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March 6, 2019

Andrew Ridker's Playlist for His Novel "The Altruists"

The Altruists

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

Andrew Ridker's debut novel The Altruists is a family drama both ambitious and intimate.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Beautifully written, with witty, pitch-perfect dialogue and fascinating characters, Ridker’s impressive, deeply satisfying debut is an extraordinarily insightful look at a family broken apart by loss and struggling to find a way back to each other and themselves."

In his own words, here is Andrew Ridker's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Altruists:

Before reading and writing consumed my life, I was what you might call a “music person.” I even had a short-lived career as a DJ in high school, which culminated in my aiding and abetting a girl in the temporary theft of her parents’ sound system. They—her parents—were having sex when we “broke in”; I’m not sure either of us ever recovered.

The following songs all relate in one way or another to my debut novel, The Altruists. The novel tracks the Alter family—Arthur, Francine, Ethan, and Maggie—over decades and across continents, from Paris to St. Louis to Zimbabwe, as they struggle with money, morality, and each other.

“News” – tUnE-yArDs

In my imaginary film adaptation of The Altruists, “News” plays over the opening credits. I imagine the lyrics as a warning shot to Arthur, the family patriarch: I’ve got news for you, baby / I’m not going to stick around here anymore / if you treat me badly.

“Fuck Up Some Commas” – Future

Early in the novel, Arthur’s daughter Maggie hears a song at a party that she can’t quite identify. Later on, she hears it again, noting the artist’s “promethazine-and-Sprite-soaked voice.” That artist, of course, is Future. “Fuck Up Some Commas” was released in March of 2015, just when the novel’s present action begins. To date I can think of no better euphemism for spending money. The Altruists, which centers around money—who has it, who doesn’t, what lengths people go to get it—might as well have been subtitled, The Alter Family Fucks Up Some Commas.

“Where You’ll Find Me Now” – Neutral Milk Hotel

It’s easy for me to picture Ethan, cloistered in his Carroll Gardens apartment, getting drunk and listening to Neutral Milk Hotel on a very expensive sound system. Ethan would have been about twelve years old when this album came out, and he strikes me as the kind of guy who drags his angsty teen listening with him into adulthood. I know I did.

“Stoned and Starving” – Parquet Courts

I began The Altruists while living in Ridgewood, Queens, in an apartment that overlooked a giant pit, just as Maggie does in the novel. I’m a fan of Parquet Courts, and really anything A. Savage is involved in, but this track makes the playlist for its lyrics, which mirror Maggie’s situation almost too perfectly: I was walking through Ridgewood, Queens / I was flipping through magazines / I was so, so stoned and starving.

“Across the Great Divide” – The Band

All white dads love The Band, and I think Arthur would relate to this song’s blend of longing and (naïve) optimism. “Across the Great Divide” is a song about the American Dream, about seeking your fortune in the west—or in Arthur’s case, the Midwest. I can hear him humming it while writing letters to his semi-estranged children from the other side of that great divide.

“Mwana Wamambo” – John Chibadura & Sungura Boys

Sungura is a popular style of music in Zimbabwe. This cheerful track would have been released just around the time Arthur visits the country, and I can see it playing in the background during his early days there—before things go terribly, terribly wrong.

“Sally Can’t Dance” – Lou Reed

The soundtrack to Francine’s semester abroad in Paris circa 1974. She’d probably want to be Sally, carefree and worldly, falling down on the dancefloor instead of writing a thesis about phenomenology. That chapter also contains a reference to “Johnny B. Goode,” in tribute to the great Chuck Berry, who used to have a standing engagement at Blueberry Hill, a bar in St. Louis not too far from the Alter family home.

“Swan Lake” – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The creeping oboe that kicks off Tchaikovsky’s opera gets a shout-out in the novel, when Arthur, in a misguided attempt to relate to Ethan, takes him to a regional production of Swan Lake.

“Jack U Off” – Prince

While Arthur is in Zimbabwe, Francine takes in a roommate from her home state of Ohio named Marla Bloch. Marla is a bit mischievous, and ends up throws a “Freudian ‘Slip’ Party” for their psych student cohort. Lingerie/underwear only. Prince’s deliciously single-entendre “Jack U Off” is the song of the night.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones

The ultimate Baby Boomer hymn to disappointment and disillusionment. In a novel about thwarted desire, that hook—You can’t always get what you want / but if you try sometimes, you’ll find / you get what you need—seems entirely appropriate. I read recently that Trump used the song on the campaign trail. I’m not sure he’s ever heard the lyrics.

Andrew Ridker and The Altruists links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly review

St. Louis magazine profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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