August 17, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kelly Daniels' debut novel A Candle for San Simón is a compelling and cinematic thriller.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Daniels ... presents an accomplished first novel uncompromising in its depiction of gang savagery and dramatization of how far individuals will go to try to repair their damaged souls ... Daniels' restrained yet powerful father-and-son saga will appeal to Don Winslow fans."
Like a lot of kids after college, I had no particular plan, interest, or idea how to start a career, so I saved up the tips from my job waiting tables and took off to Guatemala—mainly because the flight was cheap and flexible. I found the country both beautiful and sort of eerie. It’s a place where a large percentage of the population are indigenous Maya, who still dress in traditional clothes and live the way they’d been doing for hundreds of years, and who are still being persecuted by the colonizers, including, at the time I was there, government death squads. It’s a place where decommissioned U.S. school buses are repainted and repurposed into the most convenient, comprehensive, user-friendly, and affordable public transportation system I’ve ever encountered. It’s also a place of music: cheap radios blaring popular tunes from open barrooms, private houses, workplaces, and passing cars; old Mayans tapping marimbas the size and shape of coffins; “banda” groups onstage, playing trumpets, accordions, military-style snare drums, and plaintiff crooning. You can’t escape the music of Guatemala, even if you want to.
The buses especially caught my attention, perhaps because I was in them so often, but also because they tended to act as nexuses of diversity, where everybody but the super-rich sat practically (or literally) on each other’s laps. One day I caught a ride in an odd-looking bus—crudely spray-painted rather than mural-ized like most of them—driven by an even odder driver, by his appearance and talk an American gringo. How did this guy come to drive a bus in Guatemala of all places and all occupations, I wondered. Many years later, that seed of curiosity grew into my novel, A Candle for San Simón. Creating a soundtrack for the book has proven challenging and fun (and a welcome distraction from my current novel-in-progress). I ended up organizing it as if the novel were a film, and the songs take place in the order the story progresses. In some cases, I “heard” the song as I composed the novel, or they in fact appear in the text as part of the setting or even plot; in other cases I’m fitting the song into the scene after the fact, to match the mood, the place, the character. For the record, if anyone decides to adapt A Candle for San Simón for the screen, I’m available to advise on the soundtrack.
Warren Zevon, “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”: Caruthers’ Intro
This is the old bus driver, Norman Caruthers’ favorite song. One of them at least. I’ve learned in writing this novel that I absolutely must like and respect my characters, even the assholes. Accordingly, they all have good taste, in their own peculiar ways. The bartender at Caruthers’ local bar plays a Zevon record in one scene, so this song made sense as a way to define Caruthers. Plus, I love Warren Zevon, surely one of the best lyricists in American rock history. The voice of “Desperadoes” is a lot like Caruthers: wistful, lonely, drunk, stoic, both self-pitying and self-aware, but also capable of laughing at himself and the absurdity around him. “And if California slides into the ocean / like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing, until I pay my bill.” Deep below the sadness and irony, Caruthers still craves redemption, as does Zevon’s narrator. “Heaven help the one who leaves.”
Wilco, “Jesus, Etc.”: Max’s Theme
A Candle for San Simón's plot hinges on Norman’s son, Max, coming down to Guatemala to work as a Christian missionary and to finally confront the old man who abandoned him. Learning about Max proved a major challenge as I wrote. At first, he appeared as something of a caricature of religiosity, which quickly grew tiresome. To write a novel is to take a years-long road trip with its characters, so they must be interesting or you’ll find yourself abandoning them at the first truck stop. I began to see Max more clearly, a kid with an absent father and inattentive mother, getting into a lot of trouble. He’s got some fuzzy old tattoos. He reads and thinks but college wasn’t for him. He affects a cowboy hat. He likes stories and conceives of his own life in heroic terms. Faith has come late to him. Growing up, he was drawn to roots country music, those great stories set to song. Eventually this led him to alt country and this amazing song by Wilco that hits Max (and me) right in the heart, especially at the line “You can rely on me, honey,” which defines how we’d like to be but aren’t quite sure we are.
The Cramps, “Mama Oo Pow Pow”: Tijuana’s Theme
I once saw the Cramps play live in Tijuana, and never before have I known a place and a band to complement one another so perfectly. They’re both brash, unapologetically tacky, raunchy, dangerous, ironically self-aware, and just bursting with manic energy. “Now I don’t want to be your dear sweet friend / I just want to beat your little pink rear end.” The novel’s resident villain, Vicki Valle, enters the story in TJ. I imagine a Cramps song playing in some open-air disco as she walks by, her clothes modified on the fly with a straight razor to make an improvised disguise.
Oscar Ovidio, “Corrido de Juan Ortiz”: Gangsters’ Theme
I listened to a lot of Narco Corridos while writing A Candle for San Simón, songs that glorify the lives of violent criminals. What first struck this American citizen is how unmacho the music sounds compared to its purpose. I just can’t bring myself to tremble at accordions set to a ¾ polka beat. And since understanding song lyrics is about the most advanced stage of language acquisition, I generally can’t follow the stories, which further insulates me from the effect. But make no mistake. These guys are tough. Part of the job is writing, recording, and performing corridos commissioned from whatever crime lord is willing to pay. The gig involves spending time with the subject, drinking and sniffing coke and consorting with prostitutes in some distant, scary stronghold, all while jotting down details, including hair-raising stories these narcos love to tell about themselves. Corrido writers are also often invited to tag along on drive-by-shootings or snatchings or other capers, to get a visceral taste of the crazy life. The danger doesn’t end there. Narco bands are sometimes kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the enemies of their subjects. They’re like contemporary bards charged with mythify-ing their lords. I chose this particular corrido because Ovidio and Juan Ortiz are Guatemalan, narco corridos (along with the organized crime it commemorates) being an import product from Mexico. Guatemala’s return export is desperate refugees fleeing for their lives.
