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April 12, 2018

Steve Kistulentz's Playlist for His Novel "Panorama"

Panorama

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.

Steve Kistulentz's novel Panorama is a powerful and complex literary pageturner.

The Washington Book review wrote of the book:

"In Panorama, Steve Kistulentz explores American values and culture and how human loss transforms other humans. This fast-paced novel is equally soul-searing...A great and promising debut novel that will overwhelm you as soon as you start reading it."


In his own words, here is Steve Kistulentz's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Panorama:



What I've done here focuses as much on songs that were in my own head as I was writing the book, and not necessarily songs that exist in the timeframe covered by the novel itself. That's because the book takes place over 24 hours beginning late afternoon of December 31, 2000, and ending the following day. And if you limit such a list to the top 100 or even the top 1000 songs of that year, well, let's just say that you learn pretty quickly that the year 2000 isn't 1964, or 1971.

The same year that saw George W. Bush installed as President by the vote of a single Supreme Court justice gave us so many other examples of abject mediocrity, such as Creed's "Higher" and Sisqo's "The Thong Song". But 2000 is also an important year in history for other reasons, as I hope the book explains. It's the last year of what our world was like before 9/11, before perpetual war. I say in the book that the story begins on the last day of the last year when we still felt safe, and maybe that's what these songs are, the ways and means of reminding ourselves of when our days consisted almost exclusively of our simpler, most human concerns, to love and be loved.

On the day that the novel takes place, I myself was traveling for work, ORD to DCA on United Airlines. I had enough miles for the upgrade, and my flight was mostly empty, and I spent the two hours lying to my seatmate, a trick I'd stolen from a Don DeLillo novel (pretending to be a courier flying in from Helsinki with a briefcase full of bank drafts, that sort of thing). That year, still working in politics and trying to carve a way out, enjoying my platinum status on three different airlines and with three different hotel chains, I learned that if I did not slow down, things would end badly. One friend died of a heart attack at his desk. Another had his pickup moves ridiculed in the pages of Vanity Fair magazine. And from that year of airports and hotels and doubles for a dollar more, the song I remember most is "Smooth," Santana featuring the then-ubiquitous Rob Thomas. Twenty-one months later, I stood on the roof of my office building on Connecticut Avenue just three blocks from the White House, watching the smoke rise from the impact crater at the Pentagon. A month after that, I met the woman I would marry. There were still a few more trips after that, but the difference was that I finally had a reason to get home. Herewith the songs from that panorama of thought.

Craig Finn, "God in Chicago"
A novel about a plane crash that kills 77 passengers and 6 crew is necessarily a sad story. And this is necessarily a sad song. If you don't know the story this one tells, it's about the kind of temporary alliances that we depend upon to comfort us in our darknesses. I have needed those comforts. It has been so goddamned sad in the houses that I have lived in, but that was years ago. If certain songs they get so scratched into our souls, as Craig Finn wrote elsewhere, there's a certain joy in survival. So many of us who once owned cars with no radios and drove around America with someone we could have loved have survived. Craig survived. I survived. You did, too.

Tommy Keene, "Back to Zero Now"
Part of the story I wanted to hint at, but not actually tell, was that this novel tells the story of the moment where Richard MacMurray discovers what his real purpose is in life: not just to be a father, but to be the exact kind of father his wasn't. But in order to get to that point, he had to leave everything behind. Maybe the only songwriter I know who always dealt with that melancholy pull between knowing you had to leave the past behind and understanding how much the past defined you was the late Tommy Keene. Tommy died suddenly last November, and though we were irregular friends, I never got a chance to tell him how much I admired his steadfast belief in his own songs, his earnestness on record and on stage. He outlasted so many trends and kept on being his own true artistic self. One song of his, "Back to Zero Now," became a kind of anthem for Richard. It's got that minor open and the jangle of a Roland JC-120 amplifier, and that skippy middle eight; in a more just world, more people would know how to sing along to so many of Tommy's songs.

Aimee Mann, "Stupid Thing" and ‘til Tuesday, "Voices Carry"
Since all books are officially published on a Tuesday, what better way to celebrate publication day than by making the rest of this list into a set of FM-radio inspired "two fors". "Stupid Thing" makes the cut if only for the lyric, "there was nothing to say/but you said something anyway." That's Richard at the beginning of the novel, on a somewhat unremarkable New Year's Eve. As for "Voices Carry," the original demo had Aimee Mann singing about a woman, something that the band's record label couldn't stomach in the mid-1980's. But once I read that anecdote, the song made more sense, being as it is about shame and fear and the public personas that we all attach to ourselves.

George Harrison, "Blow Away" and "All Things Must Pass"
One of the lesser hits from George's solo career, "Blow Away" reminds us how the spiritual Beatle devoted his post-mania life to finding joy and peace. There's joy coming for the people who survive this book, though they may not be aware of it in its pages, and it may not be the kind of joy they expect. Even in the melancholia of George's solo debut, that joy is there, too, albeit in muted tones. "All Things Must Pass" reminds us, "it's not always going to be this gray."

Squeeze, "Black Coffee in Bed" and Glenn Tilbrook, "By the Light of the Cash Machine"
The Richard MacMurray of this book first appeared in a short story I wrote in 2001. He has a different last name, and a different job, but many of the same problems and certainly the same jaundiced world view. The story was about his marital troubles, and isn't that what every Squeeze song is about? In the very first iteration of this novel, Richard's entrance line was stolen from another Squeeze song, "I've Returned." Incidentally, the next time you fall into a YouTube hole, find yourself a 2017 live version of "Black Coffee" like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FvVeiCgVRU. In it, you'll find a vital band that has survived, and a song morphed from a nicotine and cigarette elegy into a Motown-inflected stomp that hints that maybe all of us can be survivors. "By the Light of the Cash Machine" is a little more obscure; it's the B-side to a single from Tilbrook's first solo album, The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook. "With me/everything is turning out to be/a kind of slapstick tragedy," sung in that inimitable Tilbrook voice, combining humor and pathos into an infectious little two-and-a-half-minute pop gem that would have fit right in between the Beatles and the Kinks in 1965, if only they'd had ATMs to write about way back when.

Marshall Crenshaw, "You're My Favorite Waste of Time" and "A Hundred Dollars"
There's a scene towards the end of the book where Richard and his love interest Cadence throw snowballs at each other in the aftermath of an unexpected winter storm. It was meant to be innocent and romantic and one of those moments when the gentle kindness of another person temporarily lifts the cloud that surrounds us. True story: I once had a massive crush on a pair of girls, best friends, our alliance cemented by the fact that the three of us were singing along with whatever Marshall Crenshaw song wafted out into the street as we waited to get into the only bar with a full liquor license in the small town where I went to college. Our recollections differ as to what song we were singing; I like to think it was the part in "Hundred Dollars" where Marshall sings, "A fine one beside me/this is what I dream of/I've got a hundred dollars/let's fall in love." In those days, happiness was a new pair of jeans and a crisp white shirt for a night out. Maybe it still is.

George Michael, "Father Figure" and Terence Trent D'Arby, "Sign Your Name"
These are Richard's songs. There's a sense of restraint in both of these, but also urgency. I like the idea that Richard has been so immersed in his work, so ruined by his divorce, that his idea of romantic music is more than a decade out of date. The woman who plays the model in the George Michael video was married to and then divorced from a guy who attempted to become a cacao mogul and failed spectacularly. That seems like a novel in and of itself. As for Terence Trent D'Arby, king of the "whatever happened to" article, well, the wail that he offers in the final third of this song gives me chills, both on cassette then and iTunes shuffle now.

Roxy Music, "Re-Make, Re-Model" and "In Every Dream Home, A Heartache"
The song where Bryan Ferry sings, "I can talk talk talk talk myself to death/but I believe I would only waste my breath." A theme song for the budding television pundit. And in the other half of the two-for, a somewhat on-the-nose title for a song that hints at the darkness behind all those perfect suburban facades.

