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March 15, 2011

Book Notes - Jenny Shank ("The Ringer")

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

Every spring I try to read at least one baseball novel. Usually I reread Philip Roth's The Great American Novel or Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., but this year my choice was Jenny Shank's debut novel The Ringer.

The book centers on a police shooting of a Mexican immigrant and its effect on the families of the victim as well as the policeman. Told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of the victim's widow and the shooter, Shank achingly explores their family's differences as well as similarities. Both families' sons play baseball, eventually on the same team, and Shank's use of the sport as metaphor is crisply executed and refreshing.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"The author carries her novel to a believable conclusion, with skillful tightening of the emotional tension along the way."

In her own words, here is Jenny Shank's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Ringer:

One of my earliest musical memories is of listening to Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" on my Fisher Price record player when I was three or four. It captivated and frightened me, and the idea behind this composition—that a particular instrument and distinctive theme represents each character—made sense to me. I've always thought of the characters I create in this way.

I worked on The Ringer on and off for eight years, and music played a big role in creating the characters, in part because I was a music writer at the time I started the book—for six years I was the Denver editor of The Onion A.V. Club. When I was stuck on a scene, I'd go out for a run, walk, or drive and listen to what I thought of as my character's music until an idea came to me. I was often stuck, because the situations my characters were in are like nothing I've ever experienced. Music helped my imagination take me to places that I've never been.

Ed O'Fallon

Ed is a Denver police officer who carries out a no-knock warrant and shoots and kills the Mexican immigrant he encounters inside the house. But Ed soon learns that the warrant had been written for the wrong address. (This part of the plot was inspired by a similar incident that happened in Denver about ten years ago.)

"Glory Days" by Bruce Springsteen

I always thought of Ed as a Springsteen guy, and I could listen to just about any of the Boss's songs to get in the right state of mind to write Ed, but "Glory Days" is perfect. Ed, like one of the characters in this song, used to be a good baseball player in high school, until he blew out his knee. Now he relives his baseball glory through his sons, and gets just a little too excited when they play. His outbursts cause him to be demoted to coaching girls' tee-ball.

"Crosses" by José González

The somber mood of this beautiful song matches Ed's guilt-wracked emotions. He's been a dad, a coach, and a cop—an all-around authority figure—and suddenly his authority means nothing. "Don't you know that I'll be around to guide you/ Through your weakest moments to leave them behind you," González sings. That describes Ed's protective stance before all this happened. But now he's the weak one.

Patricia Maestas

Patricia is the Mexican-American wife of Salvador Santillano, the Mexican immigrant killed by Ed. Patricia is a Denver nurse, working full time and raising two kids. She and Salvador were living apart at the time of his death, in large part due to their cultural differences—he refused to stop sending money home to his family in Mexico and kept leaving Patricia and the kids for months at a time to visit his parents in Mexico.

"Going Through The Motions" by Aimee Mann

This song is about the moment when one person in a relationship realizes something is wrong. "Going Through The Motions" captures the unease that Patricia felt when she knew her marriage was faltering. (I love The Forgotten Arm, the Aimee Mann album that this song is from, because the songs tell a fictional story. Mann has explained that the album is about John, a Vietnam vet and boxer who meets a woman named Caroline at the Virginia State Fair in 1970. They run off together to escape their problems…but end up with more problems.)

"Open the Door" by Otis Redding

Otis Redding is Patricia's favorite singer. Patricia talks to him, even prays to him. In this song, Otis's lady has kicked him out, and he's trying to convince her to let him back in the house. Patricia was tired of Salvador leaving for months at a time to go to Mexico, and she changed the locks when he left once again. When she listens to this song, she remembers the moment when Salvador begged her to give him another chance. She's haunted because she didn't give him that chance, and feels responsible for his death—after she locked him out, he was forced to rent a room in the house he died in.

Ray Maestas Santillano

Twelve-year-old Ray is Patricia and Salvador's oldest child. He's a left-handed pitching phenomenon, and his talent puts him on a collision course with Ed, whose sons end up playing in the same competitive baseball league.

"Little Child Running Wild" by Curtis Mayfield

Whenever I'm in a creative rut, nothing is more likely to break me out of it than Curtis Mayfield's Super Fly. When I hear that album, I imagine entire lives playing out, full-blown scenes that have nothing to do with the movie the music was written for. The gorgeous, heartbreaking opening track captures twelve-year-old Ray's situation exactly at the start of The Ringer, when he's just found out his dad has been killed by police and he's angry as hell:

"Little child
Runnin' wild
Watch a while
You see he never smiles

Broken home
Father gone
Mama tired
So he's all alone."

"Hate It Or Love It" by 50 Cent and The Game

Hip-hop self-creation myth songs always seem to be among each rapper's best work, from Ice T's "O.G. Original Gangster" to Eminem's "Lose Yourself." "Hate it or Love it" is 50 Cent's creation myth, in which he takes us back to his childhood, when he was growing up "confused" with an absent dad ("probably out committing felonies"). His nana promises him a new coat if he passes at school, but that night as he tosses and turns, thinking about that sheepskin coat, somebody steals his bike. He concludes:

"Different day, same shit
Ain't nothing good in the hood
I'd run away from this bitch
And never come back if I could."

Ray feels a similar alienation and anger, and dreams of his talent making a path for him out of his present circumstances. The Ringer tells Ray's creation myth, showing how he evolved from a scared, angry kid into a formidable pitcher, known as Stingray.

Self-Motivational Music

Writing a novel is hard. You have to keep yourself motivated and focused on your story for years at a time. This song helped me accomplish that:

"El Dorado Sunrise (Super Chicken)" by Cee-Lo

Cee-Lo is such an inventive hip-hop goofball genius. I interviewed him for The A.V. Club about his first solo album, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, and we talked about this song. It's about his desire to break out and do his own thing—he sings, "These wings that I was given were intended to fly."

But he doesn't say that he's going to fly like an eagle or a raptor or anything grand. No, he's going to fly like a Super Chicken. (As my farm-raised mom tells me, chickens don't fly very well.) I love the humility in that. I thought I could try to emulate him, and write like a Super Chicken. You can't change who you are. If you're a chicken, you're a chicken. But you can aspire to become a super version of yourself.

Jenny Shank and The Ringer links:

the author's website

The Driftless Area Review review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

Craig Lancaster interview with the author
Entertainment Realm interview with the author
Huffington Post essays by the author

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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists