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November 18, 2011

Book Notes - Joe Woodward ("Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West")

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Joe Woodward's Alive Inside the Wreck is the first biography of Nathanael West in over 40 years, and creates a vivid portrait of the man, the writer, and his work.

Bibliokept wrote of the book:

"It's rare that the literary critic, "showing a little plumage," to borrow a phrase from James Wood, knows when to remove himself from the text under discussion. Woodward's writing here dispenses with any airy rhetoric, cutting sharply to bone in telegraphic sentences and short chapters."

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In his own words, here is Joe Woodward's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West:

A writer is what a writer does, not what he means to do.

This is particularly true in America, of American writers. We are nothing if not practical, if not pragmatic. Even our spirituality is grounded in a literal Bible. This premise remained central to me as I researched and wrote: Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West.

My book on West is specifically suited for writers and artists. It is a narrative steeped in the practical, in the tracings left of a life on the surface of its inventions, in the discernible patterns of thought and behavior of the artist making art. Writing it was, as is reading West always is—cruel fun.

Alive Inside the Wreck traces West yearnings from his boyhood years of enthusiastic reading, to his college years of willful experimentation, to his adulthood devoted to moving from journeymen, to craftsman, to accomplished artist. And he did. Without a doubt, West's two novels, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), are among the most original and haunting American novels of the Twentieth Century.

We don't always like West, even when we read him. In a West novel the villain always wins. In a West novel, the grotesque is beautiful, and the beautiful, grotesque.

In the final year or so of my work on the biography, as I wrote, I listened almost daily to the violin concertos of Sebastian Bach. For me they mirrored the nervous energy I felt in trying to get the story right, in trying to get the words right. Listening to Bach reminded me that such work is not easy, but it is possible. The results can be beautiful—at least in parts. During West's lifetime one critic reviewing a novel of his wrote something like…his novel was, "…funny in parts, but the trouble is there aren't enough parts." Hmm.

Beyond Bach, a sensible playlist to accompany the reading of Nathanael West's life must be grounded in the era in which he lived and worked—the 1930s. The list must be composed mostly of VOICE, mostly of singer-songwriters who struggle with their odd attributes and inabilities and produce quite singular contributions. Their work must seem inevitable, even if full of effort. Certainly, yes, full of throaty effort.

"This Land Is Your Land" -- Woody Guthrie

An icon of individuality, of unique gifts both comical and serious, Woody Guthrie addressed through song the most serious of subjects aggravating America. He took on the elite establishment of American politics with his own brand of Oklahoma country twang. He wrote his own songs for his own voice. His influence on American singer-songwriters remains massive and diverse, from Bob Dylan, to Lucinda Williams, to Sheryl Crow, and so many others. Caught like West in the claw of the Great Depression, and in response to the overplayed and sugary Irving Berlin tune, "God Bless America," Guthrie penned in February of 1940 his populace anthem, "This Land Is Your Land." A song, on the surface, so simple it seems childlike, but just below is something else altogether. This is Guthrie reclaiming his America. This, too, was West's work.

"Dust Bowl Blues" -- Woody Guthrie

Recorded in April of 1940, the same month West married his first and only wife Eileen McKenney, Guthrie recorded his album Dust Bowl Ballads. One of its most engaging tracks is "Dust Bowl Blues." It works on the listener in the same way a spiritual does, simple, repeatable, but complex. It begins, "I just blowed in and I got those dust bowl blues." A ravishing nature is sung about in a comic twang. The wind has "Buried my tractor six feet underground." The wind, "It turned my farm into a pile of sand." The song seems inevitable, the trouble, biblical.

"Stormy Weather" -- Harold Arlen for Ethel Waters

Written for the voice of Ethel Waters, Arlen's masterpiece has been covered by nearly every jazz singer from Lena Horne, to Billy Holliday, to Kay Starr. It serves as a sweet anthem and metaphor for the horrors of the mid-1930s. It's a love song of lost. It's sung deep and throaty. It sounds to me from a period in American history when people dressed for dinner and drinks, right before leaping from the pool deck on the twenty-first floor.

"Strange Fruit" -- Abel Meerpol sung by Billie Holliday

Originally recorded by Billy Holliday in 1939 from a poem written by Abel Meerpol, this anti-racism, anti-lynching anthem is now part of the Grammy Hall of Fame. Also, covered by many others since 1939, Holliday's rendition is so amazingly troubling and raw and personal and plain it can be hard to listen to--and even harder to watch. The song begins:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

"Essence" -- Lucinda Williams
And if a modern female ancestor of Guthrie exists, surely it is Lucinda Williams. She is a singer-songwriter that West would have loved.  Williams is lyrical in word and raw and flat in her delivery.  She never appears to be pretending, acting.  She means every word.  This title track to her 2001 album Essence is a remarkable, drumming anthem of love-obsession, of love-gone-sour.
Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name
Shoot your love into my veins

Finally, if in a pinch and at a loss when reading West and his biography, you really can pick up anything beyond the 1930s from Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and David Bowie and feel the same sweet sadness of place and time.  You can hear our troubles and be soothed.

Joe Woodward and Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West links:

the author's website
the book's blog

Bibliokept review
GalleyCat post by the author (an interactive map of the Los Angeles of Nathanael West)
LitFest review

Huffington Post articles by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

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