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March 27, 2015

Book Notes - Skip Horack "The Other Joseph"

The Other Joseph

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.

Skip Horack's novel The Other Joseph is a fascinating story of redemption where the landscape breathes through every page.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Bracketed by stunning revelations, Horack's luminous tale offers perceptive insights about the elemental connections of family."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Skip Horack's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Other Joseph:

Book Notes! What a thrill. And in studying on the form I see that many of these open with qualifications, so here's mine: I can't listen to music with lyrics while writing and get anything done. And—to be even more honest—I'm not a huge fan of music without words. So perhaps I'm a musical philistine, or at least ridiculously uncool, as the soundtrack during the writing of The Other Joseph was mostly the clickings of my keyboard and the intermittent sighs of my dog.

That said, thank you so much for the opportunity to do this. I swear that I like music, even if some of my friends would point to the mere four or five songs I've downloaded to my phone in my lifetime and laugh. But I'll go to my grave arguing that hearing a tune come on the radio unexpectedly is a hundred times more satisfying than simply queuing one up on demand. So, basically, I have that (as well as much of my musical taste, I'll admit) in common with my narrator Roy Joseph—evidenced by this exchange between Roy and a woman he's paid $200 to come home to his trailer with him:

"You got any music?"

I didn't have a CD collection or a stereo or such. They had music stations with my satellite-television package, and that was enough. Classic country and classic rock. I usually went for one or the other, depending upon my mood. I handed Sierra the remote control. "Check out the up channels," I told her.

But again, that's not to say that the two of us don't enjoy music, and there are definitely some songs that speak to me when I think about them in connection with the book.

"Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman

The Other Joseph opens in south Louisiana, where Roy divides his time between working offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico (two weeks on), and an Airstream in Grand Isle that he shares with his dog (two weeks off). Grand Isle is the only inhabited barrier island in the state, connected to the mainland by the Highway 1 bridge. Eventually the novel transitions from Louisiana to a road trip that will take Roy to San Francisco in search of a possible relative who has unexpectedly contacted him—and it is always difficult for me to drive north from Grand Isle myself, over the bridge and through the marshlands, without feeling saddened by how fragile that land is, how more and more of that marsh is gone every time I visit.

And when others speak of Louisiana as backwater or third-world they usually mean places like these, places that are falling, sinking, eroding into the suck of slinking salt waters, and nowhere as badly or as quickly as the fading fifteen crow-fly miles between my island and the harder ground that finally appeared after the Bayou Lafourche lift bridge. All that was behind me would one day be gone. The marsh, the highway, Grand Isle.

Roy makes his drive in 2007, not too long after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had done their damage to the region, and though "Louisiana 1927" is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, both were manmade disasters in many respects—and Newman's song really captures the helpless melancholy and frustration I feel watching the gradually and continual washing away of a place and a culture.

"I Got a Name" by Jim Croce

In Louisiana you drive north to get South, trading Cajun Country for Dixie somewhere just below here—in Ponchatoula, maybe Manchac—and we were in the hardpan pinewoods now, sweet tea and barbeque country, Bible Belt towns that looked and felt like the Dry Springs I remembered.

Roy has seen a lot of tragedy in his life—when he was thirteen his older brother Tommy was lost during the first Gulf War, and six years later his parents died in a car accident. So the idea that he is the last of the Josephs can't help but weigh heavily on him. He's carrying the torch for his family, hoping that something good might come from this trip to San Francisco, and as he drives from Grand Isle toward and through the north Louisiana of his boyhood, I've always heard Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" in my head. A song about legacy and dreams and highways and "pine trees lining the winding road" sung by a man who died too soon in a north Louisiana plane crash. How could it not be in my thoughts? And though I don't know if this track exists outside of YouTube, the version that hits me the hardest is the heartbreaking one sung by Jerry Reed in tribute to Croce. In honoring his lost friend, Reed has added another layer of sadness to the song—as well as a Southern voice.

"Misty" by Ray Stevens

Something about this song, and especially the opening banjo cords in the upbeat Ray Stevens arrangement of it, speaks to the sense of buoyancy and freedom that being on the open road can fill me with (as well as those twinges of lonely sadness). And "Misty" also serves as a minor plot point in the novel—probably because, for some reason, the lyrics "Should I wander through this wonderland alone, now?" were like a goddamn mantra for me while writing this book. To the point, actually, that the working title of the manuscript was Wanderland for quite some time.

"California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & the Papas

There has to be at least one California song, right? That siren has been luring adrift people to her for generations, and Roy is definitely doing the pioneer thing here—heading west across America on pure faith mostly, hoping and dreaming that what he finds there is better than what is in his rearview mirror.

"Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" by Kris Kristofferson

Outside was cloudless and sunny, jeans-and-T-shirt weather for my daily hike to Lincoln Park. But it was also a Sunday morning, and Sundays have always depressed me—so even under that Easter egg sky I was feeling beaten down.

My science-teacher mother once told me evolution might account for why many people have a phobia of all snakelike creatures. The smartest cavemen had the good sense to run from everything slithery, and that fear eventually led to the invention of dragons and the serpent that came calling for Eve. Myths that have been around so long we've forgotten our fears, not our stories, came first. Maybe a similar uneasiness is triggered by Sundays. This is a country founded and formed by believers. And maybe generation after generation of our most prosperous and successful ancestors spending the Sabbath feeling guilty became a heritable quirk. Maybe science explains the hitch I get in my chest on the Lord's Day. I've inherited their fears, if not their god.

Roy is in San Francisco now. So he's made it—but with this song, the counterpoint. The letdown that follows any high. Now, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" has been covered by many . . . there's the famous Johnny Cash version, of course . . . and it was recorded first by Ray Stevens, actually. But I'll give Kris Kristofferson the nod here because he wrote it, and more pertinently, because as a young man Kristofferson flew helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico oil patch. It's in that voice that I like those lyrics best.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band (from The Last Waltz)

Thanksgiving Day 1976. San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom. The South meets San Francisco as Levon Helm—the pride of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas—steals the show in Martin Scorsese's documentary about The Band's farewell concert. He's singing a song about defeat, pain, and suffering, about the wreckage left by the pursuit of lost and misguided causes, but doing so with such beautiful, beautiful sadness.

"Redemption Song" by Bob Marley

Pirates and imprisonment and prophets. Freedom and triumph. All things I touch on in the book. This is the note I'd like to end on. If I keep listing songs I'd be forcing things. This was a lot of fun for me, so thank you again for the forum the ramble and reminisce a bit, Largehearted Boy!

Skip Horack and The Other Joseph links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus review

House of Anansi interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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

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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)