November 4, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Robin McLean's novel Pity the Beast is acutely and innovatively told, an impressive debut that is one of the year's best books.
Chris Bachelder at The Paris Review Daily wrote of the book:
"McLean doesn't shrink the world down to interpersonal conflict, but instead opens it up to achieve a cosmic perspective that somehow feels both dispassionate and compassionate (Chekhov's trick). This opening up is wild, surprising, and not a little frightening. I suppose you could call these stories dark, but in their dazzling perspective I find them full of vitality and wonder."
For the most part, I wrote Pity the Beast in a earth-bermed bunker behind the very remote high plains desert home where I moved to complete the book. The front wall of the bunker faces east and is made of railroad ties re-purposed from a 4-mile narrow gauge railroad tunnel dug under Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas 300 miles to the south. The railroad was built (then removed, parts trucked to here) for a single purpose: to drill a new deeper drain hole up from below into the center floor of the lake; through this new drain, to pull water from the lake after the lake level drops below the mouths of the century-old intakes, since the engineers and planners way back guessed the future wrong. The water level is dropping so fast in Lake Mead that without the deeper water outlet, Vegas and the southwest in general would run out of water and hydropower much much sooner than without the new drain.
So I benefited from looming catastrophe. My bunker is nice.
The other walls of my bunker are not made of apocalypse-delaying materials, are mere concrete. Desert sand, pebbles and weeds over recycled steel I-beams are my roof. Sage and scorpions nests are up there too. Snakes sometimes came in my bunker while I was writing the book. Pack rats entered through vent pipes to get at chicken feed. At night they knocked over my books and swiped precious trinkets to bury back in their ancient nests where alien archeologists will find them all someday after humans have self-destructed. Wild horses sometimes galloped across my head while I was out there working, but mostly the bunker was totally silent.
In that deep desert silence, these are all things that I thought about while I was writing, maybe because of the railroad ties, or the engineers, or the pack rats.
Needless to say, this list of music I’ve made as a soundtrack to my American Western novel was not playing while I was writing the book. Now that the book is done, however, I feel it begs for a soundtrack. When the Coen Brothers or Jane Campion or David Lynch come calling, I’ll be ready.
I think it right to declare here that I had several important musical advisors for this project, all who know the novel really well. Tim Sutton, a first (and endless) reader of the novel with a massive, pristine and diverse vinyl record collection; Jeremy Davies, intrepid editor of the novel at And Other Stories; Melissa Guerra, my opera-singing college roommate who also took my headshot-with-hat for the book jacket; and Dion Graham, he of the divine-voice and impeccable interpretive skills, who narrated of the audiobook. I’m responsible for all final selections and commentary, intelligent or not.
The novel’s setting is western but I think of it on a cosmic scale. Also as operatic. I’ve organized this soundtrack for Book Notes as the pieces might appear on the Playbill that you and the film directors might be handed at the door entering the opera hall. Enjoy, and thanks for having me, Largehearted Boy!
This track of Native American singers is to play before the curtain rises (or for the opening credits of the film, hint hint, sonic backdrop to a very-high-over-all establishing shot of the glorious northern Rockies at daybreak). I love the women’s joyful voices on this track, the heartbeat drumming and especially the trilling laughter at the very end, since I do think my novel is quite funny in parts. The track is a recognition, too, to those people and story tellers who lived in these territories for eons before the characters or action of Pity the Beast. It is a tribute to the Berry Picker as well, who was an ever-present guide to me through this book. “Waniska” means wake up, according to the notes with the song where I found it. I could not think of a better message to commence what some are calling my feminist eco-western.
