April 1, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mary Kuryla's novel Away to Stay is a stunning coming-of-age story.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Family proves both an elusive dream and disquieting reality in Kuryla’s delightfully quirky debut...Kuryla shines in her descriptions of the offbeat characters and their antics…It adds up to a captivating coming-of-age yarn."
Olya, the young narrator in my novel Away to Stay, longs for a home after years of an itinerant life with her Russian émigré mother, Irina. Olya is not alone in her longing. Irina longs to dance in an American ballet company. Irina’s cousin Jack, whose house Olya will shelter in following a harrowing incident while sleeping in her mother’s car, longs to make the dog he kidnapped from the Riverside Police Department stop running away. Dog and man are in a battle of wills brought on by their trauma serving in Afghanistan war. But this battle has a precedent. What Jack most wants is to stop Irina from running off on him. Unbeknownst to Olya, this is the stage that is set with her crossing the threshold into Jack’s home. Everyone in this domestic drama wants what they cannot have, and in those brief moments when they do get a tenuous hold on their dream, they grasp too tightly.
“Rain Dogs” by Tom Waits
According to the Tom Waits’ song, if you’re a rain dog, “You’ll never be going back home.” Olya’s begrudging identification with the dog named Bird in the novel reflects this possibility, as well as her terror that she will never find a home in the first place and, if she does, she won’t be able to stay in it. Could Olya have gotten so used to an itinerant life with her mother that she’s no longer capable of staying anywhere long? The lines “Huddle a doorway with the Rain Dogs/For I am a Rain Dog too” sum up Olya’s ambivalence, her longing to get past the doorway, but also her pride in staying on the outside, being a rain dog, someone who can survive in doorways. Sure, there may not be a home for her, but at least no one can take away a doorway. Toward this end, the book starts in media res, with Olya literally on the doorstep of a house that she wants in. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, and she is mustering the courage to knock when the door opens, and a dog leaps straight through the screen door. Olya gets blamed for letting the dog out, putting her in head-to-head conflict with the house’s owner, Jack. Is this the cost of living with others in a house, she wonders. Is it worth it? A rain dog is a dog caught in the rain, with its whole trail washed away by the water so he can't get back home. Those are also the stakes of Away to Stay: will the twelve-year-old Olya establish firm enough footing in a home, prove she can stay and, through her resilience and resolve, inspire Jack and Irina to change their ways and make a home for her—or is she too doomed to wander, the trail home forever washed away? Away to Stay looks at what it takes to leave a trail that can’t be washed away.
“Delia’s Gone” by Johnny Cash
After a catastrophe has struck Riverside, California, Olya is desperate to get back to Jack’s house. Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone” plays on the car radio her friend McFate drives. “Delia all my life/If I hadn’t shot poor Delia/I’d of had her for my wife”, which pretty much sums up the relationship between Jack and Irina, Olya’s mother, who suffer profound morbid ambivalence for each other. Each one as likely to make love to the other as kill the other. More damaging still, their obsession operates to the exclusion of all others. When we meet Jack, he has transferred some of that obsession for Irina onto the dog, but in Bird’s case it appears that if he can’t make the dog stay, he will make the dog dead, as evidenced in his manic firing of a gun at the floor to dislodge Bird from hiding under his house. “If your woman’s devilish, you can let her run or you/or you can bring her down and do her like Delia got done.” As outrageous and grievous as Cash’s lyrics were, the singer/songwriter had a flawless ear for humans’ naked ambivalence for each other and the incorrigible language it could shape in a man’s mouth. The song foreshadows the violence that caps off the novel’s conclusion.
“U.R.A. Fever” by The Kills
The velocity of Jack’s feeling for Olya’s mother Irina and his obsession with training his dog is brilliantly expressed in these lines, “Go ahead and have her, go ahead and leave her/You only ever had her when you were a fever” from “U.R.A. Fever” by The Kills. Jack and Irina come and go in each other’s lives, but when they do unite, their union is bigger than they are, feverish, bordering on illness, rendering them helpless. The mechanical pulse of “U.R.A Fever,”the drone and the push/pull of the arrangement captures the emotional rhythm of Jack and Irina’s love/hate. But they are not alone in their extremity. The narrator Olya is in her own fever to live in a house. “I am a fever/I am a fever/I ain’t born typical.” The Kills’ song seems to be sung by the fever itself, as suggested by the first-person lyrics. The narrator of the novel, Olya, feels she too is not born into the world typically; she does not even inhabit a house that would confer a modicum of security and predictability. Additionally, the song’s mix often devolves into audio static; it’s sort of decom posing, like a fever breaking down the body’s defenses. Olya’s language, the way she perceives and describes the world around her reflects this atypicality. Olya finds tentative shelter in Jack’s house. How could Jack and Olya possibly have guessed that coming to know each other and care for each other would prove the cooling of their fever.
