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July 3, 2017

Book Notes - Don Waters "The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain"

The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain

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.

Don Waters' brilliant short fiction collection The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain is filled with characters exquisitely married to their Southwest surroundings.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Questions of faith and absolution fuel this evocative collection of meticulously crafted stories, all set in the contemporary American Southwest."

In his own words, here is Don Waters' Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain:

Story collections take time to accumulate. In this case, ten years. The tales in The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain are essentially a continuation of the desert stories from my first book, Desert Gothic. They're longer stories, for the most part, perhaps moody and searching, and each represents a sort of marker for the music I was enjoying at the time. Naturally, it's impossible to remember all the music that played in the background while writing, but I do retain associated memories, such as listening to Neil Young as I cruised around Marfa, Texas, filching the names of businesses and places to insert into "La Luz de Jesús." Or listening to The Clash as a skate kid in downtown 1980s Reno, which mirrors the story of the delinquent altar boys in "Last Rites." And of course, listening to the lyrics of Dawes's gorgeous song, "God Rest My Soul," and thinking, yes, that reminds me of my story "Day of the Dead." Here I've paired these nine songs, at 36 minutes, with these nine stories, at 216 pages. Have a listen. Perhaps read the book. And thanks.

Uncle Tupelo – "Grindstone" / "The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain"
Long before Wilco or Son Volt, there was Uncle Tupelo, a seminal alt-country band formed by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. "Grindstone," written by Farrar, is a favorite. I listened to this song countless times during the three years it took to write and finally finish the title story, which is about a trustee prisoner working at a wild mustang rehabilitation ranch. I'd like to think the narrator of this story would appreciate the song's poignant lyrics: "No light ever shines / Dead end tears that dry / Maybe a waste of words and time / Never a waste of life."

The Clash – "Spanish Bombs" / "Last Rites"
No doubt someone's cool big brother introduced me, as a kid, to The Clash's London Calling. I can't remember. But I know their music was a reggae-punk-rock arrow to my young heart. And since "Last Rites" is a semi-autobiographical story about errant skater Reno altar boys, it's easy to recall those long hot summer nights listening to The Clash. I'm ever thankful, too, for that older brother introduction. Otherwise, I'd have been stuck listening to—like every other Nevada kid—Kenny Rogers, Marty Robbins, and the Oak Ridge Boys. I played this album again and again while writing this story.

Blue Giant – "Target Heart" / "Española"
This is an outrageously gorgeous song, and I associate Blue Giant's high lonesome moodiness in "Target Heart" with this heroic yet sulky narrator, Lucero. In this story, Lucero has recently returned from war, but the mess he finds back home, among his family, outweighs his tour as a decorated army veteran. He leans on faith—and his ripped biceps—to see him through to the end.

Sparklehorse – "Rainmaker" / "La Luz de Jesús"
Imagine an egotistical, needs-to-be-loved Los Angeles screenwriter traveling to a New Mexico western film set to finish writing his script. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (literally translated: The Blood of Christ Mountains), he encounters a Catholic brotherhood of penitentes. Naturally, since the story is set on a western film set, there must be a showdown. "Rainmaker," an upbeat and weird song, reminds me of the weird film set's owner, a cartoonish buffoon producer who looms large in the narrator's mind. Also, I love this tune.

Neil Young (Unplugged) – "Unknown Legend" / "Deborah"
The biblical translation of "Deborah" is bee; sweet; honey-giving. But Deborah, in the Bible, is also a powerful figure, a warrior and a prophet. In Neil Young's song, the "Unknown Legend" is a commanding woman who rides across our imagination on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. In this story, Deborah is equally formidable—a vigilante on a quest to save animals from the men who mistreat them. To me, Neil Young's unknown legend certainly brings to mind this character and her forceful will.

Lucinda Williams – "Those Three Days" / "Two Kinds of Temples"
I just adore Lucinda Williams, and her song "Those Three Days" perfectly represents the feeling of the two situations in "Two Kinds of Temples." By situations, I mean abrupt affairs, one at a silent hot spring and another at a desert motel. A bittersweet song that elicits longing and sadness.

Dawes – "God Rest My Soul" / "Day of the Dead"
What is it about the band Dawes? Thoughtful lyrics, a California vibe, and a sound that seems like it was recorded on tape inside an aluminum storage unit rental. Which is to say: they sound magical, stripped down, and otherworldly all at once. "Day of the Dead" depicts a desperate man's journey to Mexico in order to participate in a suicide pact. Things don't work out as planned, thankfully, as his despair transforms from bewilderment into wonder. To me, this song suggests a similar feeling.

Eliza Gilkyson – "Hard Times in Babylon" / "Full of Days"
"Hard Times in Babylon," indeed, when you have a man named Marc attempting to erect an anti-abortion billboard in Las Vegas, a city known for endless signage. "Full of Days" isn't meant to be preachy. (I'm very much pro-choice—what sane person isn't?) But the subject still felt like dangerous territory to enter, which was the reason I wanted to write the story. Simply put, Marc isn't really a believer in his anti-abortion quest. He's simply searching for some kind of salve to ease his ongoing grief. Eliza Gilkyson—and her beautiful song—captures the ideas in this story so nicely: "A shoulder to cry on when I bottomed out at zero / In the hour of the wolf, just before dawn / Hard times in Babylon."

Bad Religion – "Sorrow" (Acoustic version) / "Todos Santos"
(From New Maps of Hell Deluxe Version)
A father abandons his son. Eighteen years later, they meet in Baja California, where the deadbeat father now runs a beachside surf shack. He's the archetypal beach bum. The son is wide-eyed, reticent yet hopeful. It's impossible, then, for "sorrow" not to enter the framework of this story. Bad Religion, an all-time favorite band, turns off the amps in this wondrous version, a song that could supply some relief to the young kid in this complicated situation.

Don Waters and The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Foreword Reviews review
Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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