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August 16, 2006

Book Notes - Owen King ("We’re All In This Together")

With We’re All In This Together, Owen King showcases his talent through the novella and four short stories in this debut collection. King's insight into human character and inspired humor are most most evident in the novella, where collective bargaining, a pot smoking grandfather, and a teen combine with liberal causes like the stolen Gore election and Planned Parenthood to create the theme for one of the better pieces of short fiction I have read in some time.

In his own words, here is Owen King's Book Notes contribution for his book, We’re All In This Together:

At the risk of providing ammunition for anyone who found my book vulgar and disposable, I have to admit that there is no question about what album I listened to most while writing We’re All In This Together: Wingspan: Hits and History. There were other records I played a lot — Wilco’s A.M., Dylan’s Infidels, Tim Easton’s The Truth About Us, Beulah’s Handsome Western States, Elvis’ From Elvis In Memphis, The Pretenders’ The Singles, Chuck Prophet’s No Other Love — but I rocked Wings mercilessly.

And, Good Reader, I will not deny that Wings rocked me back.

How many times have I listened to Wingspan? So many times that my cat, Django, who sleeps in the corner while I write, even seems to hate it now. Upon hearing the first notes of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” he has been known to pointedly mewl at me.

The funny thing is that I don’t even like the album that much. I mean, it has some great songs, and some okay songs, and then it has stuff like “No More Lonely Nights,” which is transcendentally dreadful.

Thinking about it now, though, I’m fairly sure that it was primarily an issue of comfort. Writing is a nervous business; for the most part, your only supervisor is yourself, and that’s the same guy who ratified this ridiculous career in the first place. This is why the later works of Paul McCartney are a perfect soundtrack for writing — they are the antithesis of nervous. They are senselessly catchy, often amusing, and like the man himself, essentially decent, if a bit stoned.

The novella that constitutes the greater half of my book uses the 2000 election as a starting point for a story about a family whose deep-seeded political convictions are matched only by their deep-seeded dysfunctions. It’s also about a mysterious ROTC cadet, a terminal hedonist, the virtues and limitations of collective bargaining, and the frustration of not receiving your Sunday New York Times. I have a feeling that it might be more up John’s alley than Paul’s, but as with the Beatles, it was the Walrus who greased the wheels.

“We’re All In This Together”
Man We Was Lonely — Paul McCartney & Wings

This is an exceedingly silly song that mostly consists of Paul singing that exceedingly silly bit of locution, “Man we was lonely” over and over again, while the bass line follows along in the goofiest, most cheerful manner imaginable. Not to everyone’s taste, but I find it endlessly charming, and it comes to mind because the outlook in the song matches with the relationship between George, the story’s teenage narrator, and his mother, Emma. For as long as George can remember it’s been just the two of them, and while they was lonely, they did okay.

As George discovers, however, life — and family — is rarely as sweet as a Paul McCartney song. His mother has invited a stranger into their life, a windy oncologist and keeper of pocket dogs known as Dr. Vic. Given this development, all of sudden it’s only George that’s lonely.

"Kid" — The Pretenders

I love the opening lines in this one:
Kid, what changed your mood?
You got all sad
So I feel sad, too

This could be the inverse of that relationship, the way it looks from Emma’s point-of-view. Chrissie Hynde sings so tough, even her most sorrowful songs have this indomitable quality, and I hope there’s some of that in Emma’s character.

"Paranoia Blues" — Paul Simon

The other central character in the book is Henry, George’s grandfather, and a man suffering from a serious case of the Paranoia Blues.

Henry’s the place the story started. After the 2000 election I had a number of fairly anti-social impulses — I wanted to accost strangers, especially people who held the same sort of beliefs that I do, and demand that they explain why they weren’t as pissed off as I was about what happened in Florida.

So, I redirected all that outrage into Henry, a retired labor organizer, recently widowed and grief-stricken, at loose ends and with way too much time on his hands. In other words, just the sort of character who would act on his most anti-social impulses.

