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December 4, 2014

Book Notes - John Dermot Woods "The Baltimore Atrocities"

The Baltimore Atrocities

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, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The Baltimore Atrocities is a stunning treatise on loss, this story of two young men searching for lost siblings becomes much grander in scope in the hands of John Dermot Woods.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:

"We leave The Baltimore Atrocities reeling from its medley of antic happenings and feeling more perplexed than when we went in, but also relieved that there are writers like Woods who are boldly picking up where past masters left off."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is John Dermot Woods' Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Baltimore Atrocities:

"Accident Prone," Jawbreaker
You expect Jawbreaker songs to be painful. Quick and painful. Not slow, plodding, and painful. This song is. It's a song about atrocity. But not the horror or terror. It's about the tedium, the repetition. Atrocity is always with us. My character Barney experiences the same thing. He catalogs atrocity after atrocity, and still wakes up every morning and goes about his business. A list is list whether it's milk, eggs, and bananas, or suicides, infanticides, and patricides. It all sucks, but you keep going.

"Devil Town," Daniel Johnston
The line that distinguishes this song for me is "I didn't know it was a devil town." It's not about the misery you experience when you're in the shit; it's the horror you feel when you leave. My characters witness the horrors of Baltimore. But they're not from Baltimore. Can it really be the source of their pain? I'd have to think their home is a devil town.

"There is a Light that Never Goes Out," The Smiths
Tragedy creates purpose. "To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die." This song is a story that celebrates the beauty of caring enough to hurt. Even if we have no reason to love things this much, we find reasons to. My characters were children when they lost their siblings. They barely knew them. But they spend their lives trying to recover what they lost.

"Love Vigilantes," New Order
I see the "atrocity" as a sort of literary form, a plainly told, brief narrative of cruelty or horror. In this song, a man fights in the war abroad, and survives, only to return to find his wife lying dead on his doorstep. That's an atrocity.

"Hallelujah," Jeff Buckley
I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Buckley's biography is largely why this song comes to mind. He drowned in a river. This happens a couple of times in my book. When you hear the desperation he adds to Leonard Cohen's already crushing song, you can't help but imagine his final moments. Sometimes art doesn't make real events more beautiful, like we want to say it does, just more immediate.

"Here Comes a Regular," The Replacements
This song could've been written about Thomas and Barney. They find regular solace in two things: other people's stories of demise, and booze. When Westerberg sings, "Well a drinking buddy that's bound to another town, once the police made you go away" could be about these two guys.

"Take Me Out to the Ballgame," Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer
Baltimore is home to best stadium in baseball, but not necessarily the best team. But the fans stick by (undeterred even by the slick new product down in DC). A book about Baltimore and the regularity and repetition of pain naturally includes a lot of baseball. Baseball is the ultimate escapist habit. It's a slow, grinding game that distracts you from your concerns every single day, usually by disappointing you. Even when we take a break from the game, we sing of song of failure, culminating in three consecutive strikes. And we love it.

"How I Could Just Kill a Man," Cypress Hill
This song is a very direct inspiration for The Baltimore Atrocities. Despite the acclaim surrounding Cypress Hill's first album, I still think it's historical importance is underemphasized. More than any Scorsese picture or HBO documentary, songs like this make desperate acts feel close and real. It cuts through the abstraction and "weirdness" of committing atrocities. The chorus even acknowledges that the listener probably can't understand, and, of course, challenges you to do just that.

"Karma's Payment," Modest Mouse
Another example of an atrocity ballad. This could be a chapter taken right our of The Oregon Atrocities. A guys takes some speed, crashes his car, goes home with the guy in the other car, they do some more speed, things get worse. The ending: "I went to LA the next day, I got jacked in a really bad way…long story" and the guitar that simply dies, expresses not the horror of bad shit, but the exhaustion of it all. Sometimes we just get too tired to fight. Or remember.

"A Town Called Malice," The Jam
This is a memory of horrible place where things are taken from people. But you can't help but feel that Paul Weller is looking back on all this awfulness with a sense of nostalgia and desire to return to all the crappiness. When he sings, "playground kids and creaking swings, lost laughter in the breeze," he could be describing the fading picture that my characters have been chasing for decades.

John Dermot Woods and The Baltimore Atrocities links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Minneapolis Star Tribune review
O Magazine review
VICE review

Baltimore Magazine interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Activities
Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview with the author
Maryland Morning interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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
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musician/author interviews
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists