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March 26, 2019

Keith Rosson's Playlist for His Novel "Smoke City"

Smoke City

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.

Keith Rosson's Smoke City is a surreal, genre-defying whirlwind of a road trip novel.

Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:

"A brilliantly haunting tale of forgiveness and redemption even in the face of abject failure . . . Depravity and race meet in a powerful, profound, and lavish banquet for the soul."

In his own words, here is Keith Rosson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Smoke City:

For context, I wanna preface all of this with the crazy-ass plot in Smoke City, so here’s the back cover synopsis:

Marvin Deitz has some serious problems. His mob-connected landlord is strong-arming him out of his storefront. His therapist has concerns about his stability. He’s compelled to volunteer at the local Children’s Hospital even though it breaks his heart every week.

Oh, and he’s also the guilt-ridden reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner who lit Joan of Arc’s pyre in 1431. He’s just seen a woman on a Los Angeles talk show claiming to be Joan, and absolution seems closer than it’s ever been . . . but how will he find her?

When Marvin heads to Los Angeles to locate the woman who may or may not be Joan, he’s picked up hitchhiking by Mike Vale, a self-destructive alcoholic painter traveling to his ex-wife’s funeral. As they move through a California landscape populated with “smokes” (ghostly apparitions that’ve inexplicably begun appearing throughout the southwestern US), each seeks absolution in his own way.

Sooooo, with that said, I’ll start out by saying that I’m sure there are people that don’t listen to music while they write. Like people with a sense of balance and the self-control to not blurt out puns at every single opportunity, I’m sure those people exist in the world and stuff, I’m just not one of them. As someone who has spent the majority of his writing life doing work in the nooks and crannies of studio apartments and basements and shared spaces, places that are crowded with the sounds of other people living their own lives, music has long served as both a kind of salve and baffle. So there’s certainly that aspect of it – it’s a chosen noise, you know? But then, there are, you know, good songs.

Songs that are striking, that move you. Songs that help – sometimes almost subconsciously – mold the narrative and strike the emotional tone that resonates throughout a book. Songs can be magic in that way.

Writing Smoke City was tough. It’s a kind of genre-bending literary novel that incorporates ghosts, the remorseful reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner, Los Angeles, Portland’s gentrification, road trips, the hyper-inflated art market of the 1980s, alcoholism, the sudden death of loved ones, and the raw, undressed grief that can come with that. It’s also (hopefully) funny, raucous, a little irreverent, and scattered here and there with some joy. Point being, I wrote the novel over a span of years, in a few different cities, and it went through a great number of drafts. Meanwhile, music was always there. Sometimes there were songs to match the tone and scope of the book, and sometimes… well, shit, sometimes they just jammed and put me in a space that I wanted to stay in.

Sometimes a song is just really good, right?

“Hymn #101” by Joe Pug

I am a sucker for solemn, knife-edged folk songs, and I can’t tell you how often I come back to some of Joe Pug’s stuff. This is probably my favorite song of his. It’s a stark, chilling song, and the verse “I’ve come to meet the Sheriff and his posse / And offer him the broad side of my jaw / I’ve come here to get broke and maybe bum a smoke / We’ll go drinking two towns over after all” has served as the genesis for numerous stories or plot-points of mine. It just brings to mind these fully-formed, half-broken characters. Ragged, busted-ass men, maybe of diminished intelligence and definitely of diminished hope, vying for justice in their limited ways.

“Ain’t It Fun” by the Dead Boys

Mentioned solely because Marvin Deitz – the present-day reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage – is currently the owner of a Portland record store, and the Night of the Living Dead Boys LP is playing in the background during an early scene in the book. That LP – a classic, alongside their debut album, Young, Loud, and Snotty – is filed in the Dead Punks section. “A bonus,” Marvin tells us, “of owning your own record store: you could file them any goddamned way you wanted to.” Great song, and the live version stands up just as well as the studio one.

“La Blanche Biche” by Michel Faubert

Given that some of the book centers around Geoffroy’s life in 15th century France, I listened to a lot of Gregorian chants and choral music while writing this book. I find it soothing and also some of the flat-out loneliest music ever made. This song, “The White Doe,” from Faubert’s 2013 album Maudite Mémorie, is sung in French, and it’s just his voice unaccompanied by any instruments, and for all I know he’s telling knock knock jokes, but it hits all the same buttons.

“This Ole House” by Rosemary Clooney

This is the most buoyant, exuberant take on the gospel idea of mortality – the house being the body, and decrepit, and failing – that you will possibly ever hear. It’s a key theme in Smoke City, the fragility of life, and this song makes me wish I was in a band again so we could do a two-minute long buzzsaw punk version of this 1954 cut.

“Motels, Jail Cells, and Hospitals” by Ringers

Solemn, raspy, moving. Just an electric guitar and a voice. The title alone sums up much of Mike Vale’s life.

“Failed Imagineer” by Propagandhi

Sure, this technically came out after the book was released, but screw it. Vocalist/guitarist Chris Hannah’s lyrics encapsulate – brilliantly but in very few words, at least in relation to, you know, a whole book about the same concept – that notion of endless, cyclical sorrow over past deeds: “Back when the war ended your great grandfather handwrote / Letters of apology to all of those / Families of men who crewed that U-boat / Haunted 'til his death by that long night off the coast / Your other great-granddad came back from Arnhem / Transformed into a damaged and violent man / Never spoke of the slaughter he witnessed firsthand / This is the world I brought you into, man.” That’s really it. It’s a breathtaking song, a little over two minutes long, and captures so well the idea of men leaving regret and ruination in their wake, seemingly unable to fix it, or forgive themselves.

“Skinny Love” by Arms Aloft

Both Vale and Marvin/Geoffroy are moored in regret, particularly over a failed marriage in Mike’s case. This is one of the bleakest, best break-up songs ever penned.

“Quickstep” by J Church

I love J Church. One of the most prolific pop punk bands of all time – seriously, check em out via Discogs or something – songwriter Lance Hahn had one of the keenest ears for pop hooks ever. This album came out when I was writing my second unpublished (unpublishable!) manuscript, long long ago, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve listened to it since then. This is a go-to writing album for every single project that I tackle; it’s a perfect mix of crystalline punk gems and quiet experimentation. It’s both easy to ignore and rife with little bits that pull me back into the world. And when Lance sings, “Fuck this, my body: a trashcan / Woke up today with the shakes again / It’s 98 degrees and I can’t stand the noise / Living in a box and unemployed”, it smacks of both familiarity and a weird, recalcitrant, celebratory kind of fuck you.

“Second Skin” by The Gits

Closing things out, one of the most defiant songs about resilience and hope that I’ve ever heard. I’ve been listening to the Gits for twenty-five years now, and this song still gives me chills.

Keith Rosson and Smoke City links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Foreword Reviews review
HiFi Noise review
Kirkus review

Oregon Public Broadcasting interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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