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September 7, 2017

Book Notes - Ryan Gattis "Safe"


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.

Ryan Gattis's novel Safe is a fast-paced and compelling literary thriller.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"Whip-smart vernacular and a narrative that zips along . . . Gattis has created a gripping novel about opportunity, transformation and hope."

In his own words, here is Ryan Gattis's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Safe:

Although she has passed away by the time the novel begins, Rose Stenberg left a massive impression on the main character in my new novel, Safe—Ricky Mendoza, Junior, a.k.a. Ghost. This mixtape is her legacy: her last gift to her very last boyfriend before she succumbed to cancer in her late teens.

The tracklisting for "Fuck Dying: A Mix by Rose G. Stenberg" actually opens the novel, and its songs, artist attributions, and run-times are listed as a guide to the reader, and it will soon become clear that they are a guide for Ghost too, for the rest of his life without her.

This is primarily because this artistic compilation forces him to look at himself differently, and to change, to kick drugs and ultimately start on the path to becoming a respected safecracker. In short, I guess you could say, it saves his life by giving him a completely new one.

The A side of the mixtape pertains to the narrator, Ghost, and how Rose views him (Side 1: You), while the B side pertains to Rose herself (Side 2: Me), and attempts to give some insight into things she may never have told him. It uses music to explain as best she can, how she is, what she thinks, and what Ghost means to her.

I settled on punk as the genre for three reasons: 1) it's unexpected—this style of music is not generally associated with South Central Los Angeles in the way that hip hop, or even jazz is; 2) its pace—as Safe is a heist thriller, I felt it vital to score it with something that could match the structure beat for beat; 3) its emotive quality—for me, few genres of music capture anger, resistance, love, and the triumph of the present moment quite the way punk does. It's not middle of the road music. You love it or you hate it. This is the soundtrack I needed for a man going on a heist spree to help others. It is the sound of Robin Hood Noir.

(Quick note: I'll leave the emotional explanations for why Rose selected the songs she did to the novel; for this post, I think it's best to unpack why I picked the tracks. Onward!)

Side 1: You

"I'm Not a Loser" / Descendants (1:29)
I was looking for a song that Rose could use to tell Ghost that she doesn't see him the way the world sees him, or even, how he sees himself. To her, he's not a loser. It needed to be contrary.

"Rise Above" / Black Flag (2:27)

The mission: find a song that Rose could use to tell Ghost he could conquer his demons. This was perhaps the easiest selection on the whole mixtape, the first and only consideration for the slot.

"I Can See Clearly" / Screeching Weasel (2:18)

Very early on in the novel, I needed an ‘up song' for a getaway drive in Los Angeles—an escape of sorts over the 47 Freeway. It needed pace, which the driving guitar provides, and it needed a feeling of openness as Ghost drives over the Vincent Thomas Bridge, almost two hundred feet above the port. That it is a cover as well gives a boost of the unexpected.

"I Want Something More" / Bad Religion (:48)

I felt a quick shot was needed, something brief and driven by desire. This titular idea becomes thematic for Ghost moving forward, and even transforms into a compulsion. It sunk into him, I suppose.

"Living for Today" / Pennywise (3:08)

For me, Pennywise is the pinnacle of pace and power in the genre. This was a song to drive Ghost forward, to drive the book forward. The lines, "You've got to own your soul / You've got to take control," still give me chills and fit just right for the fiction.

"Instant Hit" / The Slits (2:45)

Honoring the female contributions to punk felt really important for this tape, because it's one of the reasons punk connects so perfectly for Rose: she can see herself in it. "Instant Hit" is an upbeat sad song, and I didn't even know I needed it until I heard it again after many years. It's a strange and perfect song about living with an addict.

"Day to Daze" / NOFX (1:58)

For me, NOFX are the funniest punk band there ever was, and ever might be, which potentially makes this serious track's inclusion even better. This track is about putting up with a drug addict. It's raw. It's about broken promises and patience ending. And it's something that a young Ghost knew too well, to be told to just "fade away."