FYI, here is a translation (from the Cree?) in the comments with the song onYoutube:
Waniska (wake up)
pêwâpan ôma (It’s early daylight)
âsay piyêsîsak nikamowak (The Birds are already singing)
pê-miyonâkwan kitaskinaw (Our lands are beautiful )
The action of Pity the Beast starts on a ranch where a married couple is going through really hard times. Ginny has cheated on her good man, Dan. He’s crushed and shamed. I nearly chose Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Games” here at the top of the lineup, since his retro, mournful, self-pitying cries encapsulate—nearly perfectly— Dan’s the emotional storm. But I switched to Orbison because Dan is a very formal talker. If he could croon his grief, it would be in black and white and in Roy’s boxy shades and diction. He’d also opt, I believe, for Orbison’s almost-military tattoo of drums to accompany his walk in the first scene up the big long hill to the oak, following the little mare, the Percheron looking on. It’s over. It’s over. It’s over, he might call out, parroting Orbison’s rising crescendo. So we begin.
Ginny and Dan’s ranch in the northern Rockies is perched just outside a typical American small town, something akin to the town depicted in Dement’s lamenting, nostalgic tune. Our Town is where, as the song goes …I had my babies and I had my first kiss /I've walked down Main Street in the cold morning mist / Over there is where I bought my first car/ It turned over once but then it never went far. This is a place where the people know, without the slightest doubt, that they are good, fine and simple country folk. Nothing more, nothing less. They do not do evil in towns like this. Evil is for elsewhere. This track is for Ella.
Iris Dement may not approve but…sorry, Iris. This tract is defiant and about defiance, especially sexual defiance and freedom. Can a woman really be sexually free, unapologetic too? I like these two tracks in sequence here, the thought-effect produced by the clashing juxtaposition.
So there’s a party that gets out of hand, and—surprise surprise—the Devil shows up. Old Mr. Scratch, Lucifer, Satan. Pleased to meet you. He’s been around for a long long year as the raucous, escalating tune says. Oh yeah, this voice of the British Invasion enters stage-left as way too much liquor flows. It recalls how old Europe once ran aground on the shores of what’s now Virginia and Massachusetts, setting stones a’rollin across this continent, culminating in now. The Devil will be back. I especially like one stanza about complicity that resonates for me with the rest of the book: I shouted out / Who killed the Kennedys? / When after all / It was you and me. It takes two to tango with the Devil.
It feels to me as if Johnny recorded every line of this gut-wrenching ballad in his quavering voice just for Dan and the pickle he’s found himself in. I wear this crown of thorns up upon my liars chair/ full of broken thoughts I cannot repair. Pain. Sadness. Fear. Regret. One of Cash’s great gifts, I think, is his ability to plunge into deepest, most vexing, emotional experiences with very few lines of poetry, pure voice and a few plucks at strings. Feel the misery in the repeated question, What have I become? High five to the lucky person who goes through life never having to ask themselves that question. And yes, Dan does wish he could start again a millions miles away. He goes there too and the book follows him.
Town is far behind now. The cast is on the road, in this case on horseback into the big lonely Mormora Mountains with a pack train of mules with their supplies. This track is for Maul, Bowman and Saul. The boys have prepared for a protracted chase after their bandit, Ginny, in this case, who is the Pity the Beast version of Pancho running in the song. Our boys know they…Could have had [her] any day, we only let [her]slip away, out of kindness…. I was going to use the Willie Nelson/ Merle Haggard version, but I came to my senses and circled back to the (correct) Townes Van Zandt version. Whew. That was close. Whatever version, I hear the fun in banditry in it, joy of the ride, of being out of in the wild, of freedom, of comradeship and toughness. Living on the road my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean/ And now you wear your skin like iron / and your breath as hard as kerosene. Yep, that’s our gang.
The story follows the Old Swede’s Trail and this upbeat, romping tune is for him and for the idea of Wandering in general, both physically and metaphorically (enter the Berry Picker). The Old Swede was the kind of man undeterred when you can’t tell what waits beyond this road. Onward for good or ill, as with so many actual and mythic American explorer types. He is a drifter, a driftin’ drifter / Got no place to call my home no more. An immigrant to the “New World,” he left old bloody Europe after a painful, complicated and dead-end life there. He cheerfully accepts being a nameless face in another nameless town. The Old Swede is an agent of kindness in the novel, someone who cares for the future lost people. I think Dolly is a good representative of him, the lovely sweet hopeful part of America that is worth trying to remember sometimes, even in these difficult days we’re in.
