in your heart, with no net below. This would become their wedding song, and has long been one of my favorite tracks. An exquisite piece of music. I have never met a single person who did not respond to this song when I played it for them. I’m not going to say there’s something wrong with a person who doesn’t like ROMEO & JULIET. I don’t know everyone’s story or situation. It wouldn’t definitively mean there’s something very off with them. But it certainly implies they’re troubled, and in deep need of some kind of assistance, and I hope they get it, pull their lives together, and then go download “Making Movies."

JERSEY GIRL (Bruce Springsteen)

The first song Ray and his ex ever danced to, out on the deck of Martell’s Tiki Bar, down the shore. Tom Waits wrote it, but it belongs to Bruce in the same way his BECAUSE THE NIGHT belongs to Patti Smith. During the summer of ’85, we saw the Boss 10 times at the Meadowlands. We lived in the parking lot during the day, blasting the epic Winterland ’78 bootleg, drinking Schaefer bar bottles, and learning how to be cool by following everything Bruce did. This song was our “Under the Boardwalk,” and this is how Ray describes it (I’ll spare everyone the agony of quoting myself again after this, I promise):

"I can tell you that there are few things in life that compare with being nineteen years old, holding the tiny waist of the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen, and slow-dancing on an outdoor deck while a summer breeze eases in off the Atlantic and pinwheel lights from a distant Ferris wheel bleed across the water. Can you even imagine that? Can you imagine everyone in the place singing “’Cause down the shore everything’s all right, you and your baby on a Saturday night, nothing matters in this whole wide world, when you’re in love with a Jersey girl” and, during the “Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-las,” closing your eyes and burying your face in her hair and hoping the band would never, ever stop playing? And then, right when you think there’s no way the moment can be topped, she looks up at you with those eyes that are neither gray nor green nor blue but something unto themselves, some color you’ve never seen, and you stare at that mesmerizing blue speck and whisper, “I think you have something on your lip,” and she stares straight into your eyes with those little moons of hers and says, 'Maybe you could get it for me.' And then your life begins."

LATE FOR THE SKY (Jackson Browne)

In the novel, this is the song (and album) that the Ray’s ex listens to repeatedly following their break up. Ray later calls it the saddest song ever written, and this is a position I hold, as well. There are some wrenching, emotionally devastating songs out there (the Band’s IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE leaps to mind, as does Sinead O’Connor’s LAST DAY OF OUR ACQUAINTANCE), but no one ever captured the spent, washed-out feeling of dawn breaking--with too much having been broken, unable to repair or let go until light breaks—like the great Jackson Browne. It is a shattering song, lifted to the highest place on the list of Things That Break My Heart by David Lindley’s mournful slide guitar. I march with Bruce, but I cry with Jackson, and his three-album run in the mid 70s (Late For the Sky, The Pretender, and Running on Empty) is equal to any three consecutive records anyone ever made.


At the opening of the book, Ray has stolen his ex-wife’s journal, and each chapter begins with a snippet from her diary. In Chapter One, she remarks that she has no idea what’s happened to Ray, that he’s somehow turned into a character in a Warren Zevon song. This is leveled as a severe criticism, but Ray doesn’t see why it’s a negative, as Zevon’s songs are filled with raconteurs and outlaws and earnest if troubled people working the margins. Ray Carver’s characters set lose in southern California. I think Warren Zevon wrote some of the greatest and most unique songs of the 1970s (YouTube him and Jackson doing MOHAMMED’S RADIO on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976 for a real treat), but to me his two finest hours are these: DESPERADOS UNDER THE EAVES and THE FRENCH INHALER. In the novel, THE FRENCH INHALER is played by a pianist at Lafitte’s in New Orleans who refuses to heed any requests for Billy Joel’s PIANO MAN, reasoning that PIANO MAN is the phony, mainstream version of THE FRENCH INHALER, which captures the lonely crawl toward last call in LA in the most lacerating fashion. Written about his ex-wife, Zevon is the only guy who could rival Bob Dylan in the halls of bitterness. It’s not quite IDIOT WIND (which took POSITIVELY 4TH STREET’s corrosive lyrics and somehow added even more acid), but THE FRENCH INHALER comes close when Zevon lobs this grenade at the close: “When the lights came up at two, I got a good look at you, and your face looked like something death brought with him in his suitcase”).

DESPERADOS UNDER THE EAVES, on the other hand, is, in my estimation, one of if not the greatest song ever written about southern California, and lord knows there have been many. Zevon understood the violence lurking beneath the sunshine like no one else did. He saw the menace of the Golden State (“Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves”?) and understood what was rotten at the core of the American Dream, the corrupt drive of Manifest Destiny. With its gorgeous strings and Bukowski-esque narrator, this is Zevon’s masterpiece.


