March 9, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
James Hynes fills his new novel Next with the social satire he has become known for. In the novel, his targets include middle age, consumerism, suburbia, and post-9/11 hysteria, and his protagonist provides the perfect foil through his Austin day trip experiences as well as his skillfully integrated flashbacks.
Next is shocking, smart, and one of the year's most important books.
Bookslut wrote of the book:
"In large part, it's a book about a guy obsessed with getting laid. And somewhere, somehow, in this narrative -- barely over 300 pages, barely over eight hours in time -- Hynes crafts the most significant and most profound fictional account of post-9/11 American fear, sadness and terror that the nation has produced so far."
My new novel, Next, is about a particularly important day in the life of Kevin Quinn, a fifty-something academic editor from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who travels to Austin, Texas, for a job interview. He's at a crossroads in his life, and as Kevin wanders the streets of Austin in the baking heat, the novel alternates between his reactions to the people and sights he sees at the moment, and his running mental review of his life so far. What follows is a list of the songs he overhears or recalls during his day in Austin, in the order in which they appear in the book. Some of them are songs that are being played, like the Austin airport or the coffeehouses where Kevin hides from the heat, and the rest are songs he recalls during flashbacks to his youth.
I wasn't working a day job when I wrote most of Next, so the research was easy: I'd just roll out of bed every day and walk through the part of Austin where I was going to send Kevin next. In many cases, whatever I saw or heard that day, I put in the book. As for the songs from his past, while Kevin is not an autobiographical character (at least, not by design), he and I are roughly the same age—I'm old enough to remember JFK's assassination, and Kevin's old enough to remember RFK's—and we come from the same middle-class cultural milieu. He grew up in suburban Detroit, the son of a mid-level auto company exec, and I grew up the son of a college professor in Big Rapids, a small mid-Michigan college town. The result is that we both have the same nostalgic boomer soundtrack running through our heads. Proust had his madeleine, and Kevin and I have Sticky Fingers.
"Miles and Miles of Texas," Asleep at the Wheel
This is the first song Kevin hears in the book, as he washes his hands in the airport men’s room. I’ve never actually heard this one in the Austin airport (which admirably plays Texas artists instead of the usual Muzak), but I wanted a straight shot of pure Texas right up front, and this is as Texas as they come. Pure Austin, too. Ray Benson’s a local hero, and I see him from time to time at my grocery store.
"Brown Sugar," the Rolling Stones
As I said above, Next isn’t autobiographical, but here and there I’ve given Kevin little pieces of my own past. This is the first song I ever danced to, at the Mistletoe Ball at Big Rapids High School, in December of 1972. It’s one of the few songs that will still get me on the dance floor, and Sticky Fingers is still one of my favorite albums.
"Snoopy vs. the Red Baron," the Royal Guardsmen
Not every song in the book is a good one. I actually heard this one day over the stereo in a very hip coffee shop in Austin, so I put it in the book, like found poetry. What the young, black-clad, scenester barista who played it was thinking, I have no idea. He wasn't born when it was a hit—hell, I'll bet his parents weren't even born yet. Me, I associate it mainly with junior high school, along with a lot of other crappy 60s pop like "Sugar, Sugar."
"Mad Dogs and Englishmen," Noel Coward
This pops up in a flashback of Kevin’s dad, who used to sing it in the car on family trips. In the spirit of too much information, I’ll reveal that I like to sing when I’m alone, usually when I’m driving or doing the dishes, and only when I'm pretty sure no one else can hear me. I tried to learn this, but it’s too much of a tongue twister. You need to be Noel Coward to sing this convincingly, and I'm not, so I don't.
"Help Me," Joni Mitchell, and "Stuck in the Middle with You," Stealer’s Wheel
There’s a long scene in the book set in a National Chain Organic Grocery, and I needed some generic boomer Muzak. I’ve heard both these songs over the speakers in a very similar establishment here in Austin. I've never been much of a Joni Mitchell fan, but I do like Gerry Rafferty.
"One for My Baby," Frank Sinatra
Like many people my age, I grew up listening to my parents listening to Sinatra. Not my dad so much, who preferred old-timey country music, but my mom was a big fan. When she was 18 or 19, in 1944, she and her best friend, Donna, hitchhiked from Lansing, Michigan, to see Sinatra play the Fox Theater in Detroit. (This story incorporates three almost unbelievable things: 1) my mom as a teenager, 2) my mom hitchhiking, and 3) my mom the teenaged hitchhiker screaming at a pop concert.) For years, all Sinatra was to me was that old guy trading embarrassing banter with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., on hideously bad 60s variety shows. It wasn't until I was in my mid 30s and I bought, on a whim, that big Capitol CD box set that came out in the early 90s that the scales fell from my ears and I realized that, all the kitsch around him notwithstanding, the man was a great singer of great songs about adult stuff like passion, melancholy, and regret. Now he's one of my three favorite performers (along with Richard Thompson and Randy Newman), and yes, I sometimes sing this song, very wistfully, while I'm doing the dishes.
