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May 14, 2019

Peter Rock's Playlist for His Novel "The Night Swimmers"

The Night Swimmers

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Andrew Sean Greer, and many others.

Peter Rock's The Night Swimmers is a complex and mesmerizing novel.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Haunting, elegiac . . . the book’s moody sense of hidden depths and dangers will intrigue those open to an atmospheric and contemplative novel."

In his own words, here is Peter Rock's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Night Swimmers:

My novel The Night Swimmers involves, as the title suggests, people who swim at night. The book follows the connection between a young widow, Mrs. Abel, and the narrator, a man recently graduated from college. They meet in 1994, on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin; at night, they swim long distances together, to islands and shoals. As their relationship becomes more perplexing to the narrator, Mrs. Abel’s unpredictable behavior leads them into increasingly mysterious and uncanny situations. And then the summer ends, and she suddenly disappears, leaving him behind.

Twenty years later, he returns to the same woods and lake with his two small daughters; confronted by the memories of that distant summer, his obsession with Mrs. Abel is rekindled. While he attempts to locate her, he also begins (in hopes that he might recollect what happened in the past) to swim distances again, to study old letters and other artifacts from that time, and to float in isolation tanks. The narrative that results incorporates these experiences and artifacts, as well as conversations with his daughters and forays into other resonant obsessions (dreams, psychic photography, talking animals, the watercolor painter Charles Burchfield, etc.).

The narrator’s explorations lead him deeper into the mysteries of that past summer, and also into his relationships with other women, before and after that time. As his efforts create new complications and intrigues, the past erupts into the present, and he must integrate the person he was with the one he’s become.

This playlist includes songs that arise within the narrative, songs from the times it explores, songs that I favored while writing the book, and many songs about swimming. Below, I’ll often append a short section from the novel, and/or pertinent thoughts. The Night Swimmers is many things, not least a collection and progression of love stories and ghost stories. Hopefully that is evident, here.

Vetiver – “Rolling Sea” from Tight Knit

Wouldn't you love to be out on the rollin' sea
With only the sky above you for a roof?

Here’s how my novel opens:

To swim with another person—out in the open water at night, across a distance, without stopping—is like taking a walk without the pressure, the weight of having to carry a conversation, to bring what is inside to the outside. Think of being with someone in a silent room, the tension in the air; water is thicker and you can’t talk, can’t stop moving. Instead, you’re together, struggling along, only glimpsing each other’s silhouetted arm or head for a moment, when you turn your face to breathe, a reassurance that you are not completely alone.

Lisa Hannigan – “Undertow” from At Swim

I want to swim in your current
Carry me out, up and away
I want to float
On every word you say

A little later in The Night Swimmers:

Books and experts claim that such vortices and currents don’t actually exist, that they are exaggerations born of people trying to swim against a rip tide—and yet, as I swim along the surface, I feel unseen weather, underwater winds.

Arthur Russell – “Maybe She” from Love Is Overtaking Me

Wonder if she knows I'm scared
Does she know I'm glad to meet her?
Standing with my feelings bare
She'll know when I start to greet her

I love this song so much. Its jaunty, happy sound, and its lyrics that strike a blithe “I don’t really care” pose that seems to cover up a fear that a show of commitment will be fatal to any possibility of success. And yet the vulnerability! So fine. Here is a resonant passage from my novel:

My relationships had always devolved into silence and inertia and then I moved somewhere else, began a new relationship, stayed as long as there was still the faintest momentum of the beginning, that excitement of the unknown. My stories worked this way, too. Plenty of abrupt endings, doors slamming, trucks on highways. I was afraid to be still, to stay in a room with another person. I had no clue what people might say to each other, past a certain point.

In his book Audition, Michael Shurtleff writes, “I then ask, ‘Why don’t you run? What keeps you there?’ The answer to these questions is what makes the actor able to function properly in the scene.”

I could never answer those questions. I was continually searching for a scene in which I’d be able to function properly, rather than finding or recognizing or creating the reasons to stay.

Marisa Anderson – “In Waves” from Into the Light

One time I did an event/fundraiser for the excellent Signal Fire Arts Residency; I read a story, and then Marisa played her guitar. Why, I thought, cannot I do something amazing like that?