This track is not featured in the book, but a song I returned to again and again while editing, the points of views of both Ray and his ex-wife somehow speaking to me in this perfect track about what it feels like to no longer be young. This is one of my favorite categories of songs, the melancholy realizations and late wisdoms of time slipping away. Almost everyone ends up doing their best work when they dip into this subject matter. Even Mellencamp, who never did much for me, wrote his best song (CHECK IT OUT) about this topic. Nina Simone’s haunting cover of WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES is the most devastating of these, but all of them get me, from the Cowboy Junkies’ HORSE IN THE COUNTRY (“The hours, well, I don’t mind, how they slip on by like an old love of mine, but it’s the years that simply disappear that are doing me in”) to Mr. Zevon’s ACCIDENTALLY LIKE A MARTYR (“The days slide by, should've done, should've done, we all sigh”). But I love AGAINST THE WIND the most. It’s Seger’s most mature song and finest hour. And after listening to the following lyric repeatedly (“The years rolled slowly past and I found myself alone, surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends, I found myself further and further from my home…”), along with a healthy dose of DESPERADOES UNDER THE EAVES on repeat, I decided to leave Los Angeles for Austin.

EVERYBODY PAYS (Mark Knopfler)

There have been 74 million amazing songs written about California, but almost none about Las Vegas, where much of the book is set. Oddly, the best one comes from a solo Mark Knopfler, who captures the world not of tourists but of locals, those who hang around the two-dollar tables downtown, know where all the cheap buffets are, and watch time tick away day after day, year after year, waiting for a fortune train they know is not merely late, but never coming. I'll play this song before I walk out for readings. There’s a world weariness to this track, but also a languidness that keeps it from slipping into the darkness. When he sings “Everybody has to leave some blood here on the floor, everybody pays to play” it rings with the resignation of living and losing and getting up and doing it again, because what other choice is there?

THE PRETENDER (Jackson Browne)

Speaking of getting up and doing it again, here’s the song the narrator’s ex ultimately decides is the one that reminds her of Ray, not LATE FOR THE SKY. Another song about the passage of time and the disillusionment that comes with it, THE PRETENDER is probably Jackson’s most accomplished track, catching more in his net than just confession. This song captures the anomie settling into mid '70s America, the death of the counter culture ideal, and uses Los Angeles as an Everycity, where people live in the shadows of the freeways, are inundated with advertising, and follow the American Dream to the point of exhaustion and confusion (“To believe in whatever may lie, in the things that money can buy, thought true love could have been a contender, are you there, say a prayer, for the Pretender, who started out so young and strong, only to surrender”). THE PRETENDER is not as melancholy as it might have been because there’s a thin undercurrent of disgust underneath it, still challenging its ideas.

THE RIVER INTRO (Bruce Springsteen)

After breaking wide open with Born in the USA, Bruce put out a box set of live recordings called Live ’75-’85. In it, he included a version of THE RIVER from a 1980 LA show that features a long, spoken introduction by Bruce concerning his relationship with his father. This story was well known to Boss diehards. As kids, we had it on a bootleg and listened to it repeatedly before the box set ever came out, the story he told perfectly capturing the uneasy and often fractured relationships some of my friends had with their fathers, and that I most certainly had with mine. In the story, Bruce’s working class Dad, booze and disappointment coursing through his veins, sits in the darkness of the kitchen every night, waiting up for his long-haired son to come home. He demands to know what Bruce is doing with his life. Misunderstood and scared, the young Springsteen stays out as late as he can, talking to his girlfriend from freezing cold phone booths, hoping his father won’t be awake when he comes in (I would do this exact thing many nights growing up). There’s a turn at the end of the story that manages to capture the complexity of fathers and sons in a way that not even his INDEPENDENCE DAY (also from The River) can. In the book, Ray and his ex listen to the story in the car on the way to D.C., and he has a moment where he can share something about himself, something he has hidden, but he chooses not to, and that missed opportunity will come back to haunt him. If you close your eyes and listen to the story and don’t cry, your heart is way too hard and you should do something about that.


The book features a very, very misguided attempt to break into Graceland, and while visiting Memphis I was introduced to what has to be the darkest song Elvis Presley ever recorded. It came in between Colonel Tom putting him in all of those ridiculous and frivolous movies and the final, grim descent in Vegas. Right around the ’68 comeback special I believe. If anyone is interested in lamenting the lost promise of Elvis Aron Presley, just listen to STRANGER IN MY OWN HOMETOWN, which rolls like a black river and seems to have come from another person and another set of session musicians entirely. This song is a loaded gun. A dark alley. The pace is relentless (Springsteen would later capture its speed and mood in a brilliant song called ROULETTE, which he wrote after the Three Mile Island disaster) and the mood is unforgiving and violent (to hear Elvis Presley bark “Blow your brains out!” at the end of a song is beyond startling). All the encroaching violence of the late 60s is captured here. If he had held on to this fury, stayed in the leather jumpsuit instead of one with rhinestones, who knows what might have been.

MACHINE GUN (The Commodores)

When I turned in my last draft, I put on MACHINE GUN (coolest instrumental ever with the coolest title), shook my white ass for 2 minutes and 39 seconds, and then started writing something new. I encourage you to do exactly the same thing right now!

Anthony Tambakis and Swimming with Bridgeport Girls links:

Kirkus review

The Day interview with the author
Shelf Awareness review
WABE interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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