"By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and "Lida Rose"
Another bit of my past that I gave Kevin was to make his father, like mine, an active member of SPEBQSA, or the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. Kevin recalls, as I can, hearing his dad and his buddies rehearsing in the basement, harmonizing on old barbershop chestnuts like these two. He also recalls drowning them out, as I did, by playing Led Zeppelin or the Stones very loud in his headphones. "Lida Rose" is actually from The Music Man, and my mom used to play the original cast album all the time, which means, like it or not, I know the words. When I'm not channeling Sinatra over the kitchen sink, sometimes I channel the Buffalo Bills, who were barbershop superstars once upon a time, singing all the parts myself, "Lida Rose, oh, Lida Rose, oh, you put the sun back in the skyyyyyy…."
"The Streets of Laredo"
More flashback nostalgia. Kevin recalls hearing this from his grandfather's Sons of the Pioneers LP; in my case, my dad taught me the words, as well as the words to other songs like "Bill Grogan's Goat" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad."
"Rock Lobster," the B-52s
One of the great party records of the 80s. I remember dancing to this in somebody's house on Jefferson Street in Ann Arbor one summer, and when the song slowed in the middle and Fred Schnieder sang, "Down, down," the whole living roomful of us slowly sank laughing to the floor in a tangle of sweaty, twentysomethings limbs, only to jump to back up onto our feet when the song got fast again. Today, if that same group of people sank into a tangle together, it would take us hours to get up again.
"What's Love Got to Do With It," Tina Turner
More boomer Muzak. I heard it in Kohl's department store while I was buying socks, so I gave it to Kevin while he was in a similar store. I still have the album on vinyl, in a box in my closet.
"Breathe (2 AM)," Anna Nalick
The only relatively recent song on this list. I almost never listen to pop radio anymore, but for some reason I heard this in the car a few years ago, and I liked it so much I pulled over and wrote down a bit of the chorus so I could Google the singer later on. Judging from her first (and so far, only) album, The Wreck of the Day, Nalick is a terrific songwriter, too, and (having Googled her again just now) I see that her MySpace page lists Frank Sinatra as one of her influences, so I live in hope of a second album.
Another heavy-rotation boomer fave, but a song that comes from one of my favorite bands. I saw them in concert years ago in Michigan, in the early 80s, at the Royal Oak Music Theater, and then again just last year, at La Zona Rosa in Austin. Over the years, Glenn Tilbrook has gone from being a beautiful, angelic boy English schoolboy with floppy hair to being a portly middle-aged hobbit with floppy hair. Chris Difford, on the other hand, looks exactly the same as he did in 1982, but then he always looked like a hobbit. But I love hobbits, being one myself these days, and they're as great in concert as they ever were, and maybe even better. I hear they have a new album in the works, which is very good news.
"Can't You Hear Me Knocking," the Rolling Stones
Also from Sticky Fingers, another dance party regular from my youth. My chief memory of it, though, is from a long road trip with my dad in the mid-70s, when he and I drove from Ann Arbor at Christmastime to pick up my brother at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It was after dark by time we got there, and after five hours on the road, we'd fallen into a companionable silence. As we descended a long, slow slope of freeway into the lights of the city, this song came on the radio, and I turned it up. It's a seven-minute song, and about three and a half minutes in, as the long sax and guitar solos began, I thought my dad the barbershop quartet singer might be getting annoyed, but when I glanced over at him in the dashboard light, he was nodding along with the beat. We listened happily all the way to the end of the song, and neither of us said a word. It's one of my best memories of my father, the two of us quietly rocking out to the Stones in the car, in the dark, in Pittsburgh.
"Wall of Death," Richard and Linda Thompson
From Shoot Out the Lights, another favorite album of mine. This song doesn't appear in Next, but as a jaunty folk-rock song about facing mortality, it captures something of the spirit of the novel. If they ever make a movie of Next—nobody will, but if they do—they should play this over the closing credits. It's sort of an upbeat gloss on a line from Kafka: "The meaning of life is that it ends." Or as Richard Thompson puts it, let me ride on the Wall of Death one more time.
James Hynes and Next links:
Austin American-Statesman review
Fiction Addict review
Library Journal review
Philadelphia City Paper review
Pop Damage review
Publishers Weekly review
Reading Is My Superpower review
Review Broads review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists