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May 22, 2018

Daniel Gumbiner's Playlist for His Novel "The Boatbuilder"

The Boatbuilder

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.

Daniel Gumbiner's novel The Boatbuilder is a brilliant debut of addiction and coastal California life.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"[Gumbiner] allows his characters and small-town setting to shine in this beautiful novel about finding one’s place, no matter how small, in the world."


In his own words, here is Daniel Gumbiner's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Boatbuilder:


I wrote this book over a period of two years, when I was living in Berkeley and then Oakland, CA. Around that time my friend Wiley bought an old school bus from a river rafting company in Sonora, ripped the seats out, and turned it into a tiny, roving music venue. A group of our friends began playing shows regularly on the bus and over time, a collective formed. They called themselves Splendor All Around and they toured together all over the west, from Los Angeles to Orcas Island, playing shows in backyards and living rooms and bars, but for the most part, playing shows on the bus, which had surprisingly good acoustics and could fit about twenty people comfortably, though it often fit much more than that, uncomfortably.

In April of 2015 I tagged along with a tour for several days, in my own car. I drove through the night with my friend Zack to meet up with the bus, which had left days ago, and was already in Joshua Tree. We listened to a late-night radio host as he rambled about “the alien conspiracy” and we drank multiple Five-Hour Energys to stay awake.

“Juiced it,” we would say, whenever we finished a Five-Hour Energy. I can’t remember why we started saying that. It was funny to us. It was 4 am and we were wide-awake and flying across the state.

When we got to the desert the sun was already rising. The bus was parked outside Pappy and Harriet’s bar, where the musicians on the bus had played the night before. We slept in the parking lot at Pappy and Harriet’s for a couple hours that morning, and then, along with the bus, we headed to the National Park, where we planned to camp and celebrate our friend Derek’s birthday, though Derek didn’t want to be the center of attention and kept insisting that it was, in fact, everyone’s birthday that day. Derek is wonderful guy, a real-life cowboy farmer from the Shenandoah Valley who once taught me how to clip a goat’s toenail. You’ll hear a song of his on the playlist below.

Anyway, there’s much more to this story that will probably be told at a different time. There’s a story about me realizing I was in love again and a story about wandering around the desert on acid that is, really, more like a million stories, but for the purposes of this Largehearted Boy intro, the relevant part of this story is that we all ended up hanging around the fire pit that night to celebrate Derek (everyone), drinking whiskey and beer, all the musicians passing around their instruments and playing each other’s songs. This is definitely the best way to listen to music, I remember thinking: drunk and maybe still on acid a little bit and out under the stars in the desert with friends.

If you read the book after reading this intro, you will likely notice the appearance of the fictional Splendor All Arounders. Their role in the story is a minor one, but when I was asked to construct a playlist that related to the book, that night in Joshua Tree came to mind. These songs remind me of the time when this book was first coming to life, and so, for this playlist, I’ve drawn exclusively from recordings made by members of the collective. Their work inspired me then and continues to inspire me now. OK, enough talking, time for the good stuff.


1) James Wallace and the Naked Light, “The Wire (Reprise) / Kicked Down the Road”

James Wallace (now known as Skywayman) is a musician based out of Nashville, Tennessee. This song of his is the only song from the playlist that actually appears in the book. To me, its themes of resilience and reinvention resonate with the primary questions the novel explores. What do you do when something keeps coming at you and you can’t stop it? Berg, the main character of the story, struggles with chronic pain and addiction. He moves to a remote town in Northern California in order to recover, but his pain and suffering continue to dog him. “If you chase me I’ll run,” James sings in this song, “I’ll run into the darkness or the fire I won’t run forever.” There’s so much wisdom and steely self-knowledge in that line. It’s brave to admit that you will run from something, that you’re not invincible or fearless, and it’s powerful, at the same time, to say you won’t run forever, that you know you have the strength to survive, if you are pushed far enough. I think of those lines at the end of Alejandro Zambra’s story “National Institute” where the speaker is facing down his tyrannical teacher, but does not feel afraid. “Because I spoke softly, but I was strong,” Zambra writes. “Because I speak softly, but I’m strong. Because I never shout, but I’m strong.

