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September 8, 2015

Book Notes - Joe Meno "Marvel and a Wonder"

Marvel and a Wonder

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Marvel and a Wonder has earned Joe Meno numerous comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, this book is a rollicking, dark, and thoughtful look at mid-'90s American life.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Evoking William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, Meno's suspenseful, mordantly incisive, many-layered tale can also be read as an equine Moby-Dick. As he tracks the bewildering seismic shifts under way in America, Meno celebrates everyday marvels, including the hard-proven love between grandfather and grandson."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Joe Meno's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Marvel and a Wonder:

Marvel and a Wonder is a modern epic that follows a grandfather and grandson, living on a small farm in Southern Indiana. One day a strange event occurs: a beautiful white quarter horse appears—bequeathed to the grandfather through a legal error. This act of wonder has dire consequences for everyone. The horse is stolen by two meth-dealing brothers and then sold. The grandfather and grandson must journey through the underworld of the Midwest to try and recover the horse and their shared sense of a future. Inspired by Faulkner and Garcia Marquez and Morrison, I wanted to create something realistic and dark, but also filled with strangely powerful magic. These songs were pieces of music I had in mind as I wrote—trying to negotiate a specific mood and tone—and ultimately became important thematic elements of the world of the story.

Johnny Cash and Will Oldham, "I See a Darkness." Before I had even come up with a single line for the novel, I was listening to Johnny Cash's cover of this Will Oldham song, which happens to be one of the standout tracks on Solitary Man. Somewhere before the end of the song, the CD began to skip and it produced the most amazing abstract sound; what I imagine the radiation a star produces as it falls through the sky must sound like, silvery, otherworldly. All at once I had the idea for the book, something rural, dark, familiar but full of an abstract light.

The Carter Family, "On the Sea of Galilee." This song, first recorded in 1927, captures the sparseness, desperation, and spiritual conviction I was interested in exploring in the book. The simple arrangement and familiar refrain provided a kind of framework for me to begin writing what I hoped would be novel with the Biblical undertones of rural gospel and bluegrass.

Various, "Marvel and a Wonder." As I continued to develop the project, I wanted to find a title that captured the tone of the book and also made allusions to the somewhat mysterious events that happen within. I began searching through songbooks of American Christian gospel music and discovered this poem by James Hart, which had been set to music as a Mormon hymn. Something about those words together seemed to convey the ambition and emotional scale of the book I was trying to write. I first used it as a line of text, then later after the book was complete, made it the title.

Notorious B.I.G "Gimme the Loot." The tension between the grandfather and grandson in the novel is caused by their differences—cultural, racial, and age. The grandfather, Jim, plays Jimmie Rodgers in his truck. Quentin, the boy, prefers to listen to early ‘90s hip-hop. As a somewhat overweight, socially awkward teenager, there is something incredibly powerful about Biggie's lyrics. As the only person of color in his town, Quentin repeats these lyrics as a way to bolster himself and draw a connection to a culture he has never quite had the chance to know.

Neko Case, "Star Witness." Neko's voice on this track has never sounded more reaching or more lovely. Again, small town tragedies and elements of mystery abound. The echo-drenched guitar echoes the magic of nighttime on an empty main street, wild animals tracking their way through town.

Rolling Stones, "It's Only Rock and Roll." As the grandfather and grandson make their way through the underworld of the American Midwest of the mid-1990's, they discover a series of tragic characters and places including a strip club in Lexington, KY. There's a line in this 1974 hit where Jagger sings "If I could stick a knife in my heart, suicide right on stage/would it be enough for your teenage lust/would it help to ease the pain" that seems to adequately describe the strange collision of tragedy, lust, and possible redemption of one such place.

Blind Willie Johnson, "Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground." Ry Cooder suggested this song was the inspiration for his soundtrack to Paris, Texas, a masterpiece in its own right. One slide guitar, one human voice, no actual words, this song feels like an incantation that sums up all the possibility and grief of an entire nation. Facing the darkness, the disappointment, the dread of the past with a lone song, painful as it is, there's something about the last trill of guitar that always gives me hope. I listened to this track again and again trying to find an ending. There's something incredibly powerful, hurting and alive, immortal about this song, in a way only books and music can ever be.

Joe Meno and Marvel and a Wonder links:

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

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Wall Street Journal review

Chicago Tribune profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Chicago Noir: The Classics
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Great Perhaps
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Office Girl
Publishers Weekly profile of the author
WGN Radio 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
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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