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June 9, 2021

Andy Abramowitz's Playlist for His Novel "Darling at the Campsite"

Darling at the Campsite by Andy Abramowitz

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.

Andy Abramowitz's novel Darling at the Campsite is engaging and moving.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This book is like life: sometimes funny, touching, sad, uplifting, and messy. More character-driven than plot-heavy, it’s for readers who appreciate stories that look back at high school and leaving home, through adult eyes."

In his words, here is Andy Abramowitz's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Darling at the Campsite:

Music is always playing in my head when I write. Every scene has a soundtrack. But in this book, music plays a very tangible role, because as Rowan attempts to make peace with the death of his brother – the brother he looked up to, the brother he relied on, the brother who abandoned him and left him to fend for himself in a claustrophobic Midwestern town – he turns to Talking Heads. That was their band, his and Holden’s. There may have been an age gap between the brothers, and they may have been very different people – Holden was outgoing and confident, Rowan was well-liked but more vulnerable and cautious in the world – but their mutual love for this band bridged the divide. It was a form of communication for them.

That said, I don’t hear Talking Heads playing when I picture most of the scenes in this book. I don’t find Talking Heads particularly soundtracky. David Byrne’s voice is weird; I love it, but it isn’t exactly cinematic. It’s the voice of the guy in the short-sleeve shirt and tie you nod hello to when you walk down the hall to collect your print job. I chose it because it’s the kind of insular, not-for-everyone band that two siblings might obsess over together, one that brings out the person you are – and only are – in the safety of your childhood home.

But this is also a book about a guy who has spent much of his life working in record stores, so while there is always a song playing in Rowan’s head, it’s usually a deep cut. He’s not humming “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Here are the songs I hear behind Rowan's journey out of the precarious comfort of Philadelphia and back into his hometown where he is forced to look everyone – including his ex-girlfriend and ex-BFF, now a happily married couple – square in the eye.

“Landed,” Ben Folds

Ben Folds’ voice is perfect for that guy a decade removed from high school but still thinking a little too much about high school. It’s not that he hasn’t moved on. He has moved on. He’s just brought it all with him. This is the song that plays when Rowan is thinking about how his trip home for his brother’s funeral will inexorably lead him to Margot, a woman he never wants to see again but still misses.

“Stoney End,” Diana Ross

I’m not sure why this song feels right for the scene when Rowan tells Daisy about his brother’s death, and in that moment of grief and his desperate need to grab onto something – that something being Daisy – she leads him back to the storage room of their record store to hook up. But it does. Maybe it’s the image of stones, an unsmooth road, a path you never wanted to go down in the first place.

“Farewell, Farewell,” Fairport Convention

As Daisy drops Rowan off at the airport, there’s a lot that goes unsaid. Isn’t there always at airport goodbyes? They’re both holding back. Rowan wants to hold onto her, but she’s not his to hold. Does he want to stay with her because he loves her or because he dreads what awaits him at the other end of that flight? This song stings; the scene should too.

“From the Morning,” Nick Drake

I hear this song as Rowan wakes up on that first morning back home. His eyes open onto his childhood bedroom. The space itself is unaltered, so why does the air feel so different? The things and people that used to greet him all those years ago when he lived here, the things he woke up to, are all gone. Or they don’t belong to him anymore.

“Black Sheep Boy,” Vince Guaraldi

Everybody knows Vince Guaraldi from his jaunty “Linus and Lucy” number, a staple of Peanuts specials, but the guy could also sing – or, more precisely, croon with what sounds like an endearing lack of confidence. This is the song Rowan hears as he’s walking with Alex (his ex’s son whom he’s just caught shoplifting) toward Alex’s house. Does Rowan feel like the black sheep of the family? Does Alex? Rowan’s brother Holden surely must’ve felt that way at times. Which might lead Rowan to conclude that we’re all, in one way or another, the black sheep of the family. Which might also mean that none of us is.

“Love Like a Sunset, Part II,” Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

The girl who broke your heart is walking down her driveway. You haven’t seen her in fifteen years. She looks unforgivably unchanged. You begin to regret everything all over again. Also, what are you doing at the foot of her driveway? This is the song that plays.