2) Salt Suns, “Everything I Want Takes Long”

I’ve been listening to Dylan Flynn’s music since I was a teenager (and he was a teenager), when my girlfriend gave me a mix with two of his songs that he likely recorded in the basement of his mother’s house. Dylan’s a blacksmith and a sawyer now and lives out in West Marin, where he performs with his band, Salt Suns. Like the speaker in this song, most things Berg wants in the book take a long time. He begins apprenticing with a boatbuilder named Alejandro, captivated by his work and the world he has created. Berg wants to be like Alejandro, but pretty quickly realizes that this will take a long time—and perhaps never happen. What does it take to make peace with that? To recognize that everything may take long, and there’s no way around it?

3) Mikayla McVey, “BREAK EVERYTHING IN SIGHT”

I think this is the only song in which I’ve ever been quoted. You’ll have to guess what my line is.

4) Oil Derek, “If I Was a Crow”

This is a very old track from Derek (who performs as Oil Derek), but one that I always come back to. I doubt Derek remembers this, but one day, at my old house in Berkeley, I came downstairs and found Derek hanging out with a couple of my roommates. He asked me what I’d been doing up there and I told him I was working on my novel. “God damn,” he said. “I can’t wait to read that book.” At a time when I was just starting out, when I had no idea if I’d ever finish, it meant a lot to hear that. The early days of this project were fragile and unpredictable. At one point I scrapped the entire first half of the book and rewrote it from the beginning. I’m grateful to those who stood by me in those days and supported my work, with gestures large and small. A book is, in many ways, treated as the product of an individual’s mind, and to a certain extent it is, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you do nothing all on your own. So thank you, Derek.

5) Pancho Morris, “I Am Me”

Pancho is the Draymond Green of Splendor All Around. He galvanizes the group with his with energy, edge, and confidence. He’s the team’s beating heart but he also pushes things too far, on occasion, and falls afoul of the refs. One of the things I love about Pancho, though, is that he’s always onto himself, as you can see in this song. I see it as an interrogation of what it means to love him and what it means for him to be loved and god damn, it’s moving.

6) Rebecca Marcyes, “Make Love, Not Excuses”

Rebecca Marcyes is a poet, singer, and reluctant Californian. Her songs are always honest and very smart and this one is no different. “Stay here tonight you big baby,” she sings. “Do just what’s frightening you.” I love that line—the way it calls out her lover’s fragility but also calls them in. Writing about Berg’s lover, Nell, was one of the most challenging parts of writing the book. When you’re writing about a relationship it’s tremendously easy to start saying generic shit—or, even worse, to become self-conscious of the fact that you are saying generic shit and start writing excruciatingly specific stuff that is boring and has no feeling. Somehow how Rebecca always gets it right, that balance of crisp, real detail, mixed with genuine emotional insight.

7) Big Kitty, “May”

Big Kitty, a.k.a. Clark Williams, is a singer-songwriter and sometimes karaoke DJ from Chattanooga Tennessee. Everyone deserves a Big Kitty in their life.

8) Dave Deporis, “I’m an Adult”

Dave Deporis was a friend and bus musician who performed at some of Splendor’s earliest shows and played a major part in Splendor’s most recent tour in 2017. Three days after the conclusion of that tour, he died suddenly and unexpectedly during a botched robbery. His death was extraordinarily tragic and shook the whole community. I’ve always loved this song of his, which speaks, I think, to the strangeness of waking up and finding out that you’re an adult, even though it’s not what you thought it would feel like. When Tayari Jones read the book she told me she thought it was “a coming of age story for a new generation.” Berg isn’t eighteen and coming into adulthood, he’s squarely in adulthood. He has held down jobs and had relationships but he has never had to answer certain core questions about how he makes sense of the world. And, as Tayari smartly noted, I think that’s been a common experience for many in my generation, who have been ruthlessly trained to achieve—and who are very skilled at achieving—but who have not been taught how to reckon with challenges that do not respond to straightforward effort. Why am I doing what I am doing? How does one deal with issues that cannot be triumphed over? How does one make sense of that? These are some of the questions the book grapples with and something we all grappled with, too, I should say, in the wake of Dave’s death. A number of people are working to produce and release Dave’s unpublished material in a way that honors his work and spirit. You can learn more and donate to the cause at davedeporis.com.


Daniel Gumbiner and The Boatbuilder links:

the author's website

Ploughshares review


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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