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July 25, 2017

Book Notes - Jay Baron Nicorvo "The Standard Grand"

The Standard Grand

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.

Jay Baron Nicorvo's The Standard Grand is an impressive debut, a literary page-turner both timely and moving.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"...a seamless blend of road-trip saga, love story, and critique of military contractors...the novel is thematically a straightforward tale about finding a home…but Nicorvo smartly renders the legal, corporate, and military forces that can stand in the way of so simple a goal. An ambitious novel that effectively braids corporate greed, outdoorsy grit, and human connection."

In his own words, here is Jay Baron Nicorvo's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Standard Grand:

Slews of writers out there listen to music while they write. For me, dead silence isn't a necessity but pretty damn near. Instrumentals, maybe. Anything with lyrics? Forget it. Singing, talking, or — worst of all — the mewling of our twenty-year-old cat, Fernie, drive me out of my mind, literally, while I'm writing or actively waiting for a word or two to arrive unannounced.

Once the daily writing's done, though, on goes the stereo. What comes out of it isn't as raucous as it was, say, twenty-five years ago. In my middle age, I've mellowed. Where my 1990s hardscrabble adolescence demanded heavy doses of Fishbone, Rage Against the Machine, and Gravediggaz, these days it's drams of Nina Simone, The Strumbellas, and, of late, when our son's in the car, the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. His favorite song? Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." Thisbe and I must be crap parents, because we can't bring ourselves to curb his cussing, lesser though it is, when we've got a seven-ear-old on a booster in the backseat singing, "Running in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies."

In between all the childrearing, while waiting for The Standard Grand to appear on shelves, I began fiddling with an adaptation for a TV pilot. I couldn't work in that format without hearing what songs might drift in to certain scenes. And, anyway, I'd been passively accumulating tracks for years. There are even a couple of minor characters that I plucked from songs and plugged straight into the novel, which centers round an Army trucker who goes AWOL before her third deployment. She falls in with a rowdy bunch of homeless vets squatting at a tumbledown Borscht Belt resort — the Standard of the title — in the Catskill Mountains.

Most of the songs that follow are war-related or flat-out anti-war, and the playlist is organized chronologically. It tracks the action of the novel, which opens with the main character, Specialist Antebellum Smith, leaving her life in the dust. She abandons her husband, her dog, and her post at Fort Leonard Wood, taking off in her pickup:

1. "War Horn" by Shakey Graves
Very slyly, you might even say disarmingly, Shakey Graves, aka Alejandro Rose-Garcia, cajoles us. I love the near-androgyny of his voice, and how in this song all our notions of American morality are upended. The horn is sounded and we sanction slaughter. When we do, everything can be called into question, especially after two or three deployments. Murder's our legal designation for killing with intent during peacetime. But come wartime, we relax our social norms. Love thy neighbor becomes neutralize the enemy. Mr. Graves takes digs at the civilized hypocrisy of waging war, often in the name of some higher power or other: "Never carried weapons till I heard the Lord / Blowin on his old war horn."

2. "Girl in the War" by Josh Ritter
If The Standard Grand has a theme song, this is it, and a few of Josh Ritter's lines make for half of the novel's epigraph. In addition to being one the best singer-songwriters of my generation, or any, Ritter's also an exceptional novelist, having published Bright's Passage a few years back. And here's another song that tells us: all those rules we wrote, well, they're the first go, come conflict of any kind. But this war's different from wars past. These days, we send our girls off to war alongside our boys. How's that for progress.