"Hey Homes!" / The Vandals (2:45)

I needed something South Californian (which is true of much of this tape), and I needed something that fit for Ghost's background (he grew up in around Latino gangs in Lynwood, in South Central Los Angeles) and could bring home the idea that punk wasn't just something that existed outside of his world. The language of the song doesn't map perfectly for him, but it's close enough to make him think of the genre differently, and that's what was needed. He needed something to open him up and be able to accept it.

"Just to Get Away" / Poison Idea (2:30)
I needed another escape song here, and my good friend (and walking punk rock encyclopedia), Mr. Sam Tenney, recommended it to me. The vocals on this track conveyed the right amount of menace and defiance. It also comes at a time in the narrative when he is very much "on a date with the devil."

"Big City" / Operation Ivy (2:17)

This side needed to end on an up, but true to the story, it's another upbeat sad song about dashed hopes, and how rough the city can be. "Concrete knows no sympathy" is still one of my all-time favorite lyrics in music.

Side 2: Me

"Los Angeles" / X (2:25)

The book needed a tonal shift, an anchor song, and a locator song at the same time, but its pace couldn't flag. A tall order. But one certainly filled with Exene Cervenka's voice.

"L.A. Girl" / Adolescents (1:49)

Rose is Los Angeles born and raised. I think of this as her theme song, one originally written as a takedown of shallow L.A. girls; she delights in the irony of owning it, and twisting into a kind of mantra: "We don't live our lives / To keep you satisfied" is Rose.

"She" / The Misfits (1:24)

I love the pace of this song, I love Danzig's soaring voice, but if I am completely honest, I chose it for two lines: "She is good and she is bad / No one understands" because it perfectly encapsulates her antics during her last days with Ghost.

"Demolition Girl" / The Saints (1:41)

I needed a song that, for lack of a better term, effectively conveyed Rose's badassness. A song that would canonize her in Ghost's memory. That it also had a tongue-in-cheek quality was a bonus, because that's Rose too: smiling-while-serious.

"Quality or Quantity" / Bad Religion (1:35)

The only band present on both sides. I needed something that would characterize Rose's last days and her reasons for living them the way she did. She definitely makes a choice between the two.

"Please Don't Be Gentle With Me" / Minutemen (:48)

I didn't know I needed this song until it found me. I knew I needed some Minutemen, especially with some action from the book taking place in San Pedro, but hearing this song hit me pretty hard. I knew it was about Rose, especially near the end of her life, when everyone treats her with kid-gloves, and she's begging Ghost not to.

"I Love Playin' With Fire" / The Runaways (3:21)

Couldn't leave out The Runaways! I juggled quite a few tracks for this slot, but ultimately settled on an upbeat-upbeat song. Not upbeat sad. Upbeat good. It was tonally important for something fun and reckless.

"What Do I Get?" / The Buzzcocks (2:53)

This is Rose's "nearing the end" song, I guess you could say. It is perhaps the only moment in the entire mixtape where she allowed herself any room whatsoever for self-pity. The questioning within the song felt like it could exist within her quiet moments, alone without Ghost: "I just want a lover like any other, what do I get? / I only want a friend who will love to the end, what do I get?"

"I'm Not Down" / The Clash (3:08)

Although it does not immediately follow "Quantity or Quality" on the mixtape, I tend to think of these two songs as connected companions: as if "Q. or Q." is the cause, and this one is the effect, the necessary consequence of the choosing.

"In Love" / The Raincoats (3:05)

I needed a song that could exist on repeat for Ghost, a song that could live long past Rose, and leave him with the absolute teenage truth of her feeling for him. She died loving him. She always will. And he knows because she left someone behind to sing it for her.

Ryan Gattis and Safe links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Criminal Element review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Scotsman review

Bookworm interview with the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for All Involved
Little Atoms podcast interview with 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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