Jeremy T. Wilson’s novel The Quail Who Wears The Shirt is inventive and filled with magical realism.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“A jaunty, magical realist tale…Reminiscent of Chris Bachelder’s fun satires…this is an engaging tale of self-realization…”
I don’t listen to music while I write, but music often finds its way into my writing. Same with food. Our brains are ill-equipped for multi-tasking, so I’ve heard, which explains why I can’t eat BBQ pork rinds and type electrifying prose at the same time. Perhaps it’s this absence during the creative process that accounts for the prevalence of both music and food in my novel The Quail Who Wears the Shirt, but since nobody asked me to write a list of recipes (onion pie, anyone?), you’re stuck with this playlist. The novel is very much about the South in general and middle-Georgia specifically, where I grew up, an area rich with music. (Damn, I write things like that and then ask myself, what area isn’t rich with music, dummy? Sometimes we’re just not listening.) Anyway, I wanted the playlist to coincide with some of the music mentioned in the book, of course, but I also wanted it to capture the tone of the book, its regionalism, and the difficulty of its main character, Lee Hubbs. So here goes.
“Whipping Post,” The Allman Brothers Band
I could probably create a whole playlist for this book with nothing but songs from The Allman Brothers Band. I don’t share Lee’s opinion of the brothers when he calls them “imposters,” but I didn’t fully appreciate their music until I left Georgia and got older and missed my friends and family and boiled peanuts. Their music takes me back home. So I interpret Lee’s opinion as misinformed at best and juvenile at worst (like so many of his opinions). Abbreviated versions of the song exist, but nothing beats the twenty-three minute live recording from their classic album Live at Fillmore East. Get you some boiled peanuts and settle in.
“Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash
If I’ve still got you after twenty-three minutes of “Whipping Post” then you are my people. Due mostly to his philandering but also his general self-absorption, Lee’s wife takes off and leaves him to take care of their two kids. He’s never been too involved with his kids, finding fault mostly, so when he’s tasked with singing his littlest a lullaby, all he can think of is “Ring of Fire,” because there aren’t a whole lot of lyrics to the song and they’re easy to remember. Love, indeed, is a burning thing.
“Another Way to Lie,” Hank Vegas
Me and my friend Chad were obsessed with R.E.M. as teenagers. I love Chad for many reasons, but getting me hooked on R.E.M. is up there. We were in a band together in college, where they let me play bass guitar even though I had no musical talent. He and his brother called out the chords to me while we played. We sounded a lot like R.E.M., if R.E.M had been hopped up on Big K Citrus Drop, Parliament cigarettes, and Waffle House. As an untalented bass player I had no musical future, but Chad did, and he released his first album The Things You Are in 2007 under the stage name Hank Vegas. The opening song is a little bit Petty and a little bit Springsteen, and it has a line that fits my main man Lee: “You could take out my tongue I’d just find another way to lie.”
One of Lee’s big problems is his severely diminished capacity for love. He has no heart. Or as articulated bluntly by another character: “You don’t love anybody.” Thus his pursuit of atonement for the quail he kills in an accident. (I guess I should mention here that this novel contains quail-people.) The victim went by many names, including Valentine, Clarence Hart, and Clay Corazón. All these heart-references are, in literary parlance, not-so-subtle subtext. Valentine used to carry around a backpack with Tenderheart Bear on the front, where Lee finds a tape of Neil Young’s After the Goldrush. A heart that can’t love is a heart that can’t be broken. But that’s a real problem.
“I Love,” Tom T. Hall
Now here was a man who had no problem with love. Tom T. Hall gave us this oddly particular list of adorable adorations. I also love bourbon in a glass, Tom! And really what’s a playlist for a novel about an onion farmer without a song that mentions onions?
“Buggin’,” The Flaming Lips
I wonder if there’s ever been one of these playlists that’s gone from Tom T. Hall to The Flaming Lips. Maybe I have blazed a new trail. Lee has an irrational fear of ladybugs, so when he comes home to find his house infested with them, he interprets the plague as just one more sign that the universe is paying him back for all his mistakes. “The buzz of love is busy buggin’ you!”
“JU$T,” Run the Jewels
As a way to atone for his sins with the hope that his life will stop peeling apart like one of his famous sweet onions, Lee sets off to find somebody who knew Valentine so that he might give them an onion pie. Problem is, Lee needs a ride, so he forces his best employee A.J. to chauffeur him around in his grandfather’s Cadillac DeVille. A.J. feels like he’s getting taken advantage of. He knows Lee’s not a fan of hip hop, so while they’re on the road he decides that’s what he’ll play on the car stereo. I think A.J. would play something pretty loud and pretty obvious, a song with a very clear message to get through his boss’s thick skull: “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollars.”
“Ole Man Trouble,” Otis Redding
If a genie poofed out of my speakers and granted me three musical wishes (for some reason I’m picturing this musical genie as Rick James), the first would be to place me in the front row of an Otis Redding concert. The King of Soul is another of middle-Georgia’s favorite musical sons. I prefer not to think about all the music that might’ve been had Redding not died in a plane crash at the age of twenty-six. Twenty-six! Lee says: “Otis could pine for a peanut butter sandwich, and your eyes would fill with tears believing his life depended on him nabbing the creamy treat.” And here’s one instance where Lee’s not full of shit.
“All I Really Want to Do,” Cher
When the clues lead Lee to a radio station in Statesboro, the manager, a man named Stack, tells him that Valentine used to deejay in the middle of the night and play nothing but Cher. Stack can’t stand Cher, but I love her, and so did Gregg Allman. And, yes, I do know it’s a Bob Dylan song. All Valentine really wanted to do was to be friends with you. Oh, and maybe steal some of your valuable musical equipment.
“Statesboro Blues,” Blind Willie McTell
After meeting a dead end in Statesboro, our hero has got the blues. So, yeah, this one’s pretty obvious. The Allman Brothers arguably have the most famous version of this song, but it was a different Georgia artist who first recorded it in 1928. Orphaned, left reckless and wild, done “this-a-way” by a “mighty mean woman,” not good lookin’ and goin’ away to stay. It’s not a recipe for an onion pie, but it sure is a recipe for the blues.
“Ramblin’ Man,” The Allman Brothers Band
An Allman Brothers Band pinball machine features prominently throughout the novel. As a player racks up points, the “ancient, dust-plugged speakers” spit out an homage to these pioneers of Southern rock. Valentine was a ramblin’ man, and the unfortunate accident that ended his life transforms Lee into a ramblin’ man, too. He must ramble all over South Georgia with the hope of absolving himself from his awful crime and his history of self-delusion. “When it’s time for leavin’ I hope you’ll understand.” Good luck, Lee.
Jeremy T. Wilson is the author of The Quail Who Wears the Shirt, a novel and the short story collection, Adult Teeth. He is a former winner of the Chicago Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction and has been named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. His work has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, The Florida Review, Jet Fuel Review, The Masters Review, Sonora Review, Third Coast, The Best Small Fictions 2020, and other publications. He teaches creative writing at The Chicago High School for the Arts and lives in Evanston, Illinois. www.jeremytwilson.com