3. "Handsome Johnny" by Richie Havens
You buy a house a just downwind of Woodstock's constant contact high and, at your closing, you get a gratis copy of Woodstock, the 1970 concert documentary, even if Woodstock took place an hour from Woodstock. The performances can be hit or miss, but when they hit — Jesus. Joe Crocker belting out The Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends"? Sly and the Family Stone's epic "I Want to Take You Higher"? Jimmy Hendrix and his feedback "Star-Spangled Banner"? All for the ages. But the performance that moves me most is Richie Havens' set. The first musician to go on stage after hours of delay and hippy-dippy chaos, Havens is alone with his bassist. He's got a battered acoustic guitar. He's wearing a dashiki and sandals. He's got no top teeth. The first time I saw him, I felt sorry for him. Then he starts playing, and I felt sorry for my artless, sorry-ass self. "Motherless Son" never fails to buckle me. But it's timeless "Handsome Johnny" I include here, co-written with Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett Jr. The song sees our wars with the sage wisdom of those born into unending struggle, and it captures this truth partly by including the ongoing fight for Civil Rights right alongside America's canonical wars.

4. "Really Rosie" by Carole King
In the novel, after Smith goes AWOL and is living on the lam, she drives east. Gets as far as the Tappan Zee Bridge before she runs out of money and gas. Ditches her truck and hoofs it into New York City. Up comes the military drumbeat that opens "Really Rosie," a kitschy feint that swaggers into a campy girl-power anthem. It's the title song of Carole King's collaboration with Maurice Sendak for the children's musical Really Rosie: "I can act ‘To be or not to be' / I can tap / Across the Tappan Zee / Hey can't you see / I'm terrific at everything." Like Smith (I hope) Rosie embodies brash youthful self-assurance, so marked in some girls before puberty hits, and before the world, particularly hard on women and womanhood, goes to work wearing them down.

5. "A Lamb on the Stone" by Nathaniel Rateliff
There's a critical character, Ray Tyro, who's a former Army Ranger turned freelance security contractor. A merc, he's been hired to gather information on the Standard and the man who owns it. With his job done, Tyro's roughing it in the Catskills, spending a season or two in the wild as a way to get centered. This hardscrabble Nathaniel Rateliff ballad captures the conundrum that is Tyro — tough to know if he's the lamb, the stone, or the butcher holding the cleaver that cuts to the bone.

6. "Causeway" by Love Over Gold
This band is, at present anyway, a one-off formed by a duo of solo artists: Pieta Brown and Lucie Thorne. All their songs are stunningly simple. Two women with nothing more to complicate matters than their words, their voices, and their guitars, and that's more than enough. It isn't pure. It isn't all emotion. It's earthy and heady and smart. Complex, heartrending, and thought-provoking music making the most of a few moving parts, and "Causeway" gets at the sentiment of leaving, of deserting with good cause, its chorus: "I'm not going back."

7. "Codeine" by Trampled by Turtles
The husband that Smith leaves is a pillhead, a wastrel, Travis. He's the embodiment of all the guys I grew up with who were — and still are — choked out by blue-collar poverty. You hear of the opiate epidemic. The truncating lifespans of white working-class men. Well, Travis is what happens when you lose some of your privilege. It's overdue but it ain't pretty, though the song is — both spirited and sedate in that signature way of Trampled by Turtles, a speedball of a band — and this anguished ditty of course owes a tragic debt to Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die."

8. "Written on the Forehead" by PJ Harvey
Smith suffers from PTSD. One terrible hallmark of the disorder (which I know intimately) is how it drags the past kicking and screaming into the present. This PJ Harvey song bottles the lightning of one or two of Smith's wartime flashbacks, and I can't help but be enlivened by Harvey's outrage on Let England Shake. Harvey's taking stock from across the Atlantic, where the West is in decline and it's the West's own damn fault. Tony Blair is mostly to blame for abetting George W. Bush's catastrophic invasion of Iraq. If the EU and the USA are doomed, bound to meet a bad end in either a bang or a whimper, the McGuffin of WMD is where it all started to go terribly wrong. And PJ Harvey knows it. The tricky thing about Harvey is: even at her pessimistic worst, in her songs of wrenching decline, she can't help but sound uplifting. That — her encouraging rage, and the earned rage of women like her — gives me hope.