REM – “Strange Currencies” from Monster

The fool might be my middle name
But I'd be foolish not to say
I'm going to make whatever it takes,
bring you up, call you down, sign your name, secret love,
make it rhyme, take you in, and make you mine.

The obvious REM song to choose, here, is “Nightswimming,” but that’s the obvious choice in all mixes. Monster was the album that came out in 1994, and I remember that orange CD with the strange bear’s face on the cover. I slipped that CD into my Discman and walked down to the beach, “the fool” my middle name. The yearning insistence of these lyrics!

M. Ward – “You Still Believe in Me” from Transistor Radio

Mixtapes were always used to show someone your feelings, and to convince this person that you were interesting and had taste, to make them think about you when you weren’t there. Strategizing, I often tried to put in an instrumental or two, so this person could ponder all the many words of the preceding songs, let them settle while allowing the emotions to be stoked. Too many words might get in the way of the feelings. (There’s probably a way this is true of novels, too; only the instrumentals, in that case, the music, also has to be made up of words.)

Bonnie Prince Billy – “My Home Is the Sea” from Superwolf

I have often said
that I would like to be dead
in shark's mouth
a woman swimming under
her warm breath sendin' a thunder
on two parts south
and love is stripped and frayed
and duty is delayed
until next life

Enough said.

Laura Cantrell – “Letters” from Humming at the Flowered Vine

Always felt much better
when I got me a letter


Wilco – “Box Full of Letters” from A.M.

I just can't find the time
To write my mind
The way I want it to read

My writing of this novel was interrupted by an email from an ex-girlfriend that ultimately ended up being included in the novel, and leading me back to the many letters I wrote (excerpts of which are also included in the novel) to her between the years 1990-97. The contents of these letters were startling to me. Here’s part of that email:

Yesterday I was in a sensory deprivation tank and experienced six very vivid brief hallucinations, each like a still photograph. One of them was of the small strip-mart where we did our laundry and ate brunch, in Ithaca, I think. Was it really called Suds Your Duds? I could see the edge of the truck and your hand on the steering wheel and little golden hairs sticking up on your wrist, and then part of the sign. It was a very strange brain event. I still have every letter you wrote for when you donate your literary papers to the Beinecke. Love to you and yours & hope to see you sometime soon.

Calexico – “Where Water Flows” from The Black Light

In 1968, James E. “Doc” Counsilman described feel for the water as a “nebulous quality” of great swimmers, but provided no real definition. While fast swimmers typically exhibit impressive technique elements, it is questionable that they are aware of any precise and definable feeling that produces their speed. In fact, some “feelings” (or perceptions) may limit their speed.

Cowboy Junkies – “A Common Disaster” from Lay It Down

A candle burning for everything I've ever wanted
A tattoo burned for everything I've ever wanted and lost
I had a long list of names that I kept in my back pocket,
But I've cut it down to one and your name's at the top


Neil Young – “Dreamin’ Man” from Harvest Moon

I’m a dreamin’ man,
Yes, that’s my problem
I can’t tell
When I’m not being real

That same ex-girlfriend’s email led me into the sensory deprivation tanks, and floating there somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, I traveled into the forgotten, the hypothetical, the past. The first time, floating in that densely salty water, in that darkness I was led right back to the early days in San Francisco, when I was courting my wife:

I know where I am now, by the light. I am in the time between that summer of Mrs. Abel and now. A woman rises from the bed and crosses the room—strong, her body so balanced and poised, no concern for being watched, no self-consciousness. Her hair is long and dark, a snarl across her shoulders; she tucks it back and I see the side of her face. This is San Francisco, 1996, and the walls are all white. Light carpet, a mirror that doubles her now, showing the other side of her body. A white shelf, a black CD boom box; I can even read the titles of her few CDs: Neil Young, Harvest; Cowboy Junkies, Lay It Down.

This woman is not yet my wife as she gets out of bed and crosses the room, stretching one bare arm, balancing on one foot. She pulls on the cord and the blind rises up, the whiteness of the fog cast in over her skin. She turns, smiling at me, and steps back toward the bed. In that glowing whiteness, there is no sound at all.

