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June 1, 2005

Book Notes: Lee Martin ("The Bright Forever")

I have always been a fan of Lee Martin's short fiction, and was impressed by his debut novel, Quakertown. His sophomore novel, The Bright Forever is the suspenseful story of a young girl's kidnapping and the effects this tragedy has on a small town. Lee Martin masterfully weaves the tale through several voices, revealing the true humanity (both good and bad) in the community.

Here is the Book Notes entry by Lee Martin, in his own words:

So a couple of years ago, I’m in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to do a reading, and I’m telling my friend Vicky Santiesteban, a talented poet, that I’m working on this novel, The Bright Forever, about the disappearance of a nine-year-old girl, and it’s kicking my ass. Sometimes the writing gods and goddesses smile down on us because the next day, Vicky picks me up at my hotel and she happens to have Neko Case's Blacklisted in her car’s cd player. It’s the first time I’ve heard Neko Case, and immediately I’m taken with these haunting, gritty songs. They make me feel everything my characters are feeling in small-town Tower Hill, Indiana, in 1972: lonely and blessed, safe and threatened, loved and cast aside—a whole slew of contradictions that make up our common lot. “I like this,” I tell Vicky, and the next day, as I leave Florida for home, eager to get back to work on The Bright Forever, she has a gift for me: Blacklisted, which I listen to again and again while I’m finishing this novel about the missing girl, Katie Mackey, and the two men who may or may not be responsible, Raymond R. Wright and Mr. Dees. “I’m not saying I didn’t do it,” Raymond R. says as the book opens. “I don’t know.”

Raymond R., a drug-user prone to blackouts, and Henry Dees, a reclusive bachelor, who teaches math at the high school, are neighbors in the wrong-side-of-the-tracks part of town called Gooseneck. Katie Mackey’s family lives across town in an affluent neighborhood called the Heights. Little do the Mackeys know, when they hire Mr. Dees to be Katie’s summer tutor, that their lives will be forever inseparable from his and Raymond R.’s. “I still remember that summer and its secrets,” Mr. Dees says early in the book, “and the way the heat was and how the light stretched on into evening like it would never leave.”

Here are some songs mentioned in the book that I hope not only recall the time period but also underscore the essence of certain characters:

Roger Miller—“You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” and Daddy Dewdrop—“Chick-a-Boom.” Two novelty songs that Katie likes. The first one goes head to head with Alan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” in a game she plays with her friend, RenJe Cherry, a game called “It’s Gotta Go” where they have to make choices between things they dearly love. “Chick-a-Boom” is a song that expresses the joyful glee of summer vacation that Katie feels. It also happens to be the song Mr. Dees hears her sing one night as he hides in the alley behind the Mackeys’ house, watching. “I was always watching,” he says, “and you, you people who now can’t even remember my name, you thought you knew exactly who I was.”

Charlie Pride—“Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and The Stylistics—“Betcha by Golly, Wow.” Both these songs are ones that Raymond R.’s wife, Clare, thinks of in connection with him. The first is playing on the juke box at the Top Hat Inn the night she meets him. The second is one she hears on the radio, a song about being in love forever. Sixty years old, when her first husband dies, she fears she’ll be a lonely widow, and then Raymond R. comes into her life, and she’s so thankful for his company she ignores all the signs of his dark side. After Katie disappears and Raymond R. becomes a suspect, Clare says, “Do you really think I could lay down every night with a man I thought might do like that?”

Sammy Davis, Jr.—“Candy Man.” A big hit in 1972, this song is one that Mr. Dees sings along with, using a spatula as a microphone, as he prepares his breakfast, not knowing that Katie’s father, Junior, is at the door, watching. Junior has come to ask Mr. Dees to be Katie’s summer tutor. Later, Raymond R. whistles this same song on the morning that he sets out to look for work. He’s been fired from his construction job, but on this bright morning in July he’s full of optimism. In the case of both men, the song speaks of the happy life just beyond their reach.

Carole King—“It’s Too Late.” One day, Katie sneaks into her brother’s room and plays his Tapestry album and scratches this track instead of taking her books back to the library as her father has told her to do. That evening at supper, Gilley tattles on her, and she sets out on her bicycle to return the books. You can imagine the guilt he feels when she doesn’t come home.

Perry Como—“When You Were Sweet Sixteen.” This is a song that Katie’s mother, Patsy, recalls hearing on a long-ago night when she let Junior make a decision for her that she now regrets. As the search for Katie goes on, Patsy emerges as a strong woman willing to go to any lengths to get Katie back.

Finally, here are some songs that were with me as I was writing The Bright Forever, songs that evoke the characters and their story:

Joni Mitchell—“Chelsea Morning.” This bright and breezy song connects with the summer joy in the book before trouble disturbs it. “You have to know how wonderful it can be in summer in that part of Indiana,” Clare says. Later, Katie thinks of all the wonderful summer activities lying ahead of her: “That was the joy of summer. It was yours. You owned it.”

Neko Case—“Tightly.” This song, with its emphasis on the license to covet that darkness grants, evokes Mr. Dees’s obsession with the Mackeys and particularly with Katie. “You had everything I’ve always wanted,” he finally tells Junior. “You had a family—a beautiful, beautiful family—and I couldn’t look away from it. I wished your life were mine.”

Neko Case—“Stinging Velvet.” The repetition of “cold and shiver” in this song makes me think of the game that Raymond R. and Clare play, “Ray and Clare Own Paradise,” where they see how many names they can come up with for prosperity. “Names called outside the bright forever,” Clare thinks, recalling the hymn from which the novel takes its title. Small towns aren’t different from cities in one respect: wherever there’s a circle of light, there’s also someone standing outside it.

Lucinda Williams—“He Never Got Enough Love” and Drive By Truckers—“Hell No, I Ain’t Happy.” Both of these are songs that I can imagine Raymond R. liking if the book took place in the present time. The first because of his deprived childhood and the second because of the rage he feels.

Drive By Truckers—“When the Pin Hits the Shell.” This song makes me think of Junior Mackey, of whom his son Gilley says, “Here’s what I didn’t know: my father was a dangerous man. I’m not sure he knew that himself, but I can’t say that I blame him. He was doing what we all do—I’m sure of this now—living blind.”

Bonnie Raitt—“Nick of Time.” I think of Clare whenever I hear this song about a woman finding love just as she’s about to accept being a widow the rest of her life. “I’m not a smart woman,” Clare says. “Never claimed to be. But I know how to love folks. Even now after all that’s gone on.”

Bob Dylan—“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” No matter how blessed someone appears to be—Junior Mackey, for example, with his beautiful family—evil is never as distant as we would wish. “What no one knew was that in the weeks leading up to Katie’s disappearance, Junior Mackey, when there was nothing to keep him on the sunny side—no canasta parties, or basketball games at the high school, or home-staged talent shows featuring Patsy and Katie—found his heart seized and aching.”

Eric Clapton—“Tears in Heaven.” This beautiful song of loss connects with the Mackey family in the aftermath of Katie’s disappearance. “You can pretend that your life is going on,” Gilley says, “when really, all along, you’re trapped in a moment you’ll never be able to change.”

Lucinda Williams—“Blue.” A haunting song that compliments the mood at the end of and also captures the imagery of the blue sky, cloudless and bright, above this small town about which Gilley says, “That’s what we all thought we had in a small town in summer. Long hours of light. Lots and lots of time.”

Fanny J. Crosby—“The Bright Forever.” The 1871 hymn whose refrain I use as the epigraph of the novel:

On the banks beyond the river
We shall meet, no more to sever;
In the bright, the bright forever,
In the summer land of song

see also:

52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)