"Catch a Collapsing Star" — The Mendoza Line

In one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” he sings,
I’m loving you not for what you are
But what you’re not
It’s a brutal sentiment, anti-romantic, and disconcerting. How often in our lives are we forced to tiptoe a line between acceptance and capitulation? Sometimes it can be pretty hard to tell the difference, and that’s the trouble for most of the characters in We’re All In This Together. To put it in specific, timely political terms, Bob Casey is not to my mind much of a candidate for the U.S. Senate — his chief recommendation is that he’s not Rick Santorum.

But maybe it’s not as bad as all that. I love the Mendoza Line’s “Catch a Collapsing Star” for the way that it essentially turns the Dylan lyric around with the conclusion that
It’s our limitations that make us what we are

On my good days, that’s what I believe, and I hope the book expresses something along those lines. Because — if I may paraphrase Neil Young — as hard as it is to believe, even Rick Santorum has got soul.

“Frozen Animals”
‘Til I Fell in Love With You — Bob Dylan

There are fewer songs than you might think about dentists (“McTeague Blues” by Leadbelly is one of the few that comes to mind), so for this story I’ve reached for a favorite cut from Time Out of Mind. Set in the early twentieth century, the protagonist of “Frozen Animals” is an itinerant dentist named Pinet who travels to a remote cabin with two trappers to perform emergency oral surgery on a pregnant woman. And if the phrase “early twentieth-century dentistry” isn’t enough to send a chill up your spine, I should add that Pinet is also a nitrous oxide addict. Kids, you shouldn’t do drugs, and you should never — never ever — let people who do drugs mess with your teeth.

In the lyric of the song, I assume that Dylan is singing from the point-of-view of a character whose love for a woman has ruined him, but it could just easily be a drug that he’s in thrall to. I also dig the Daniel Lanois production, which filigrees the central riff with a nervous little piano and lots of distant, whining guitars.

Blood of the Lamb — Billy Bragg and Wilco

“Wonders,” a baseball story set in Coney Island in the 1930’s, seemed to call for a song with a touch of the carnival about it, and it’s hard to get much more carnival than Jay Bennett’s B3 organ on this track from Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. Meanwhile, the Woody Guthrie lyric is a creepy, vaguely apocalyptic warning:
Is your soul all spotless?
Is it clean as the snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?

Glad and Sorry — The Faces

This story is based on an actual experience I had as a kid: there was this tiny mall up the road from my house, a very old school mall, the kind that had plastic tiles designed to look like wood and where the bookstore sold almost nothing except greeting cards and teddy bears. Anyway, there was always a display in the mall’s central artery, usually a vendor selling airbrushed tee-shirts of wolves or homemade venison beef jerky or whatever — part-time businesses, in other words. But one time, there was a guy with a giant boa constrictor named Julius Squeezer, and for a reasonable price you could have your photo taken with this enormous reptile. It was totally awesome.

What does this have to do with my favorite Faces song? Nothing too specific, but maybe because this is the only story in the book that’s really meant to be set in my hometown, and it feels closer for that reason. As for the song, I hold it particularly dear, because “Glad and Sorry” kind of sums up my worldview. Most of the things that make me glad also make me sorry. (In case you were wondering, I’m a f*cking joy to be around.)

But, on a completely different subject: has there ever been a more outrageously overlooked songwriter than the late Ronnie Lane?

“My Second Wife”
Hot Burrito #1 — The Mavericks

A cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers classic, I actually prefer this version, which features an absolutely gorgeous vocal turn by Raul Malo. In fact, Malo’s singing is so soulful it’s easy to overlook the lyrics:
You may be sweet and nice
But that won’t keep you warm at night
Cause I’m the one who showed you how
To do the things you’re doing now

That’s a particularly crisp way of saying that not only does your ex have a new boyfriend, but you just noticed that when she left, she took the Kama Sutra with her. Just as staring directly into an eclipse can blind you, visualizing the person you love riding the bare-assed trapeze with another dude can drive you totally insane. “My Second Wife,” ostensibly the story of an ill-advised road trip, is basically a demonstration of this principle — the main character, Stan, has let his cuckold’s imagination all but incapacitate him.

see also:

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