Daddy Yankee, “Gasolina”: Vicki’s Theme
A friend of mine is into reggaeton music, and though my friend is not a killer (as far as I know), there’s something about her that reminds me of Vicki Valle. I listened to a couple dozen reggaeton songs and settled on this one as Vicki’s jam. It’s simple, energetic, and makes you want to smash something. Or rather, burn something down.
Lila Downs, “Clandestino”: Karma’s Theme
Karma is Max’s Spanish teacher and eventually his lover. She’s one of the more educated and sophisticated characters in the novel—though she takes no shit. As I’ve done with all the characters, I asked myself what sort of music she likes, and after much listening around and asking for recommendations, I found Lila Downs, a singer, musician, and songwriter who melds contemporary rock and jazz with traditional Latin American sounds. This song is about the experiences of being illegal, in the sense of living somewhere without official papers. I suspect that many readers will barely register the fact that Norman Caruthers, in the opening scene of A Candle for San Simón, is a white American living illegally in Guatemala—a fairly common situation most of us never consider.
The Kinks, “Apeman”: La Mala Senda’s Theme
I first heard this magical song in a bar on Santander Street in Panajachel, Guatemala, where much of A Candle for San Simón takes place. It’s got tropical metal drums; Ray Davies’ droll, evocative voice; and a message we can all relate to. “I don’t feel safe in this world no more / I don’t want to die in a nuclear war / I want to sail away to a distant shore / and make like an ape man.” La Mala Senda is Caruthers’ local bar, owned and frequented by American expatriates, all trying to escape their respective contemporary lives to indulge their inner apes.
Rebeca Lane, “Reina del Caos”: Xibalba’s Theme
Most of Guatemala seems populist in its musical taste, either on the traditional or popular culture end of the spectrum. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find that Guatemala, like all places, has its hip undercurrents. At one point in the story, Max and Karma stumble into this subterranean scene at a very cool bar off the main drag called Xibalba, which is the Mayan underworld. As they enter, electronic dance music is playing, but I have no doubt the Guatemalan rapper Rebeca Lane is on heavy rotation in this joint.
Billy Joel, “Uptown Girl”: The Song of the Month
The last time I visited Guatemala, searching for inspiration and images while drafting A Candle for San Simón, I could not escape this song. It seemed to blare from every edifice, as if the government had issued a national decree. I don’t particularly care for this tune, though strangely enough, it began to grow on me during those days in Guatemala. I suppose it was the defamiliarization and contrast provided by the setting. I recall a tiny, leaning shack of a bar made of scrap wood and rusted metal, cranking this corny American song about love between a working man and a society lady while a drunk lay unconscious and baking in the sun on the broken sidewalk out front. “Uptown Girl” forced its way into the novel, and it would be wrong to neglect it here.
Chingon, “Cielito Lindo”: Midnight at La Mala
Once, in some bar in Mexico or Central America, I saw a music video on a high television in the corner of a band playing heavy metal music while dressed as mariachis. The two genres were made for each other. I used this detail for a scene in La Mala Senda while things are going south for Caruthers, but now looking for a song to represent that moment, I’ve only been able to find novelty bands, whose music is not really the point. Instead, I came across Chingon, a weirdly meta band created by the filmmaker (and the band’s guitarist), Robert Rodriquez, for his Mariachi Trilogy of movies. You might say the band is fake, which leads to interesting questions about authenticity in art, but finally what matters is that they kick ass and look cool doing it. The song I’ve chosen is a cover of one you’ve heard, reimagined and owned by Chingon as happens with all the great covers.
Johnny Cash, “I See a Darkness”: Caruthers’ Outro
This is one of my favorite songs from the late Johnny Cash's American Recordings, and I’ve never heard it on the radio. Like all the songs from this series, it’s dark, as the title implies, sung by a narrator who has wasted his life and knows it. He’s asking for help. He’s probably not going to get it.
Marimba María Concepción, "Ferrocarril de Los Altos”: Itzel’s Theme
I won’t spoil the plot by telling you who Itzel is, except to say she’s a “Keckchi Mayan, from a far-away village nobody ever heard of.” The music most associated with Guatemalan Mayans, at least in the public sphere, is marimba. You find these musical boxes and the old men tapping them all over, in town squares, parks, along streets, in bars and churches. The sound is so light, innocent, and jaunty that you might suspect irony. More likely, marimba music is a happy escape from lives of struggle and injustice. Then again, what do I know about the inner lives of Guatemalan Mayans? From my outside perspective, they seem content in each other’s company, and more than content to keep gringos and ladinos at arm’s distance. It’s not easy to find an attributed marimba song, so I settled on a popular group’s interpretation of one of Guatemala’s famous old-time composers, commissioned to commemorate train service in the Mayan highlands that has long since stopped operating. This music plays as the credits roll, leaving the audience to make of it what they will.
Kelly Daniels grew up on the road, living for stints with his parents in a Hawaiian commune, a lonesome desert cabin, and in an old delivery van outfitted with bunks. As an adult, he set off on his own, traveling extensively through Europe, Mexico and Central America, picking up jobs along the way, jobs such as production manager of a furniture factory (Guatemala), newspaper reporter (Mexico), and bartender (all over). He is the author of the memoir Cloudbreak, California, and his short stories and essays have appeared widely in literary reviews. A regular contributor to the Sun magazine, he lives with his wife and son in Le Claire, Iowa. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Augustana College. www.authorkellydaniels.com