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May 2, 2008

Book Notes - Lee Martin ("River of Heaven")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Lee Martin is a favorite author of mine, and I was flattered when he became the fourth writer to contribute to this Book Notes series with a music playlist for his novel, The Bright Forever (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). One of the highlights of this series is that essay's inclusion in the paperback version of the book.

Martin's latest novel, River of Heaven, explores the weight of secrets with his characteristic eloquent prose.

In his own words, here is Lee Martin's Book Notes essay for his novel, River of Heaven:

The first time Largehearted Boy invited me to write liner notes for one of my books it was for my novel, The Bright Forever. At the time, no one knew that the book would end up being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction or that I would spend some wonderful afternoons and evenings chatting with book clubs. Inevitably, during those chats, someone mentions the fact that so many songs are referenced in that novel. This happens in all my work, most recently in my new novel, River of Heaven, a story told from the first-person point of view of Sam Brady, a sixty-five-year-old man, living with a secret in the small town of Mt. Gilead, Illinois. “You have to know the rest of my story,” he says at the end of Chapter 1, “the part I can’t yet bring myself to say. A story of a boy I knew a long time ago and a brother I loved and then lost.” With that, he sets into motion this tale of the death of a boyhood friend and what it brought to Sam’s life, particularly his estrangement from his brother, Cal. River of Heaven is Sam’s confession, and along the way, a number of songs underscore his involvement in a past wrong and his present-day journey toward redemption.

The McGuire Sisters—“Sincerely”

The beautiful harmonies of the McGuire Sisters speak of a happy time in Sam’s life. This is one of the songs performed on Your Hit Parade that Sam and his friend, Dewey Finn, sing on spring evenings in 1955 when they sit on the railroad trestle at the edge of town. “We were miserable at it,” Sam tells us, “but we didn’t care.” He and Dewey are just glad to be off by themselves, away from their homes and the noise of too many sisters and mothers and fathers arguing. One night, Dewey says to Sammy, “This is the place I feel the best. Right here with you.” Songs like “Sincerely,” and Doris Day’s “If I Give My Heart to You” speak of the tenderness between Dewey and Sam, two friends who are about to become more than that. One night as they walk down the alley behind their houses, Dewey takes Sam’s hand and calls him Sweetheart, a moment that rattles Sam. “I was scared to death,” he says to us, “because he knew the inside of me, knew it before I did.” A large part of Sam’s story, then, comes from his inability to make his sexual orientation known in a time period and a town where it was clear, as he says, “It was a wrong thing to be.”

The Sunnysiders—“Hey, Mr. Banjo”

This is the song playing on the radio inside the Finn house on the night the sheriff comes to tell the family that Dewey is dead. Just after 6pm, the B & O National Limited passenger train took the curve north of town, and there at the trestle lay Dewey on the tracks. The death is ruled a suicide, but as Sam tells us his story it becomes clear that the whole truth about that evening has yet to come out.

Burl Ives—“Frosty the Snowman”

At one point in the present time, Sam recalls how pleasant his life was before Dewey died, before Cal left town, before Sam’s father figured out he was gay and then shunned him. Sam remembers coming home on a winter’s night and seeing the Christmas tree lit up at the window and how he’d walk in and find his mother wrapping presents with the radio playing something like “Frosty the Snowman.” He remembers, he says, “what it was to have a family.”

Blue Suede Shoes—Carl Perkins

When I was working on River of Heaven, I listened to Carl Perkins religiously. Not only “Blue Suede Shoes,” but also songs like Boppin’ the Blues and Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby and Honey Don’t. Songs with backbone and attitude—jazzed up and sharp as a razor, as Sam’s brother, Cal describes the music, once he’s back in Sam’s life and telling him about his own and how he’s in trouble because he stumbled onto a militia group with a plot to bring down the Sears Tower. He needs a place to hide, and Sam’s willing because he hopes they’ll remember what it was like to be brothers. “Blood to blood,” he says, not knowing that Cal’s presence will lead him down a road of danger before he makes the turn toward redemption. The Carl Perkins songs helped me build Cal’s character, a man still out there on a tightwire. Perkins once described his music as “country with a black man’s rhythm.” It came out as rockabilly, and in River of Heaven, Cal is one of those men who was a rockabilly cat when he was a young man all jacked up and ready to go. A real tomcat who wore gabardine slacks with red flames stitched on the hip pockets, and two-tone shoes just right for dancing to Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis or Lefty Frizell at the juke joints. A few weeks ago, I started playing All Revved Up by Meat Loaf, and that song’s a kindred spirit to those Carl Perkins tunes, at least when it comes to the pent up heat they contain. Songs that capture the fever of small town boys all revved up and looking for the next best thing. That’s Cal, the man who walked out of his brother’s life because of what really happened that night when Dewey Finn died.

