April 20, 2012
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, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Kirby Gann's Ghosting is a dark, violent, and utterly captivating novel about drugrunning and addiction set in rural Kentucky.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Violent, bloody, and darkly beautiful, this is a fascinating novel depicting the seedy bottom of an America in decline."
My novel Ghosting is about running drugs in Kentucky during the nineties. It's about bad faith, the difficulty of acting with certainty, and what sorts of things are worth staking your life upon. The story is set in motion when a young man disappears along with a season's harvest of marijuana, and his younger brother is subsequently thrown into the task of discovering what happened to him; in the process he kind of abandons his own life and takes on more of the trappings of his brother's. And then the book is riddled with a bunch of other stories and subplots, too: the drug kingpin as father figure; an ex-addict who now leads a church centered on the prosperity gospel; the difficulties of eking out a living in a forgotten landscape. The music listed here comprises something of an imaginary soundtrack to specific characters, moments, and certain thematic moods.
Music is a fundamental pillar of my existence, and so when compiling this list I was surprised to discover how little actual music is referenced directly within it. This one is, though it doesn't appear until very late in the novel. James Cole Prather, our protagonist is on the cusp of discovery here, driving around Eastern Kentucky in the middle of the night with the grower Nate Crutchfield, who he believes holds a lot of the answers to the questions he has been pursuing. Crutchfield is kind of obliging and kind of not; meanwhile he sings to himself as they drive around these lyrics, which aren't identified in the book. Although it doesn't appear until near the end, the mood of the song and its sense of resigned desperation strike the tone of the book very well, and I listened to it a lot over the years it took to write the novel. My version is taken from the extraordinary box set People Take Warning, which compiles old recordings of Depression-era songs about death, destruction, and disaster. "Lord, the whole round country / Lord, river has overflowed / Lord, the whole round country, / man, is overflowed / You know I can't stay here / I'll go where it's high, boy." Hmmm. Admittedly the lyrics seem much more prophetic in the context of the song than they do typed out.
Just about everybody in this novel is at some point high on something and none of them are too bothered by guilt or conscience; it's simply a way of life and a method to get through the day to day. "Gonna get higher on that hillbilly junk / One, two, three / Take another pill, baby / Three, five, six, / Oh, there's whores up in them sticks…" Westerberg is true to form and reputation here, celebrating the promise of a good high without worry about consequences to body or soul. In fact, consequences be damned; he knows where the good stuff is and he's on it.
Brother Gil Ponder is one of the strangest characters I've ever had the pleasure of creating. He's a recovering addict who has found faith, honestly believes in his faith and in the good he can bring his congregation and the world, and believes too that sometimes we can hear God instructing us what to do if we pay attention. In this way he is able to rationalize anything if it means achieving what he wants, and he has a pretty terrible moral record over the course of the novel despite his sincere wish to do well and help others. "I took a lethal dosage of dope in my youth / bit the hook of Jesus—Oh! / The terrible truth. / I swallowed it hard for a damn good while, but now I'm combing my hair in a brand new style." And: "Gonna comb out the tangles of my messed up youth… / Now don't you mistake me for no movie star, / ‘cause I'm just a humble jumble of God's crooked smile." I think Jim White is a rather unsung genius, by the way.
Lawrence Greuel is the regional backwoods drug kingpin who can get you anything you want. James Cole's brother works for him, and it's Greuel's weed that disappears along with Cole's brother. Greuel also spends the majority of the novel dying. He is the sum of a thousand contradictions, and when he was healthy the image I had of him was like an older version of Frank Black. Even though he is dying, Greuel has more fun in this book than anybody else. The song "Ten Percenter" isn't about much of anything that I can divine—that we supposedly only use ten percent of our minds, maybe?— but the spirit of the song, it's stamping beat and mad-sung lyrics, makes me thing of Greuel; it also makes me think of the Max Ernst painting "L'Ange du Foyeur" animated and let loose on the world. Which is Greuel's spirit: unleash chaos on the straight world and giggle at the ramifications. "If you got cotton mouth / my mind is like an ocean / My mind is like an ocean / I'm just hanging in the harbor / I'm just drifting letting out the line … I'm a jerk." The song captures Greuel's cheerful viciousness, and I can imagine him jumping up from his death-bed (a couch) and breaking into "Ten Percenter" like he was the Heat Miser in that scene from The Year Without a Santa Claus.