Willie Nelson – “Ou est-tu, Mon Amour” from Teatro

(She turned out to be my love.)

Califone – “Alice Marble Gray” from All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

Sip bourbon from her boot honey walls dunes drift inscription on a screaming birth levitation over softening strand alice marble gray a midnight swim a slight return a landscape rise a fractured fall driftwood boxes salt and bread a jelly glass a knife 2 guns a blanket and a spoon alice marble gray in pale arms like faraway bells the beach a cold kiss on the mouth ice water moon speed this heart

This excellent Califone song is actually about Alice Mabel Gray. She was a socialite, perhaps, who reputedly loved swimming naked in the lake. The locals called her “Diana of the Dunes,” as a tribute to her beauty and athleticism. She would dance on the beach in order to dry herself off, and she wasn’t always alone, she didn’t stay a recluse. Sometime in 1920, Alice met a drifter, an unemployed carpenter, and they had a child, a daughter. Reports say the carpenter was abusive; shortly after the birth of their second child, another daughter, Alice died of uremic poisoning, made worse by repeated blows on her back and stomach. The carpenter disappeared before he could be charged. Since the time of her death, people have reported the nude figure of a beautiful woman, running along the beach, swimming in the black waters of the lake at night.

Lucinda Williams – “Side of the Road” from Lucinda Williams

The last time I was honored to make such a mix for Largehearted Boy, for my 2013 novel The Shelter Cycle, I also included this song, which is a testament to how important it is to me. It also arises in narrative of The Night Swimmers:

My phone, plugged into the car’s stereo, played music I’d first heard over twenty years before, that I favored during that summer of Mrs. Abel. I listened as Lucinda Williams sang and it was as if I were back in the Red Cabin with the rain lashing the slanted, tar-papered roof. The strings swelled; her voice ratcheted up:

I walked out in a field, the grass was high, it brushed against my legs
I just stood and looked out at the open space and a farmhouse out a ways
And I wondered about the people who lived in it
And I wondered if they were happy and content.

The music also took me back to my adobe house in Mount Pleasant, after that summer; there, I had been so lonely that I had raised loneliness to the highest of attributes, completely necessary if one were to do anything worthwhile, or become someone, to become world in oneself, to draw another person to you and have them not be disappointed.

Tom Waits – “Get Behind the Mule” from Mule Variations
Tom Waits – “Murder in the Red Barn” from Bone Machine

I fumbled with cassette tapes, squinting to read the labels on the stickers; as I drove, I listened to Tom Waits sing, “Choppity-chop said the ax in the woods, you gotta meet me by the fall-down tree”; I imagined this as a kind of soundtrack to what I was doing, some kind of film where my trk sped along the desolate highway and the camera zoomed in, gradually, closer and closer to me, the music growing louder until it was as loud as it was in the cab of my truck, where I would be staring out through the windshield with a resolute expression on my face.

I drank coffee, ate licorice, turned the song up louder. Sioux Falls and on into Minnesota. Rochester, La Crosse. I whispered along to the words of the song, and actually it wasn’t that song at all, that can’t be right—that album came out in 1999, years later. I was actually listening to “When the moon is a cold-chiseled dagger, sharp enough to draw blood from a stone” or “Someone’s crying in the woods, someone’s burying all his clothes. Roadkill has its seasons, just like anything. It’s possums in the autumn, and it’s farm cats in the spring.”

Yo La Tengo – “Tired Hippo” from And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

This album!

Great Lake Swimmers – “Great Lake Swimmers” from Great Lake Swimmers

The currents want to pull you down
The bottom is empty, invisible
Where is the shore
Oh I can't see it anymore

Lake Michigan is my favorite Great Lake, but they are all great.

Musée Mécanique – “Along the Shore” from Shores of Sleep (*instrumental version)

A beauty. And half of this band, Sean Ogilvie, teaches piano and guitar to my daughters. Thanks, Sean!

Peter Rock and The Night Swimmers links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Book Reporter review
Kirkus review
New York Journal of Books review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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