September 2, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
John McNally's story collection The Fear of Everything is poignant, absurd, funny, and sad, often at the same time.
Pete Fromm wrote of the book:
"Like the magician in the first story of The Fear of Everything, John McNally is a master of sleight of hand, leading you, you think, one way, only to take you to someplace entirely different, entirely darker. And like the very best story writers, he can make you laugh all the way to the heartbreak, the shiver of realization when you finally see that things may not be quite as they seemed. Ranging from middle school classrooms to calls late in the night, from eerie disappearances to the people only longing for some kind of connection in the masterpiece title story, all these stories find John at the very top of his game."
Each of my short story collections has taken ten years to write – The Fear of Everything is my third collection – which means that each collection is a snapshot of a decade from my life, not in any explicitly autobiographical way but in fiction’s usual circuitous fashion. And quite a bit happened in my life during the ten years that I worked on this new collection – most notably, I got divorced, my father died, I moved 900 miles for a new job, and I turned fifty. But I also began collecting records again, something I had given up decades earlier despite my lifelong love of music.
“Splish Splash” by Bobby Darin
My mother enjoyed telling the story of my early love of music, how when I was a baby, Bobby Darin’s hit song “Splish Splash” would turn a very unhappy baby Johnny into a happy, gurgling baby Johnny. When my mother accidentally broke the record, however, I became an inconsolable monster. I cried, I howled, I threw things. Since the record was several years old at the time, my mother had to scour used record stores all over Chicago until, at long last, she found a copy, and, upon hearing it, I once more became a happy, gurgling baby.
“American Girl” by Tom Petty
When I write short stories, I’m increasingly less interested in how things change during the course of the narrative in terms of action and increasingly more interested in how to push the narrative forward through mood. Perhaps tilt is a better word: how to tilt the mood. The reader may not even be fully aware of what just happened, but hopefully, if it’s effective, they’ll feel it, much as one feels a very slight breeze on an otherwise still night, or a drop in temperature that sneaks up on you. One of my favorite songs that achieves this tilt is Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”
There are only two main stanzas in this song: one captures the nameless female protagonist’s optimism; the other, her disappointment. The mood shift in the song is implied. The fact that it was cold in the second stanza, that the narrator is standing alone on a balcony: these details stand in sharp contrast to the optimism of the world being a great big place (in the first stanza) with lots of places to run to. What was optimistic speculation in the first stanza becomes a harsh reality in the second stanza. The next sensory detail – “she could hear the cars roll by out on 441 like waves crashin on the beach” – is heartbreaking. The simile reaches back to the first stanza, echoing the optimism of a place she imagined herself running to while letting us know her reality: that what sounds like waves crashing on the beach is really just traffic on a highway in Florida.
We don’t know what the “one little promise she was gonna keep” is in the first stanza , but where it lands in that stanza suggests that it has to do with the man or boy who creeps back into her memory of the second stanza, where we get an internal thought: “God it's so painful / Something that's so close / And still so far out of reach.” And if there is a connection between the two, as I believe there is, then someone broke a promise. And her thinking about him – her one desperate moment, as it were – enhances the already heartbreaking image of her standing on the balcony, listening to the cars from the highway, imagining that they sound like waves.
“American Girl” is 147 words long. And in those 147 words, there is an implied story, a story arc, a mood shift, and, for me at least, a genuinely moving character whose dreams get disrupted. And sometimes I have to remind myself that this is all a story needs to do. It begins in one place and by the end it moves subtly to another place, even if very little has happened. What happens in this song? The main character wants to do bigger things with her life. And those big things don’t pan out.
