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June 25, 2009

Book Notes - Ron Currie, Jr. ("Everything Matters!")

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

Ron Currie, Jr.'s novel Everything Matters! has received many kudos, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, with surely many more to come. The novel impresses with its unconventional narrative and often implausible situations that Currie pulls off somehow like a literary magician, but its true charm lay in the well-wrought characters. Their life stories evolve and intertwine as each gets a chance to narrate in this apocalyptic tale.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"What these opening passages also announce is that Mr. Currie is a startlingly talented writer whose book will pay no heed to ordinary narrative conventions. His thoughts on cosmic doom somehow take the form of a joyride. He survives the inevitable, apt comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and writes in a tenderly mordant voice of his own. He seems equipped to succeed at almost anything, in fact, except giving his books decent titles."

In his own words, here is Ron Currie, Jr.'s Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Everything Matters!:

Everything Matters! is the story of Junior Thibodeau, who's born knowing that the world and everyone on it will be done in by a comet thirty-six years after he shuffles onto this mortal coil. Naturally, this knowledge has a considerable effect on how Junior apprehends his life and the people in it, and usually that effect is not a positive one. As a child he is quiet and bookish, a loner, refusing to establish connections with other people (even his family) in order to avoid the inevitable pain of losing them. That is, until he sees Amy, a transfer from the Catholic school across town, in junior high gifted and talented class. It's love, instantaneous and absolute, but their meeting is set against the backdrop of the Challenger explosion, which turns out to be an evil harbinger. What follows, in part, are baseball, booze and drugs, domestic terrorism, government agents stretching the boundaries of the Patriot Act, interstellar emigration, and finally a conclusion that I won't ruin except to say that it completely reconfigures everything that Junior thought he knew about the Universe and his place in it.

The story unfolds in alternating points of view, and everyone gets a turn to tell things as they see them: Junior, his mother and father, his brother Rodney, Amy, and the voice Junior hears in his head, the same mysterious entity that informed him of the looming end of all things.  That in mind, I've put together a playlist of songs that reflect the character's personalities and place in the story, as well as a couple of tunes that are evocative of certain prominent points in the plot.  

In the Morning of the Magicians--The Flaming Lips
The book opens with a line from this song that encapsulates the simple yet enormous dilemma that Junior's knowledge presents:  "What is love, and what is hate/ and why does it matter?"  In the Morning is a gorgeous exploration of the frailty of human endeavors in the face of the Universe's enormity and indifference.  

John Sr.: We Used to Vacation—Cold War Kids

Junior's father, John Sr., is among the last of a dying breed—taciturn American men on the wrong side of the economic divide who work their asses off and open their mouths rarely (usually when they do open them it's to pull their own teeth with a pair of pliers to spare the expense of seeing a dentist). Men who love their families and devote their lives to providing for those families, but for whom the idea of expressing their love verbally is as anathema as the notion of not showing up for a shift. Of course these men do have interior lives, despite their silence, and We Used to Vacation by Cold War Kids perfectly captures John Sr.'s. He's been to war and struggled with booze ("I promised to my wife and children/ I'd never touch another drink as long as I live") and now is a rock-solid family man, but he still has plenty of demons to struggle with—he just chooses to do it quietly. There's the strange, creeping discomfort that often accompanies domesticity ("I'm just an honest man/ provide for me and mine/ I give a check to tax-deductible charity organizations/ two weeks' paid vacation/ won't heal the damage done") and the fury he seems to have been born with, checked at all times, but just barely ("Punched the Nichols boy/ for taking his seat/ he gets all that anger from me"). In some essential way his stiff upper lip is just a put-on—he's human, and thus flawed, subject to the same fatigue and frustrations that plague us all, but he convinces himself to carry on eternally, always trudging forward into life's headwind ("Still things could be much worse/ natural disasters/ on the evening news/ still things could be much worse/ we've still got our health/ my paycheck in the mail").
Debbie: Sullen Girl--Fiona Apple

She's neither sullen nor a girl, but Debbie, Junior's mother, shares a lot in common with the narrator of Apple's song.  She's anxious and sad much of the time ("Days like this I don't know what to do with myself/ all day, and all night") and spends most of her time in the home she shares with her family, owing just as much to her fear of the world outside as to her devotion to her boys ("I wander the halls along the walls").  She has a two-pronged system for dealing with her bad head:  first, faith in and devotion to the God of her Catholic upbringing; and second, her burgeoning use of alchohol, which she hides, but not very well.  Eventually her drinking and fear produce in her a state not unlike catatonia ("It's calm under the waves/ in the blue of my oblivion").  Her problems can in large part be traced back to the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of her father, an abusive drunk who, as Debbie herself recounts, once tossed her into a river to teach her to swim, and later, when she was a teenager, would threaten her with a hunting knife for no reason other than that it amused him. 
Amy: Precious Things--Tori Amos

