Author Playlists

Mason Boyles’s Playlist for His Novel “Bark On”

“The coaches and athletes in my novel Bark On are charged off of noise rock and plucky folk guitars.”

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Mason Boyles’s debut novel Bark On startles with its inventive language and surprising turns.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

Boyles’s novel is an intense, hectic work with a terrific premise and lifelike, earthy characters that all easily express what drives them. The narrative shows a fervor for language and boundless energy…

In his own words, here is Mason Boyles’s Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Bark On:

I’ve always written in near-perfect silence. External rhythms disrupt my syntactic cadence, and lyrics distract from my own words in the same way that I can’t coherently speak while I’m listening. But music is still an integral to my generative process; I often have a song’s mood in mind when I imagine how characters might conduct themselves in upcoming scenes. The coaches and athletes in my novel Bark On are charged off of noise rock and plucky folk guitars. Ezra is singleminded and sheltered, torn between fraternal care and jealousy for his orphaned training partner, the teenaged prodigy Casper Swayze. Their eccentric coach Benji Newton drives them through sadistic workouts that seem to double as rituals. Ezra’s suspicion that Benji’s summoning something is confirmed when his Ma shows up in the midst of a starving chuff of coyotes with the clues to a dangerous family secret. The clash that ensues forces each of them to reform their conception of self and family.

“Mississippi Queen”

This one mirrors Casper’s mindset the first time he encounters—and drops—Ezra on the bike course at Ironman Chapel Hill. It’s bluesy, it’s deeply southern, the opening cowbell is abrasive. The riff is so brash, but the lyrics are undercut with desperation. That’s Casper, aka Mama’s Boy, aka Mama-less, aka the kid. The song’s final verse is a return that eludes completion; Casper is incapable of letting business be finished.

“Ball and a Biscuit” by The White Stripes

The story I hear in these lyrics is a guy trying to entice a lover into one last bender (“let’s have a ball…and get clean together”). He thinks he’s the shit (“a seventh son”), and he wants the soapbox to prove it to her. Benji’s head was in the same place when his antics imploded his stable of world-class triathletes. He gets off on getting people to listen to him. He wants people who trust him blindly enough to get woken up at midnight and sent out on a thirty-mile run without batting a heavy eye. There’s an addiction on both sides of that codependency. Both Ezra and Casper fall prey to it to varying degrees.

“Seasick” by The Jesus Lizard

This is running through Ezra’s head when he implodes at the end of a long training day, chasing Casper through a dirty patch of ocean. The insistent discordance is the sonic equivalent of swimming, biking, and running yourself into a state of overtraining. I love how David Yow transforms a single phrase through inflection and repetition. It’s desperate and dumb and pleading and stubborn all at once. So is the kind of preparation it takes to finish—much less race—an Ironman.

“Don’t Forget to Breathe” by the Melvins

The slow drip of this bass line matches Benji’s looping cycle of justification, craving, and aversion. The universal lens taken by the lyrics matches the epic scale upon which Benji envisions himself as a human toxin. King Buzzo’s refrain becomes delirious by the end of this song, which trickles off like the whispered chant of Benji’s failing spells.

“Mama Kin” by Aerosmith

Another raunchy guitar holding this number together. I bet this song was looping through Ezra’s head when he took off around the island to run out the cobwebs after his long coup in the hospital. The lyrics are optimistically confessional: “It ain’t easy/ living like a gypsy/ tell you honey how I feel/ I’ve been dreaming/ floating down a stream and/ losing touch with all that’s real”. Ezra’s head is in a similar spot on this giddy run, when he finally lets himself acknowledge that Casper’s become more than a training partner. 

“Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The ache behind Ma’s walkabout is summed up with this song. It sinks me into the resignation she must’ve felt leaving Ezra’s father in a Nepalese hospital, then leaving Doro in Lima to return to the hometown that no longer feels like one.


There’s a hopeful franticness here that aligns with Ezra, Ma, and Casper fleeing a media-and-coyote stampede en route to Ironman Chapel Hill. It’s a song about going out to look in. That’s the spirit of triathlon, a sport where you spend a whole lot of time covering distance by yourself.

“Nub” by The Jesus Lizard

A thematically heavy-handed but necessary pick. Aside from the amputation motif, the lyrics feel found or overheard in the way that your mind works in extremis. When you’re twenty miles into a marathon after a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride, it’s odd what ear worms you inevitably pick up from unaffiliated bystanders. Some innocent pedestrian is holding a phone conversation about an adverse reaction to cheese and the phrase milk proteins becomes your unwilling refrain for the next six miles of running.

Mason Boyles grew up in southeastern North Carolina, where he trained and raced as a nationally competitive junior triathlete until the tired caught up to him. He studied writing at UNC Chapel Hill, earned his MFA from UC Irvine, and is pursuing his PhD at FSU. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Masters Review, The Adirondack Review, and Driftwood Press Magazine, and received nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Bark On is his first published novel. He watches informative videos about hammerhead sharks, and enjoys mountain biking, surfing, and Jiu-Jitsu.

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