April 6, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
James Hannaham's Delicious Foods features masterful and poignant storytelling, and is one of the most powerful novels I have read in years.
Roxane Gay wrote of the book at Bookforum:
"Hannaham's prose is gloriously dense and full of elegant observations that might go unmade by a lesser writer. There is a great warmth in this novel that tackles darkness... [Hannaham] creates full-bodied characters. Even the minor figures are drawn with subtle details... Hannaham's decision to give a voice to crack--in the character Scotty--occasions some lively and inventive writing. Scotty has swagger and a sly sense of humor, and when he narrates he holds your attention... The character is complex, both tender and ruthless... A grand, empathetic, and funny novel about addiction, labor exploitation, and love... Delicious Foods should be read for its bold narrative risks, as well as the heart and humor of its author's prose.""
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I crammed so many musical references into my latest novel, Delicious Foods, that you'd think it was a K-Tel hits compilation. Music isn't even the subject of the book—it's a delightful romp into a mother's crack addiction and despair and an examination of how a mother and her son become vulnerable to a pernicious variety of modern slavery, narrated in part by a character named "Scotty," whose true identity is crack cocaine.
Even though the crack epidemic truly got underway in the second half of the 1980s, it felt appropriate to associate Scotty with disco—I imagined that disco's party-hardy, freewheeling, free-loving, pre-AIDS trashiness would appeal to a low-cost, highly addictive substance if it had a consciousness. So whenever Scotty narrates, all kinds of songs float through the head of drug-addicted main character Darlene Hardison, from the Isley Brothers' disco-soul epic "Who's That Lady," to Bonnie Pointer's dance remake of "Heaven Must Have Sent You," to "In the Bush," by Musique, a song that I both love and remain completely appalled by, in part for containing the unforgettable lines, "How ‘bout if we could go/Push, push, in the bush?" The writer of that song, Patrick Adams, very kindly gave me permission to quote from it extensively during a pivotal scene in the book. I think I have a habit of making characters sing large portions of disco songs as a sign that they've come completely unhinged; there's a scene in my first novel, God Says No, in which one character justifies his infidelity to his boyfriend in part by singing a big chunk of Alicia Bridges' "I Love the Nightlife" very loudly, so that everyone in the restaurant can hear him.
In Delicious Foods, I mention a lot of songs from the 1970s, some only in passing, as a shorthand for the jumbled radio signals in the head of someone with a severe substance abuse problem. I suppose that these are songs coming through from Darlene's formative years and her time in college—what a nightmare to have 70s hit radio stuck in your head. When Darlene, who is at the time working as a (not very skilled) prostitute, sees a car pull up, Scotty claims that the first lines from Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (which was oh-so-ubiquitous on the radio if you grew up in the 70s) begin to play in her mind: "Love, soft as an easy chair/Love, fresh as the morning air." Scotty describes the process of coming down from a crack cocaine high (which apparently begins in about 20 minutes!) as "Boogie Fever," the name of a number one hit for a Jacksons knockoff group called The Sylvers in 1976. One might pass right over without noticing that reference, though.
One song whose presence I still can't quite explain, especially given its prominence in a scene to which a lot of readers have responded very strongly (not to mention that Kara Walker's beautiful depiction of this scene graces the cover), is "Love Won't Let Me Wait," by Major Harris. The original is a slick, dreamy, sex-saturated come-on ballad that went top 5 in 1975 (Number 1 on the R&B chart, though). In the scene in which it appears, quoted at length, Darlene hallucinates that her dead husband has come back to earth as a grackle (just go with it) to scold her, and the song comes out of the bird's throat as if from a radio. "The time is right/You hold me tight/And love's got me high..." Originally, I intended to change the song coming out of the bird's windpipe to something less bizarre and maybe a bit more obviously thematic, but the longer I allowed "Love Won't Let Me Wait" to remain in place, the more I saw it as the right choice, so instead of cutting it, I did the thing I always tell my students to do when they come across something that seems "wrong" or "inappropriate," in their unfinished fiction. I justified it with a little story about why this song meant something to Darlene and Nat, her husband. I find that technique adds something I call "texture" to a piece of fiction; it preserves a strangeness that feels authentic. And the line "Love's got me high"—well, that could almost be the title of the book.
Since the story jumps around in time a lot. part of the editing process involved making it a little clearer when in history certain scenes were taking place. The cheapest, most artless way of doing that, in my opinion, is the time stamp. You know, the thing at the beginning of a chapter that says something like: Chicago, 1987. Nate's Whiskey Bar. So in lieu of cheap scene-setting—especially because I wanted to preserve a sense of slight disorientation throughout the book—I chose to indicate the context by mentioning historical events and songs of whatever time the new scene took place in. It's June of 1988 when Darlene signs a bad contract and gets abducted to the farm on which she'll be enslaved for the next several years, so I researched songs that were on the charts around that time and found, to my delight, that a lot of the titles sounded like they already related to the story, especially "Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car," by Billy Ocean, but also "Never Gonna Give You Up," by Rick Astley, Terence Trent D'Arby's "Sign Your Name," and my favorite INXS song, "Need You Tonight." I felt I'd opened a treasure chest of references and that I should name check as many of them as possible.
One of the pivotal characters in Delicious Foods is an old homeless alcoholic named Tuckahoe Joe (usually just "Tuck"), who'd once been a bass guitarist for a guy named Willie "Mad Dog" Walker. (There are all kinds of references buried in there; I used to play the bass guitar, my grandfather, who I never knew, was named William Walker—without the "Mad Dog," of course. Tuckahoe is the name of a town adjacent to the city I grew up in, Yonkers, NY., as well as the closest main road to the house I grew up in.) Willie "Mad Dog" Walker's one hit song is called "Only Got Myself to Blame." He followed up with a carbon copy, "Nobody's Fault But Mine," that didn't chart at all. While these fictitious titles are bluesy and seem like they might be about loves gone wrong, they also suggest an attitude toward individualism in American life that I find pervasive and reprehensible, especially when it occurs among the downtrodden. Essentially, I hate it when people blame themselves for their failure to change class status, as if this feat did not depend far more on accidents of birth than on "gumption." What a crime that anyone would believe that about themselves, and how shameful that anyone in power would encourage the less fortunate to believe such things. Still, paradoxically, self-blame is undeniably a popular theme in blues music, perhaps because it waxes both self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating at once.
In several places, Tuck has a lot to say about his experience working with "Mad Dog," and he's got a professional singing voice, so while he's on detail, picking crops, he often breaks out in a combination of real and made-up blues tunes. At first I made up song titles: "Kentucky Woman," "Lowdown No Good Blues," and "Lonesome Train." I was kind of proud that my copy editor did not recognize these titles as fake and queried me when she found them un-Googleable. But then I went out searching for real blues songs that I thought would be appropriate to the atmosphere of the novel, and came up with such classics as "Struggling Blues," "Disgusted Blues," and "Troubled ‘Bout My Mother." I was not familiar with the latter song, made famous by influential Mississippi Delta bluesman Charley Patton in a 1934 recording, but to discover this track at a moment when I needed it most felt like a gift from the universe. This is the greatest thing about research, especially searching through old-time music of which you can now hear about 90% on Internet streaming sites. When you come across a recording from long ago that fits your purposes, you can then hear it immediately, and sometimes it fits perfectly, as if a ghost was whispering in your ear.
James Hannaham and Delicious Foods links:
All Things Considered interview with the author
Huffington Post essay by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for God Says No
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
Los Angeles Times 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)
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)