Joy to the World—The Christmas Carol (not the Hoyt Axton song recorded by Three Dog Night)

A good portion of River of Heaven takes place at Christmas in present-day time. Mt. Gilead has a holiday light display at the city park, and when Sam steps out one evening to take his basset hound, Stump, for a walk, he can hear the faint notes of that joyous Christmas song playing over loud speakers at the park, and he thinks about how he can hear the same music that people there are hearing. It’s a small moment but one that speaks volumes about Sam’s repressed desire to step out of his reclusive life and to seek the company of others. He’s been forced into a friendship of sorts with his neighbor, Arthur Pope, who seeks him out after his wife dies. Arthur has joined a widower’s cooking group, The Seasoned Chefs, and has tried to convince Sam to come to the Senior Center some evening to learn a new recipe from the instructor, a Martha Stewart wannabe, Vera Moon. To avoid the invitation, Sam says he’s going to build a new doghouse for Stump, a house in the elaborate shape of a sailing ship, complete with mast, crow’s nest, castle tower, and, at Arthur’s urging, cannon ports in case, as Arthur jokes, Seaman Stump ever comes under enemy attack. The doghouse catches the attention of the local paper, and a young reporter, Duncan Hines (as he explains, his parents had a sense of humor), comes to do a human interest story for a feature called “It’s Us.” People like Arthur and Vera and Duncan and Arthur’s sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, bring Sam out of his reclusive nature, but he has to be cautious because Duncan turns out to be an ancestor of Dewey Finn’s, and he begins to poke around in the story of his death. “I’ll be the one to stand up to the truth,” Cal tells Sam when he finds out Duncan is asking questions, “if the time comes when we need to. Until then, you keep your mouth shut.”

Scarborough Fair

It’s a long road of twists and turns as the story of Dewey Finn intersects with the story of Cal and that militia group. Of course, the danger that Cal brings to Sam’s life threatens all he’s about to gain from the company and affection of Arthur, Vera, and Maddie. One night toward the end of the book (I can’t give away what happens to whom before we get to this point), Sam and Vera and Maddie are listening to a cd of harp music, and one of the songs on it is this English folk song from medieval times, a song made popular in contemporary times by Simon and Garfunkel. Sam goes to sleep that night, thinking how content he is “in this house filled with love.” That gentle song, the haunting melody of a man asking to be remembered to his former love, speaks to me of everything Sam has to gain, but first he must make his confession, and by book’s end he’s ready to do just that, even though telling the truth about what happened to Dewey might just cost him what he’s come to count on most, the kind company of good people. “I’ll wait,” Sam says to us at the end when he’s contemplating telling the story of Dewey to Vera and Maddie just as he has to Duncan, “my heart in my throat, scared to death, unable to stop what’s coming, ready to give myself over, at last, to whatever bears down on someone—a man like me—from the other side of the darkest truth he can tell.”

The Far Side Banks of Jordan—The Carter Family

Sam’s journey in River of Heaven starts when he builds that doghouse in the shape of a ship, and little by little he works the story of Dewey Finn up to the surface. This song by The Carter Family, though it doesn’t appear in the book, resonates with the novel’s center, a story of what waits for us on the other side of this life and the mistakes we make in it. River of Heaven is about the cost of living a lie, the chains that bind us to our past, and the obligations we have to those we love. At the end of the book, after he’s told Duncan the real story about Dewey, Sam says, “Times like these I try harder than ever to believe there’s a kinder world going on somewhere else beyond this one, and, if there really is, we’ll all find it one day.” Earlier, he thinks about the ones who go before us: “I like to think the spirits of the dead keep watch for us, and when the time comes to join them, they shine a light to carry us across the river of heaven.” Dewey Finn waits for Sam in that other world, a place Sam prefers to imagine as one “where no one betrays friends or brothers, and there’s no one to hate, not even yourself, and nothing to regret, and no reason to live in shame.” For fifty years, he’s wanted to live fully in the world. River of Heaven is the story of his journey toward that end as he learns to believe himself worthy of giving and receiving love. A story of one man’s life in a small town and how an act from the past can determine the future. I believe that writing fiction is ultimately an act of empathy, and I like to create characters who are very different from me and then challenge myself to imagine what it’s like to move through the world inside their skin. That’s what I’ve done with Sam. I started by asking myself what a man might be carrying with him that would make building that elaborate doghouse something he’d want to do. Sam started talking to me, and I listened, eager to see what I could learn. Now, he’s waiting to talk to you.

Lee Martin and River of Heaven links:

the book's page at the publisher
the author's page at the publisher

BookPage review
Chicago Sun-Times review
Cleveland Plain-Dealer review
The Mystery Gazette review

Esquire profile of the author
Thacker Mountain Radio episode featuring the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)