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November 6, 2020

Fred Misurella's Playlist for His Novel "A Pontiac in the Woods"

A Pontiac in the Woods by Fred Misurella

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Fred Misurella's novel A Pontiac in the Woods is a compelling and poignant coming-of-age story.

In his words, here is Fred Misurella's Book Notes music playlist for his novel A Pontiac in the Woods:

If some of the music I list seems old-fashioned, it’s because an abandoned 1960 Pontiac is the central image of my novel and is about two teenagers, Jamie Sasso (an orphan who lives alone in the abandoned Pontiac) and a boy named Misha Alto, whom she meets at a retro sock hop in their school gym one night. They bond immediately while dancing and become close friends. They dance together regularly at Misha’s house and begin to enter statewide contests, winning a few and building a strong relationship that carries Jamie through a year of intense soul-searching about her past and her future while struggling to maintain some emotional equilibrium in the present. Music is a constant reference for her. Harassed by other students because of her unconventional life, victimized by a teacher she once trusted, and generally feeling as abandoned by life as her Pontiac home is, she uses running, dance, and the music she and Misha discuss and perform to bring some order and a little control into her very empty world.

1) “Me and Julio Down at the Schoolyard”; Simon and Garfunkel.

I have to list this song because it’s an obvious dance tune, concerns teenagers, a schoolyard, and some kind of “crime” that we know nothing about, except that it’s somehow scandalized the parents in a suburban neighborhood.

2) A mix of rock and roll hits: Bill Haley and His Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley

This stuff is played at the sock hop. Here’s my description of Jamie and Misha dancing to it:

“You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” brought us together the night we first met. Almost nobody attended the hop—word was the music wasn’t “cool”—and those who did, at least the guys, didn’t dance to the fast stuff. So you can say Misha and I had no choice but to face the music and each other, jiggle our butts and arms as an introduction, and try to outdo that skinny smiling opposite-sex stranger grinning stupidly right in front of us.

“Jamie Sasso,” I said, slapping my ass and giving a little wiggle. He nodded his head but said nothing.

3) “Who’s Sorry Now?”; Connie Francis

You have to play a slow dance once in a while to get the guys out on the floor with the girls. It also gives Misha a chance to show off his elegant Fred Astaire chops and reveal to Jamie what a romancer he can be. Again, here’s my description:

“Hound Dog” gave way to something slower, moodier called “Who’s Sorry Now?” which I’d also never heard before. I remember the song well, sung by a woman named Connie Francis. Misha smiled, stepped closer, held his left hand up and reached for my right, which was trying to figure out what to do with something (nothing) circling my right ear and making me feel itchy, and very uncomfortable. “I don’t know this kind of stuff,” I said. “It’s a little bit slower than my feet are willing to go—most of the time.”

He held my hand anyway, slipped his right arm around my back and, for one of the first times ever, I found myself close enough to a boy my age to feel something like—I don’t know—not sexy, but nervous. He drew me and pushed me here and there, spinning us around during the heavier measures of the tune and, finally, bent me back and to the side so he could hold my waist and lean close while I got a good look past his hazel eyes toward the ceiling lights. “Hey, don’t drop me,” I giggled, more scared than I wanted to be. “And don’t even think of putting your lips close to mine because it’s not going to happen—tonight.”

4) “That’s Life”; Frank Sinatra

Where do you go after a sock hop? To a pizza joint, of course—in this case Jimmy’s Wood-Burning Oven, where they meet Jimmy whirling, twirling, and flattening out pizza dough, all to the tune of Frank’s hard-nosed, philosophic song that in some kind of cheesy (pun intended), up-tempo way underlines Jamie’s story as she works through the problems of her high school year.

5) “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”; Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

Misha plays this on the juke box while he and Jamie eat their pizza. Why? Because I like it, and I’ve always loved Tony Bennett more than Frank Sinatra. Also, with Gaga singing along and obviously enjoying it, I hope to lend strength to one of the novel’s quieter themes, that love crosses generations and lifestyles and can lift us above limits in our lives. It’s a sort of a counter balancing of Sinatra’s “My Way” bragadocio.

6) “Sound of Silence”; Simon and Garfunkel

It’s been a great night, but Jamie has to go home and live the reality of her isolated life. “Hello, Darkness, my old friend…” To me Simon and Garfunkel capture the feeling of the lonely, dark woods surrounding her in the Pontiac and the possible haunting dreams or actual experiences she has.

7) “Autumn Leaves”; The Herbie Mann Nonet

This is from one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, in my opinion. This particular track has a double bass solo by Knobby Totah that is strikingly expressive. I discussed it several times with Jimmy Garrison, the bassist on Coltrane’s classic “A Love Supreme.” He told me it was one of the best bass solos he’d heard. I list it here to stand in for a performance that doesn’t really exist, but which I imagined and wrote about in my previous novel, A Summer of Good-Byes. In A Pontiac in the Woods Jamie and Misha choose to dance to this recording when they enter contests because it starts with a solemn tone and moves toward lighter, quicker ending. Here’s the way I described it in A Summer of Good-Byes:

On another track Zach bowed through “Autumn Leaves” on his own, a solo performance that began with the lowest, deepest moan, as if perceiving a black abyss before him, but he gradually worked his way up the ladder of notes so that the end of the song became a dance, a maypole dance in spring, as if he looked across the abyss and saw a happy, fertile other side.

And that, of course, is the way I would like to see Jamie’s story ending.

A writer, Fulbright Scholar, lover of newspapers, books, movies and most things French or Italian (especially novels and opera), Fred Misurella has published fiction and non-fiction in many journals, including The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor, The Partisan Review, Salmagundi, VIA, Altre Italie, and L'Atelier du Roman. He was educated at the University of Iowa, has lived in New York and Paris, and presently resides in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania with his wife, Kim, son, Alex, and daughter, Filipka. He taught creative writing, journalism, and Italian-American Literature at East Stroudsburg University and makes pilgrimages to Provence, Liguria, and Tuscany almost every summer with his family. He is the book review editor for VIA, a semi-annual journal of Italian American culture

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