9. "Sovay" by Andrew Bird
There's a scene about 2/3 through the novel that's something of a sendup to the attack on Vin Drin Dop or Lop in Apocalypse Now, when Col. Kilgore stages his massive Air Cav assault, complete with loudspeakers and longboards, to take a Viet Cong-controlled point that offers a coveted six-foot left, because Charlie don't surf. My paltry version is to Francis Ford Coppola's epic scene what Elmer Fudd's "Kill the Wabbit" is to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." In it, the homeless vets squabbling on the grounds of the Standard are bombarded by a mass die-off of brown bats. I hear the serene "Sovey" wafting over the apocalyptic scene. The traditional English folk ballad, of the same title, that inspired Bird's version is about a young woman, Sovay, who disguises herself as an armed highwayman to test her suitor by robbing him. There's some of Sovay in Smith, but there's little Sovay in "Sovay," at least as Bird geopolitically reimagines it: "They're playing Ride of the Valkyries / With no semblance of grace or ease / And they're acting on vagaries/ With their violent proclivities / And they're playing Ride of the Valkyries."

10. "Hell Broke Luce" by Tom Waits
Here's one of the songs where I've cribbed the name, Jeff Luce, and a bit of Luce's backstory, for my own nefarious purposes. Tom Waits, in that hurdy-gurdy voice of his — like a hand-crank meat grinder struggling against a knucklebone — is here raging about a war vet, Luce, who had a good home that he left. The song is something of a catalogue of Luce's injuries and indignities suffered in Iraq and, more outrageously, back Stateside. It makes for hard listening, as it should. In my less forgiving moments, I imagine the song blasting at a seated detainee, naked but for a hood, in a karmic black site of the soul. Under the hood, I picture any number of heads of state, but most frequently it's damned Dick Cheney.

11. "Wish You Were Here" by Rasputina
This is one of the most lovelorn songs I've ever heard, and call me a nincompoop but I prefer the weird Rasputina cover to Pink Floyd's classic original. The quavering voice and cello of Melora Creager just gut me, and then there's that devastating line that begs the question: "Did you exchange / a walk on part in the war / for a leading role in a cage?"

12. "Walking Blues" by Big Mama Thornton
In my mind, the walking blues are more American than apple pie. This quirk of the blues was, reportedly, first laid down by Son House in the 1930s, and it's been picked up by every meaningful blues musician since. One of my favorites is by Big Mama Thornton, who you likely know from her smash-hit version of "Hound Dog" — which makes the Elvis cover sound clownish. There, Ms. Thornton is glorious indignation, but here her "Walking Blues" is plaintive without complaining. Distraught without being a drag. Because inherent in the walking blues is the notion that, no mater what, no mater how heavy the load or how hard the road, you keep on walking. Thornton was a smasher of stereotypes — a queer black woman in a straight white man's America — and I fancy that she and Smith would get along mightily.

13. "Song For Zula" by Phosphorescent
Without giving too much away, the final pages of the novel, like this here Phosphorescent song, take place in the desert — emotional, actual — and I love how the lyrics that follow allude to, and overturn, a few lines of an earlier chart-topper: "Some say love is a burning thing / That it makes a fiery ring / Oh but I know love as a fading thing / Just as fickle as a feather in a stream." As heartbreaking, as cynical even, as this sounds compared to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" (written by June Carter Cash), there's a hard-won strength to be gained in such a loss of love. In the end, Smith does find love, but it's not the kind of love she, or the reader, expects. It's not fairytale love, or the smoldering love, so dismayingly fake, of romance novels and country-western songs. What Smith finds is true love, which is to say love that's fraught and not easy in the least. And I'll be good goddamned if I was going to have a character like Smith saved by some man, or even redeemed by love for a man. Smith doesn't find love; she earns love, a love of the kind far harder to come by and that promises to be far more enduring, because it's got no guarantees — a love of self.

Jay Baron Nicorvo and The Standard Grand links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
LitStack review
Publishers Weekly review

Midwestern Gothic interview with the author
Ploughshares interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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