“Have You Seen the Stars Tonight,” Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship

This song feels like the disorienting rush of emotions that overtakes Rowan as he stands on a suburban curb in the dead of afternoon – as undramatic a time and place as there could be – and figures out how to make conversation with the person he once loved. He pictured this moment a million times, and now that it’s here, his mind is tunneling away from him. He’s wondering if he still loves this person, if he still knows this person, if he would’ve been different had they stayed together, if she would’ve been different. Better-different or worse-different?

“Backstreets,” Bruce Springsteen

Why does this song resonate so powerfully when it’s about a youth none of us had? I never slept in an old abandoned beach house. But for some reason, this is the song I hear when Rowan is reading the short stories that Margot published under a pen name, stories which may or may not be about him. At first, he feels a thrill at having not been forgotten, of discovering he’s not the only one who still thinks about those days. But then he realizes that being held onto comes with responsibility.

“It’s a Heartache,” Bonnie Tyler

When Rowan got the call summoning him back to his hometown for his brother’s funeral, it’s safe to say he did not expect to find himself running an errand with his ex-girlfriend Margot – with whom things ended very poorly – to pick up baby toys from Margot’s house, where she lives with her husband, Rowan’s ex-best friend – with whom things also ended very poorly. Together, Rowan and Margot load up her minivan, then stand in the driveway and look at each other. Neither of them is entirely happy with where life has taken them. Neither knows the way forward. Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” is the song that plays as they silently take it all in.

“One Was Johnny,” Carole King

I realize this is a curious selection: a song from a 1975 animated musical of a Maurice Sendak book. Yet somehow it conjures the mood of the Darling house, a house Rowan feared would be deathly quiet but is instead abuzz. It has been overrun – by his brother’s fiancée and baby (neither of whom Rowan knew existed), by his ex-girlfriend, his ex-best friend, even his ex-biology teacher (who’s apparently dating Rowan’s mother).

“Up on the Sun,” Meat Puppets

I think we can all admit that when we hear this song, the same thought goes through our minds: this should be playing the next time my ex’s son calls me up in the middle of the night because he and his idiot friends have stolen a pig from a petting zoo and don’t know what to do. We’ve all been there.

“Heaven,” Talking Heads

This is the one Talking Heads song that belongs on the soundtrack, and it should play exactly where it does in the book: as Rowan drives Margot’s delinquent son home late at night after a debacle involving an ornery farm animal. Alex (said delinquent) asks Rowan if it helps or hurts to listen to his dead brother’s favorite songs. It’s a strange relationship, the one burgeoning between Rowan and Alex. Margot wasn’t supposed to have children who weren’t also Rowan’s. But in each other, Rowan and Alex have found the one person in the entire town with whom they can be completely honest.

“6 AM,” The Districts

There’s a nakedness to this song, its aching melody intensified by the low-fi, acoustic performance. It’s the song I hear during Holden’s funeral. Rowan is standing graveside in an ill-fitting suit, struggling to process that he’s come here to bury his brother. And just when he allows himself to wish that Skid, of all people – the person who caused him more hurt than anyone else in his entire life – were standing out there with him, he feels a hand on his shoulder, looks up, and sees that he is.

“Glad and Sorry,” Faces

With all its melancholy, its sense of begrudging acceptance about the way things are, this is the song that should play when Rowan goes to find Margot at that old lake cabin. There’s a lot of history in that mildewy little shack, even if he’d only been there once before, many, many years ago. Rowan has come to tell Margot that she needs to go home. But they both realize that he can’t be the one who brings her back. It’s up to her.

“From Great Britain to L.A.,” Albert Hammond

Rowan, like me, is the kind of person who knows that Albert Hammond has non-“It Never Rains in Southern California” songs. This one plays as Rowan and Daisy pack up the rental car, hug the family – what’s left of it, as well as recent joiners – and head back to Philly to try to make a go of things. What things? Good question. This song just feels like hope. Like moving on, but leaving on good terms.

Andy Abramowitz is the author of two previous novels, A Beginner's Guide to Free Fall and Thank You, Goodnight. A native of Baltimore, Andy lives with his wife, two daughters, and their dog, Rufus, in Philadelphia, where he enjoys classic rock, pitchers' duels, birthday cake, the sound of a Fender Rhodes piano, and the month of October. He is also a lawyer.

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