Also worth consulting re: Lawrence Greuel is Merle Haggard's "Wishing All These Old Things Were New."
"This is not my life / It's just a fond farewell to a friend / It's not what I'm like / It's just a fond farewell to a friend / Who couldn't get things right." This pretty well sums up James Cole Prather's plight throughout; the friend addressed could be his older brother, his mother, his friend Shady Beck, or even a previous version of himself.
Cole's mother, Lyda Skaggs, is a mesmerizing mess. You know those stories you hear from writers about how a character surprises them, showing up unannounced and soon taking over everything? Lyda was like that in the composition of Ghosting. At first she was just an anecdotal presence, there to fill out Cole's world, but she became a force to be reckoned with as the novel progressed, refusing to be ignored and demanding a lot of pages. And she was worth it; she consistently surprised me. Many times when I was stuck with where to go next, I'd go back to her and she always pointed the way with discernible energy. You could even argue she's the center of the book, though a little off-center. McMurtry's fine song reminds me a bit of one of the stories in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. Still, so many of the plaintive lines here could come directly from Lyda's mouth: "When I'm alone it's all right / It isn't going to wound my pride / If anyone can claim they're all right / so can I." Plaintive is the mood of the song, but also unrepentant self-assertion: "Wrecked the El Camino / Would've been DWI / So I just walked off and left it / Laying on its side / Troopers found it in the morning / They said it's purely luck I wasn't killed / I probably ought to quit my drinking / But I don't believe I will." That pretty well sums up Lyda's philosophy, at least until the end.
One of the first readers of my work-in-progress commented that the characters seem to be worn down, frazzled and fatigued, an air of dreamy exhaustion permeating their actions and decisions. Son Volt's great song captures that sense perfectly well, making a nice overall thematic contribution to my novel. The link here goes to a live version that has a bit more of a charge in its performance than there is in the studio version, which is dreamy and swirling and captures that over-medicated sensation perfectly well. "Living on medication, don't want to know what I've done / place to place, on the run / living on medication / wanted the world to slow down...."
Another major character in the book is Arley Noe, Greuel's very untrustworthy partner. He suffers from a blood disease called Methemoglobinemia, which used to be fairly common in Kentucky and turns the skin a strange blue. There's a cure for it but Noe prefers to keep his skin as is because of the sinister aura it casts about him. He's a creepy guy who just might be responsible for everything bad that happens in the book—a figure similar to Popeye in Faulkner's Sanctuary—and Scott-Heron's dark song is a perfect match to Noe's presence on the page.
The original song was written by Chris Knox, but the version that speaks to me is this one, by the inestimable Bill Callahan. It's not on any of his albums; there was a tribute album made for Knox a few years ago, and that's the only place I've come across it. Shady Beck is sort of the odd-man-out in the novel, a young woman of wealth and privilege who has a thing for wilder boys, and although she is as involved in the dreadful mechanisms of the story here as anyone, the difference for her is that she has a safety net—her family and its social status—that she can always fall back into. The book ends with her trying to move on with her life while reflecting on what she just lived through, and Callahan's melancholy tenor expresses the tone of that final chapter really well. "I know (what do you know?) I remember." And: "I fall (how do you fall?) I remember /
I fly (how do you fly?) I remember / All of those skies / I'll never find."
If the novel has an overall aesthetic, or philosophy, this song pretty much captures it in spirit. "Ain't no wrong now when you're right! / Only pleasure and pain." Where the green grass grows, it can't be wrong. Maybe I attach this song to the book because the album it's off of (Ritual de lo Habitual) was so enormous to me when I was the same age as James Cole and Shady, though in all fairness it's doubtful Cole would be a fan of Jane's Addiction, enamored as he is by his older brother's favorites, Led Zeppelin and the classic Seventies stuff.
Jane's covers the anarchic energy that I hope pulses through the novel, but there's a melancholy tone throughout the book as well—especially toward the end, once we've reached the far side of major events. That mood is echoed perfectly well be located Arvo Pärt's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for Strings and One Bell." One of the most somberly beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.
Kirby Gann and Ghosting links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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