“Elephant” by Jason Isbell
“Cover Me Up” by Jason Isbell
“Live Oak” by Jason Isbell
Imagine a world where you can drink too much, burn bridges, piss off people, yet still come out the other side, alive and healthy and sober, a better person. Imagine that this transformation, this redemption, becomes art. Imagine a songwriter rhyming wishes with facetious; or sixteen with benzodiazepine. Imagine that you never thought you’d hear the likes of someone this good again…but then you did. And then you drive from Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois, to see him, and you’re the last person in line, and yet somehow, miracle of miracles, you walk right up to the front of the stage, so close you could touch the singer’s shoe, and it’s the most transcendent concert you’ve seen, so much so that you almost weep. The next day, still buoyed by what you experienced, you visit your mother’s grave, walking the rows for an hour until you find the covered marker, and you remember how much she loved old country music, songs by Patsy Cline and Charlie Pride and Johnny Cash, the music that informs what you heard the night before, the ghosts of legends appearing in the forms of chords and drawls. You see him again in Pittsburgh with a woman you too-briefly dated. You see him in Greensboro; in Shreveport; in Charlotte. And then three nights at The Ryman in Nashville, the Mother Church. You see him two more nights in Raleigh, at Red Rocks in Colorado, in Charlotte, North Carolina. You’re not the only one. There are others like you. These are your people, your tribe. What is it exactly? Maybe it’s that you don’t go to church, don’t believe in God, but still search for, and believe in, the spiritual, but you search for it through art. And art, for you, is this: something unfamiliar that resonates both emotionally and intellectually, approaching the spiritual. The spiritual is that moment in a work of art when everyone at once, listening to the same story, the same song, experiences something they can’t quite articulate but deeply and collectively feel. It’s that moment at the end of a song when you raise your hands and yell, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
No songwriter has lived more in my consciousness in the last ten years than Jason Isbell. Southeastern is the album for which Isbell pushed in all the chips, and in which the personal stakes are high. The album isn’t so much about his sobriety as it is about the demons that came before the sobriety. He is never preachy or didactic. And that’s why the songs are redemptive and why, I believe, they are art of the highest order. The songs take you to unexpected places, sometimes in a simple image that you can’t shake. One part emotional honesty; one part personal stakes: that’s the work of Jason Isbell.
“Little Girl Blue” by Janis Joplin
When I was three years old and sitting on Santa’s lap, I asked him for a Janis Joplin album. It was the first time I experienced a double-take.
You don’t need to know Janis Joplin’s biography to feel the emotional honesty in her performances, but when you do know her biography – picked on and made fun of in her small Texas town; her own excessive cravings and addictions; her desire, borne of past humiliations, to prove herself – her performances become an even more emotional experience. There are few moments in rock history that I find more joyous and heartbreaking than when at the Monterey Pop Music Festival, where she made a name for herself, Janis Joplin runs off the stage and does a little skip, aware that she had just nailed her set. It’s a small gesture, that skip, but I choke up every time I see it because in that one small gesture you see the joy of being accepted; you see the young girl inside the adult; and you see validation that she so deeply wanted.
The studio version of “Little Girl Blue” is a heartbreaker, but if you really want to see the emotional honesty in a live performance, check out her appearance on This is Tom Jones. Even when backed by an overwrought orchestra, Joplin’s emotional honesty breaks through and just slays you.
“Who’s Lovin’ You” by the Jackson 5
And then there are those songs I listen to, just as there are those books that I read, where I sit back and marvel at the talent. Those are the artists who defy discussions of craft because it was all innate to them. It’s genius. I often go back to the very first Jackson 5 album, decades before Michael’s scandals, before his plastic surgery, before the HBO documentary, before the hit records and millions of dollars, before being dubbed the King of Pop: here was a boy from Gary, Indiana, in the studio, recording his first album with his brothers. And in this particular song he’s singing lyrics that require the emotional knowledge of an adult with the singing skills of someone way older than ten years old. When you listen to this song, remember that: He was ten! And if those last few seconds of this song – a vocal run to end all vocal runs – doesn’t give you chills, I don’t know what will.
“Luka” by Suzanne Vega
“Stand Tall” by Burton Cummings
Sometimes I listen to music simply to resurrect the past, to put me into a particular nostalgic headspace. Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” is a song that transports me directly back to the fall of 1987. I had just moved to Iowa City when “Luka” was on the radio, and whenever I hear it now, it never fails to put me right back into my apartment on Summit Street, and I remember the way the sun shone through the windows and how thrilling it was to be in this new place, embarking on a new life. “Stand Tall” by Burton Cummings transports me further back to grade school, and though I can’t attach a specific time or place to the song, it harnesses for me a mood, a period of the 1970s, listening to music on a transistor radio, riding my bike for hours, and having crushes on girls in my class. I was a fat kid who wanted to be loved; I wanted to be a rock star. A song like “Stand Tall” allowed me to stand on a hill on a bike trail and sing the soaring vocals as though I were in front of a thousand adoring fans, all while hoping nobody was actually (in real life) watching me.
If I can figure out a way to similarly transport readers, I’ll have done my job. I’d consider that a good day. A very good day.
John McNally is the author of THE FEAR OF EVERYTHING: Stories (September 1, 2020; University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press) and the author or editor of seventeen previous books, including The Book of Ralph: A Novel and The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid, as well as several books about the craft and business aspects of writing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, John is Writer-in-Residence and the Dr. Doris Meriwether/BORSF Professor in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.