Ok, before we get too upbeat and happy with Dolly, let’s not forget about Ginny. She’s still skulking around out there, pissed off and armed. The main cast chasing her has no better intentions. To pull Ginny back into the score, I’ve slotted in Carla Bozulich’s haunting, churning, swirling version of “Red Headed Stranger,” (Willie Nelson’s was the famous version from his album of the same name in 1975). Buzulich’s take, I’ve learned, was intended as a revamping of the revenge narrative with a feminist tilt, which of course is kind of perfect for Ginny. Yeah, her heart is heavy as night… wild in sorrow… hidin’ in her pain. She is rewriting things too in a world where you can’t hang a man for killing a woman / whose trying to steal your horse.
Onward they go into the wilderness. They do not finish their business with Ginny yet, but they will. The trackers are confident. They’ll meet her ahead, later in the story, where the road is dark and the seed is sowed and the gun is cocked and the bullets cold. This tune is for Bowman who probably is actually wearing a dead man’s suit, smilin’ skull ring and his lucky graveyard boots. (I wish I’d thought of that outfit.) There is dread in this ballad and suspenseful waiting, wondering if there’s a light up ahead. The song has the feeling, for me, of long stoic endurance achieved through long stoic endurance, of steely understanding, of indifference to calamity.
This overt political song is for the Red Jenny, who is starting to rabble rouse in the story by now. As a radical mule of action, she’d appreciate the (all too familiar now) verbs in the lyrics of Dunn’s tune. Police, they arrest me / Materialists detest me / Pollution, it chokes me / Movies, they joke me / Politicians exploit me. The only two-legged character who might appreciate this protest song is the Deputy. But he’s totally focused on horses, cowboys and one cowgirl, so pays no attention at all to mules, no matter how persuasive. Everyone has a fatal flaw, I guess.
A gospel choir is called for at a dangerous river crossing. However, Kraus and the choir’s rising voices summon family where there is no family at the river. How lonesome. O sisters let go down, let go down, down in the river… O brothers, let’s go down… O fathers… O mothers... Don’t you wanna go down? Maybe family resides within. Deep faith in self will have to do at the river, also faith in a horse, also faith in the instructions of a long lost grandmother who dispenses advice about rivers as well as a variety of other wild matters. This near-chant is also for Saul, the only true believer in the book. He prays when shit hits the fan, and the shit is beginning to fly.
And when prayer won’t help…scream for help! At some point in the story, nearly anyone in it could sing along with k.d. lang (though Bowman never would, nor Saul). But picking this track, I’m really aiming at The Steer: a herd animal lost alone, miserable, frantic, pleading pave me / the way to you…. spoil me with you … watch over me with a mother’s eyes in a cold canyon world where mothers are in terribly short supply. Oh how he needs the Red Jenny now. I love the in-the-saddle tempo of this track and of course the slide guitar for around the fire.
The Deputy has the blues and this tune is for him. He’s truly out of the frying pan as he searches for the illusive Ginny on his brave (and stupid?) foray into back country travel on borrowed horses. As a New Jersey boy, he’s probably spent some time with Bic lighter swaying in the air (no cell phones in the book) in a smoky Montclair club where Alabama Shakes might play this one. Through cigarette haze, he’d be checking out a cute little gal in a sparkly cowboy hat, never quite able to catch her troubled eyes. Why don’t you sit with me just a little while….Why don’t tell to me just a little why. She’d notice him, surely, if he’d just worn some cool kind of uniform. Chicks love that shit. But which uniform? Jughead? Fireman? Cowboy?... or… a cop. Hot damn, yeah, that’s it. Sheriff’s Deputy? Bye bye, mom. Heading west. I’ll write.