“Merci Bon Dieu,” written by Frantz Casseus, sung by Harry Belafonte
There is a moving scene in the Claire Denis film 35 Shots of Rum when the central protagonists, a father and his college-age daughter, go about their evening routine of preparing dinner, showering and doing laundry. The daughter puts Harry Belafonte’s rendition of “Merci Bon Dieu” on a player. Belafonte’s gorgeous rendition is perfect accompaniment to this duo’s perfect relationship. In fact, the harmony and contentment in their relationship is a gift, a gift from God, as the song suggests. It’s no surprise that the arc of the story concerns the necessary decentering of their relationship to make room for others, including a romantic partner for each. Jack and Olya’s relationship in Away to Stay is at the opposite pole to Denis’s portrayal of a loving father/daughter dyad. Jack and Olya are in a battle over the house, the dog, even Olya’s mother. Nothing in their relationship would appear to be a gift of God’s grace. Ironically, the fatherless Olya’s devotion to the Gideon’s Bible she stole from a motel inspires her to make a request of God, who she wildly imagines has manifested through a crack in the basement of Jack’s house. God informs her that she will be tested in her desire to stay, and that test means dealing with Jack. Though forged in opposition, Olya and Jack eventually develop a powerful bond. The uplifting spiritual quality of Belafonte’s “Merci Bon Dieu” captures the often overlooked, but just as often ecstatic pleasures of a happy routine with others in a home. Olya too comes to know some of the simple pleasures of domestic routines in cleaning Jack’s house and with each dinner Jack prepares for her.
“The Swan Theme” from Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky
Olya’s mother Irina would have trained tirelessly at the Vaganova School of Ballet to dance Swan Lake and may have danced the part of Odette, the Swan Queen, at the Kirov before emigrating from Russia. In Away to Stay Irina knows the story so well she seems to dance it daily in life. The story of doomed love—the princess Odette is cursed to only take human form at midnight, thwarting the prince’s pursuit with the dawn—could describe the elision of the dog, aptly named Bird, and the woman Irina in Jack’s mind. When Olya meets Jack, he has managed to compartmentalize his obsession with Irina by turning it upon the dog he trains to stay. But at night, he returns to his obsession with Irina, as if the dog assumes human form once again. Indeed, the reason the couple’s romantic trysts are so well-hidden from Olya is because they occur under the cloak of night, often coinciding with her mother’s literal flight from her life. Tchaikovsky’s classic composition begins quietly, with great delicacy, mirroring the waking of the swans on the lake. but ends in a clamor. This range of sound could also describe the range of feeling that occurs quick as mercury between the couple. The progress of the novel moves as well from a quiet start in the middle of the night into a crescendo at the conclusion.
Youth of America by the Wipers
Away to Stay takes place in 2006, Riverside, CA. The long clang of grunge rock would have been fading in those years though the champions of shitty clothes and shittier attitudes reflected in bands like Nirvana would still register in the lives of some youths. As if steeling itself against a glossy tech future of Instagram lips and vocals swallowed in autotuning, The Wipes’ garage album Youth of America records registers of ragtag and rain dogs and guitar meanders of the unhoused and runaway teen. “Say a prayer for the youth of America/God Bless the youth of America/and I can’t stand this anymore/all the dead kids lying on your door.” Olya is probably not cool enough to have heard of the band, but her odd and unlikely high school dropout friend McFate probably is, and he surely recognizes in her this very possible fate of a dead kid lying in someone’s door. In Away to Stay, McFate talks I”n a mostly vile manner, if with the rhetorical flourish of a preacher. He is devoted to Bukowski and scribbles lines from the writer’s poems on toilet stalls. He does it to hear some music and tragedy in the dumb walls that are his job as school janitor to clean up. Olya and McFate are twinned souls in their ability to find grace in the least likely of places, including a house laid flat in an earthquake. They are the orphans of the grunge era. McFate might be just as likely to quote Barry Hannah in praise of Olya, “Your heart a searching dog in the rubble,” and he would be right.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges
Because “And now I wanna be your dog” is one of the greatest lines in a song ever written and recorded, and don’t we all wanna be someone’s dog, if only they knew how to be masters? In Away to Stay, the dog named Bird shows Olya something of what it is to trust, and through this training, Olya is able to reveal to Jack the absence of trust between him and his dog, which in turn avails of Jack a remedy for all that ails all of them.
Mary Kuryla's collection Freak Weather: Stories won the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and was published by University of Massachusetts Press. Her stories have received The Pushcart Prize and the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize and appeared in The Paris Review, Conjunctions, Agni, Epoch, and elsewhere.
Her award-winning shorts and feature films have premiered at Sundance and Toronto. She has written screen adaptations for studios and independents. Kuryla is a screenwriting professor in the School of Film and TV at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.