Wall of Voodoo, "Lost Weekend"; Stan Ridgway, "Drive She Said"; and a bonus track, Andy Prieboy "Blackboard Sky"
There's a poignancy on "Lost Weekend" that maybe isn't present on the other Wall of Voodoo tracks, but this song always felt to me like the indicator of where Stan Ridgway's songwriting could have taken the band had he stayed. It's a narrative, and whether it's in a novel or a poem or a three-minute pop song ("Young Turks" by Rod Stewart, anyone?) I am a sucker for a good narrative. In an undergraduate fiction workshop with Mary Hazzard, I unpacked this song and molded it into a 35-page short story about a couple on the verge of breaking up; they head to Vegas for a weekend, driving Interstate 15 through Barstow in the bake of the desert, with only the girl knowing that she planned to murder and rob her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. They run out of money, steal a gold Rolex off the wrist of a pit boss, reconcile in a lobby bathroom at the Frontier Hotel. It was Raymond Chandler plus Raymond Carver and it was truly awful. Still love the song, though. "Drive She Said" is another one of those four-minute film noirs, about a cab driver whose taxi unwittingly used as a getaway car. For a lot of punk and new wave kids, Andy Prieboy is only known as the guy who replaced Stan Ridgway in Wall of Voodoo. But he's a highly literate, cynical, inventive musician, equally at home in the medium of Bertold Brecht-influenced stomps as he is in punk rock. "Blackboard Sky" is ostensibly about suicide, but if I ever get to make a television series, Andy's solo voice and piano version will be on the soundtrack. Like the early Wall of Voodoo versions of Ennio Morricone's movie scores, Andy writes film music too.

Daryl Hall and John Oates, "So Close" and "Wait for Me"
I suppose it's become sort of marginally hip to admit that you like Hall and Oates, but I've never lost my affection for them. What I hear when I listen to Hall and Oates is men on street corners singing four-part harmony around a fire in a garbage can, the AM soul hits of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sounds of my sister's 45rpm records on her Sears portable stereo with detachable speaker. "Yeah a man loves a woman/but he can't understand/why she's said when she stares/at the ring on her hand/or she sits in some club/where the long shadows fall/drops a coin in the jukebox/not the phone on the wall." If "So Close" is Cadence's song, "Wait for Me" might be Richard's response to her call.

Lloyd Cole, "I Tried to Rock" and "To the Church"
There's a live clip of "I Tried to Rock" where Lloyd introduces the song by saying, "Everything in this song, everything, is true." Such as, "I grew my hair/My walls were bare/I had one red wine glass/ It was self-fulfilling." Three minutes plus of such truths. A much shorter truth can be found in "To the Church," from his 1990 solo debut. "I'm looking for a religious girl/With child-bearing hips and a wedding veil/But I'm saddened to report sir, it's not easy/This town is full of those cynical girls/Walking two steps behind their forty-five-year-olds." Lloyd wrote it about New York, but it's Richard MacMurray's DC too.


X, "4th of July" and Ryan Adams, "New York, New York"
This may seem an odd pairing, but these two songs are forever linked in my mind. Two scenes in the novel take place on the Fourth of July, including maybe the only thing from the book that I lifted in its entirety from my own life: Richard's memory of his father, listening to Chuck Thompson broadcast the Orioles while sitting in the backyard, drinking beer, smoking a cigar in a vain effort to keep the mosquitoes away. Ryan Adams ends up here for the video to New York, New York, shot on September 7, 2001, a reminder of the New York skyline still in its familiar wholeness, truly one of the last days when the American skyline still shimmered in its brilliantine wholeness.


Steve Kistulentz and Panorama links:

author's website
author's Wikipedia page
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

Bloom interview with the author
Red Carpet Crash interview with the author
Shelf Awareness interview with the author
Tampa Bay Times profile of 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

Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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