Fuck with me boy if you want to fuck. That’s where we’ve arrived. The story breaks open into new territory when Saul and Bowman ride back through The Narrows to the Deputy. This track corresponds well with that shift, a defiant blues trot to gallop about home and no home, turn-arounds and accidents and victims of accidents, pulsing across town to recklessness, beyond and across the line to lawlessness and putting the devil behind the wheel. Momentum. Escalation. Damnation. The Devil strikes again.
A death, a betrayal, another death. A fire. I needed music here representing an explosion of beyond-horrible. A nasty-nasty selection. This slow, groping track serves, I think, starting with open sores and shards. Rage, contagion, revoltion, possibly the beginning of revolution. I hear all that. “The Widow” freaks one out with its creepy lyrics, screaming-to-howls and a mournful don’t-fuckin’-the fuck-with-me vibe for the trail ahead.
Because I love the cob, I can’t leave Act III on that sour note. I want the cob to get a little dedicated time here, a love song, since love across species can, in my opinion, form the purest and truest bonds. He gave his love to me. Yes. That’s all I have to say about this track except that back in my pottery days in Alaska, I listened to this Cowboy Junkies album (a CD then) so many times that it made me want to become a Canadian. Maybe why Ginny wants to go there so bad.
Prince is my favorite music maker of all time so I had to get him in here somewhere. Purple Rain, the album, was just a huge event for me when it came out, for so many reasons, I can’t quantify it all. I know. I know. I could have picked any number of Prince tracks for this list, from “Darling Nikki” to “Emancipation.” But this track feels like rage to me, is comfortable with rage, uses rage kind of calmly (not much falsetto) to generate the powerhouse track it is. I’m thinking of Ginny here, also the Buckskin Jenny and, to some extent, Dan and the Rodeo Kid too, who are both angry, both disappointed by failures in story lines / myths (love, cowboys) that do not pan out. Everybody keep trying to break my heart. I also like that, here, this soundtrack starts to really bust off free from the prevailing country / folk strumming we started with. Boom boom go the drums (an imp cackling in the background). We’ve come a long long way from Iris Dement. So here’s to Prince. I’m dancing in my headphones as I try to w…r…i…t…e ….t….h….i…s.
That heartbeat (sort of like running from a bear along a riverbank), overlayed with a ticking clock, overlayed with I’ve always been mad, more cackling, then screams birthing into the pulse of drum. Breathe, breathe in the air, don’t be afraid to care…look around… choose your own ground. If I had been able to make this exact song exactly as it is, maybe I wouldn’t have had to sit in my silent bunker all that time writing the book. Different art forms inspire other art forms. This track, as with the Apes (and shifts in time and space) in 2001, A Space Odyssey, inspire me. I think of Ginny in her cave with this song, the spy on the moon, the vast disorientation required for metamorphosis. Ginny’s hand on the cave wall.
When I first picked this song, I thought of it for the Red Jenny and the Steer. Then for the Red Jenny to the Little Gray. Then I thought I could be for good Old Grannie, for what she might have said to her Dear Ones if she wasn’t so damn crotchety ….if you think you’ve had too much of this life… hang on. Life is better than death. Live it, no matter what life is offered. Dare I dream Ella and Ginny might have even sung this one on their walk out, even if not to each other? Sisters are tough. So live. Now it’s time to sing along.
Remember that girl-power bumper sticker from way way back in a Universe far far away about how a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle? This is the updated version. Watch the video too for enviable cowgirl outfits, dancin’. It is for the walk to North. Hell yeah.
This is the only music for the last act. It is future future music. Earth music written by a fellow Alaskan (fellow, since for the rest of my life, no matter where I live, I will think of myself as an Alaskan). It is also for the Yeoman who is the future future, who holds the secret and the hope that it’s to be a better future future than the past futures that we are making now.
Robin McLean worked as lawyer and then a potter for fifteen years in the woods of Alaska before receiving her MFA at UMass Amherst. Her story collection Reptile House won the 2013 BOA Editions Fiction Prize and was twice a finalist for the Flannery O'Connor Short Story Prize.