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April 3, 2018

Poe Ballantine's Playlist for His Novel "Whirlaway"


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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Poe Ballantine's novel Whirlaway is darkly comic and compelling.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Ballantine walks a wry tightrope here, imbuing his debauched characters with the drunken nobility of Steinbeck's 'boys,' not to mention a healthy dose of gonzo angst. What results is a wanton misadventure that often flips from laughter to tears on a dime. Bukowski and his ilk might appreciate this oddball version of the hero's journey, soaked in beer and melancholia."

In his own words, here is Poe Ballantine's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Whirlaway:

Psychic Evanescence
(or a few Playlist Notes on the Novel Whirlaway)
Whirlaway, my novel to be released by Hawthorne Books on April Fool's Day of 2018, is about incarcerated San Francisco Chronicle journalist, Eddie Plum (unfairly accused, he insists), who escapes from Napa State Psychiatric Hospital, flees to his hometown of San Diego, hides out in a little known North County barrio called the Island, takes possession of a telepathic dog, and eventually rejoins his old horseracing pal, a socially estranged record dealer named Shelly Hubbard.

The title itself, besides describing a state of psychic evanescence, comes from RCA's prototypical 45-rpm turntable that played something called the "Whirl-Away Demonstration Record" named after the famous racehorse who won the Triple Crown in 1941.  In the 1990's, when this story takes place, according to my Giddings Record Pricing Guide, "Only two copies of the record, probably the first 45 ever made expressly for promotional purposes, are known to exist today, though others likely survive."  The Whirl-Away Demonstration record was therefore a Holy Grail for dealers and collectors such as Shelly Hubbard, and so rare no retail price could be assigned.

Shelly Hubbard makes his living buying schlock like Pat Boone and Doris Day albums for fifty cents at garage sales and swap meets and selling these records to Americana-hungry Japanese and Norwegians for eighteen dollars and more, shipping not included.  His knowledge of music is encyclopedic, his tastes are refined, and he keeps the good stuff for himself, e.g.: a Beatles' Butcher Block (the original controversial and finally recalled cover of Yesterday and Today, with the lads posing draped with meat and dismembered naked dolls); a ten-and-a-half-inch Stowaways on Justice Records; a Johnny & the Jammers (Johnny Winter); the Infatuators on Fellatio Records; a promo copy of "In the Hands of Karma" by the Electric Toilet; a sample copy of "Ring Chimes" by the Dots; a stereo version of "Bring Down the House" by the Escorts; a blue vinyl copy of a Five Satins single, and the crown jewel of his collection, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" on Chess Records with Ike Turner on guitar, asserted by many to be the first rock and roll record ever issued. (The record was a 1954 reissue delta-marked, 1954, but no original 1951 recordings, according to the pricing guides, were known to exist.)

At the time of this story in Whirlaway the record was worth five thousand dollars, but Shelly had picked up a copy at a garage sale for a quarter. "Rocket 88" is just set on the turntable to be heard for the first time by my novel's narrator, Eddie Plum, who's only a few weeks off having escaped from Napa State Psychiatric Hospital and is probably slightly less mentally stable than he'd like to think, when he realizes that he is not alone in the house.

Eddie Plum's loyal, intimate, and telepathic companion in Whirlaway, the big butterscotch mutt he calls Sweets, loves to howl along with made-up camp songs, his favorite: "Faaar From the Outhouse on a Cold and Runny Night."

So Whirlaway is a novel about music, written in a musical style under the aegis of muses, principally Calypso, I flatter myself to think, which John Denver memorialized in his bell-happy yodeling hit single about French oceanographer Jacque Cousteau's research vessel, "Calypso."  Many of the chapter titles refer to songs ("Back to the Island," "Whiplash I was Taking a Bath," "Will You Still Love me Tomorrow?") though neither John Denver nor his songs are ever mentioned once. The following songs are all featured in Whirlaway or inspired by it one way or another.


"My Boy Lollypop," by Millie Small (the Blue Beat girl) on Smash records, 1964, is generally considered "the first commercially successful international ska song" though it's not worth much to a collector unless it's a promotional or otherwise odd issue copy.  But it is a great song, a real mood lifter.  I owned this 45 single when I was eight years old and thought it an ideal upbeat counterpoint backdrop in the grotesquely comic scene in which a major character who is dead reveals himself to be not dead.

"Tell Me Why," by the Belmonts on Surprise Records, 1961, along with "Ballad of the Dead Lover," Tragedy Records, 1976, are played in a dream scene in Whirlaway where the boy once thought dead but revealed to be alive is now dead again and wrapped in a blanket before he is tossed by his friends, family, and lover into the sea.

"I Wish it Would Rain." by the Temptations is one of the most melancholy songs ever made.  The lyricist, Rodger Penzabene, wrote this in dealing with his wife's cheating.  A week after the song was released he committed suicide by gunshot at the age of 23.  The song is mentioned in Whirlaway and sets the tone for the madhouse introduction of mental patient, Sofia Fouquet, who will tragically soon, at least in Whirlaway Fashion, go the way of Rodger Penzabene.

"Try a Little Tenderness," hits for both Three Dog Night (1969) and Otis Redding (1966), I use at a record auction in the novel at an oldies radio station in L.A. in a discussion of Soul versus Corporation, and there is also a promise of a half card at the now-dark L.A. Racetrack, Hollywood Park.

A copy of "Please Please Me," Beatles on Parlophone, 78-rpm, pressed in India, is discovered by Whirlaway's Eddie Plum at a garage sale in Poway.  Several countries continued to press 78s long after the format was obsolete.  Even among collectors, the records were almost unheard of, and thus highly esteemed.  Several valuable records are discovered in the course of Whirlaway, but this one, valued at around four thousand dollars, is the most exciting find.

Poe Ballantine and Whirlaway links:

excerpt from the book

Kirkus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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