Amy's father beat it a while back, when she was very young, and her mother, who suffers from a slew of undiagnosed neuroses and personality disorders, has been knocking the crap out of her ever since.  But rather than making her cowed and insecure, the abuse has forged a tough girl on the verge of becoming a tough woman ("I wanna smash the faces/ of those beautiful boys/ those Christian boys/ so you can make me come/ that doesn't make you Jesus").  She refuses to abide by nonsense of any kind but still has managed to retain both her innate tenderness and her innate sense of humor.  Her toughness and smarts make her disdainful of the usual girl politics ("Where those pretty girls are/ those demigods/ with their nine inch nails and little fascist panties/ tucked inside the heart of every nice girl").  She loves Junior, of course, but as they move through high school and approach graduation it becomes clear that something is wrong with him, and she fears that he, like her mother, has some bad wiring in his brain.  Love notwithstanding, Amy won't welcome another crazy person into her life.  She's been planning to blow town and start over pretty much the moment circumstances allow, and Junior becomes just one more thing to leave behind as she crosses the country to attend Stanford University ("These precious things/ let them bleed/ let them wash away").  

Junior: Everything Means Nothing to Me—Elliott Smith
About halfway through the story Junior's living with his brother in Chicago, where Rodney has become the Cub's star shortstop. Junior, for his part, isn't doing quite as well. He's still mourning the loss of Amy and doing so in that most clichéd and unsavory of ways—drinking and drugging himself into a pre-verbal state every night. Having lost the only thing he cared about, and lodged firmly within the context of his terrible knowledge of the end of the world, he becomes the definition of apathetic, and as such could easily have written the lyrics to Elliott Smith's brief music-box composition, Everything Means Nothing to Me. The song isn't really about the words, though—the last third is just Smith repeating "everything means nothing to me" over and over as the simple piano line is joined by a rush of drums and strings, a sonic haunting that elevates what could otherwise be maudlin sentiment and transforms it into genuine heartache.
Reggie Fox: Burn Hollywood Burn—Public Enemy

Reggie Fox is Junior's best and only friend in Chicago, a mason from the South Side who lost his arms and legs to flesh eating bacteria and now harbors a king-sized grudge against life. Reggie was once proud and self-reliant, but since losing his limbs he's dropped into the same chemically-induced sinkhole that Junior's splashing around in. He's got a plan to get back at the world, though ("The joke is over/ smell the smoke from all around").  Of course Burn Hollywood Burn is a vicious rant about the way Blacks were portrayed in movies for decades ("Many intelligent Black men seem/ to look uncivilized when on the screen") and so doesn't really share much in common, thematically, with Reggie's situation, but what the two do share are a powerful sense of having been wronged, and a furious intent to settle those accounts. 

Love, Redux: Crazy on You--Heart

Okay, this one's sort of a joke, but in this chapter Junior and Amy have been reunited after many years and much trauma ("With bombs and the devil, and the kids keep coming/ no way to breathe easy, no time to be young").  And like the narrator of the song, they're looking to take comfort in each other's bodies ("But I tell myself that I was doing alright/ there's nothing left to do at night/ but go crazy on you").  Owing to recent events both their bodies are battered--Junior just got worked over by a couple of soldiers in a bar fight, and Amy was kidnapped and tortured by a government agent who believed she still had dealings with an old college boyfriend, a Lebanese citizen who eventually became a low-level officer in Hezbollah--and so their lovemaking, desperate as it is, also has a sort of wincing reluctance to it.  The important thing, though, especially to Junior, is that the two of them are finally together again, and because of things that have come to light in the interim, Amy no longer believes he's crazy when he talks about how the world will be destroyed, and when.  

The Multiverse: Another Place—Jeff Beck

This is the final chapter, and at its opening pretty much everything that can go wrong for Junior has gone wrong.  As a result he's more than ready for the Destroyer of Worlds, and at this point he doesn't have long to wait.  But through a strange celestial intervention--as well as Junior's belated understanding of how he is largely responsible for his own sadness--things are dramatically altered, and when the world does come to an end Junior and his family greet that end with a calm acceptance that comforts them right up to their last breaths.  Another Place is a brief instrumental, just two minutes of Beck leisurely picking and strumming, but the slow chords and mild, echoing harmonics capture the peace (and yes, the tinge of resigned sadness) with which the Thibodeaus "huddle together, silent and relaxed and fully awake, a warm package of humanity."

Ron Currie, Jr. and Everything Matters! links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (the first chapter)

Bookmarks Magazine review
Louisville Courier-Journal review
New York Times review
Three Guys One Book review
Village Voice review
Washington Post review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks