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October 31, 2022

Sara Lippmann's Playlist for Her Novel "Lech"

Lech by Sara Lippmann

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.

Sara Lippmann's Lech is a brilliant debut, a book with a prodigious amount of heart as well as intelligence.

The Millions wrote of the book:

"Lech is the ambitious debut novel of an excellent new prose stylist."

In her own words, here is Sara Lippmann's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Lech:

Many of my earliest memories arrived by song. A scrawny, sensitive kid, I’d lie on my sister’s pink shag listening to her records. The Bee Gees, Air Supply. In first grade, I saved up change for my first 45 (The Go-Go’s, “We Got the Beat”) until I got a radio with a tape deck then glued my ear to WYSP 94.1FM waiting for my favorite song to come on – in 1981, this was Foreigner’s “Urgent” – so I could dub it. Oh, the delayed gratification. Once MTV invaded my living room, the rest is “Hot for Teacher” history.

I say this, without any accounting for taste. I was a child driven less by discovery than by comfort. Maybe I cranked it loud to conjure a pulse, to feel alive, to fill me up. More likely I was trying to drown out my parents' bitter arguing. For me, music has always been a coming home. It soothes and moves me, regularly brings me to tears, returns me to myself, provides an easy escape. By middle and high school, I was convinced I’d been born in the wrong decade. Cue the Donovan albums, the Dylan and Joni, the endless Grateful Dead bootlegs.

Looking back, I don’t think I ever would have written if it hadn’t been for that persistent ache. Strange, now, to witness the veritable absence of such an obsession in my own kids. Sure, they’ll pop in earbuds for subway commutes, but they don’t blast anything in their rooms, and they aren’t lining up outside the record store for concert tickets or climbing fences to sneak into lively summer shows. They’re not living for it the way I, the way so many of us, did.

There was a time when I wrote to music, followed by a time when I only wrote to Morricone’s The Mission soundtrack, and now I write in silence, but the music – the rise and fall of words, the lilt of language and inflection, the rhythms of lines on the page – is all baked in.

My novel takes place in the Catskills over the summer of 2014 and revolves around the potential sale of a large chunk of property owned by two disparate parties and the repercussions on the lives of various people. In my mind, the radio is always on, even when it’s static, out of range, playing a song for the thousandth time. Songs trigger the memories we try to hold onto. Told from five different points of view, the effect, hopefully, is more symphonic than cacophonic, but you’ll be the judge. Ideally, each character should have their own playlist, but given my penchant for '60s folk and hearty appetite for nostalgia, here are a few skewed selections:

“Helpless,” Crosby Stills & Nash

In a way, this is where the book begins. Beth Barkman rents a house in Sullivan County, NY for the summer with her young, highly allergic son, leaving her husband behind in the city. When the pilot light blows on the stove, she traipses through the woods to her landlord, who’s living in a decrepit bungalow (transported from a now defunct bungalow colony) at the edge of his property. Before she meets him, she hears the lyric – “There is a town in North Ontario” – through the screen door, yet it’s the refrain that gets me, the slow whine that both defines Ira Lecher’s brand of self-pitying, and Beth’s unwillingness to light the damn thing herself.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” The Rolling Stones

A former editor at Man’s World magazine, Ira gets a bit precious about his record collection, including a first edition of Sticky Fingers with the zipper that moves up and down. Voyeurism plays a key role in the fraught landlord/renter friendship, as does the dissolution of boundaries, physical and emotional trespassing, so this borderline creeper tune is an embodiment of that desperate yearning, and…relentlessness.

“Cum on Feel The Noise,” Quiet Riot

Beth’s precocious son challenges the song’s spelling on the car dial in one of the opening chapters, filling her with pride (Zach is not yet five) and annoyance at the kid’s incessant need to be right about everything.

“Blackbird,” The Beatles

A compulsive list maker — lists help keep her darkest thoughts at bay – Beth keeps mental track of various categories of items starting with the letter B. “Blackbird”, “Beast of Burden.” Both songs belong on the proverbial mixtape, but I chose “Blackbird” for the wistfulness that transcends her own neurosis and strums the chords of other characters, like Ira, an amateur birder, and Paige Murphy, who eventually takes flight.

“Panama,” Van Halen

Local real estate agent Noreen Murphy and her daughter Paige are no strangers to the bald, often violent demands of men. Noreen has become conditioned by this world view, learning to operate within it, to use herself for a desired outcome. The cool expectation of David Lee Roth’s, “I reach down between my legs, and ease the seat back” makes Paige clench up and shut down, determined to leave town. She does not want to become her mother. She wants to break that cycle of entrapment and power.

“Night Moves,” Bob Seger

One afternoon Ira and Beth smoke too much weed and cruise around the county in Ira’s silver Mustang talking about everything and nothing. This track appears on a CD that Ira’s daughters made for his 50th birthday. The chorus thrums: “summertime, summertime,” which is a whole mood. It may be a cheesy song but it’s funny, too, and there is a sexy clear-eyed longing that strikes the tonal registry I was going for. These fumbling, bumbling teens – “we were just young and restless and bored” – get hit by a sudden ache at the song’s end, “with autumn closing in.”

“Pink Moon,” Nick Drake

In the same scene Beth is tasked with the dubious job of car DJ, which gets her flustered because she doesn’t know herself; rather, she disavows her own views – even with music. Beth has no real opinion on Nick Drake, but it’s an obvious posture and Ira sees right through it.

“Girls, Girls, Girls,” Motley Crue

Beth may act superior, pretending to be offended by the misogyny of '80s metal hair bands, but she is a Jersey girl. The rally cry, the base recognition, the scarves and tight pants and bare chests, the invitation to vanish inside of it – may just turn her on. Noreen, meanwhile, would unabashedly queue it up in The Lion’s Den jukebox, right after “Don’t Stop Believin’” and before Aerosmith’s “F.I.N.E.”, which goes out to everybody, because who isn’t? (Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic, Emotional.)

“Closer,” Nine Inch Nails

This anthem pulses through all the characters’ hearts as the book grapples with desire in its most primal form. We are all animals underneath our clothes.

“Walk Through the Desert,” by Karen & the Sorrows

Poet, singer, and songwriter Karen Pittelman is a dear friend and a first reader. This song from her album The Narrow Place penetrates the biblical core of the book which addresses the imperative of lech lecha – Go, go forth in life. But the only way to go is through. Desert wandering is a requirement. The album’s title, The Narrow Place, is a translation of the word Mitzrayim (Egypt), which is also the name I gave to the underground organization in the novel that offers a safe haven for fundamentalist Hasidim looking for a way out of their restrictive sect.

“Freedom,” by Richie Havens

Ira never made it to Woodstock, but he picked up his (now) ex-wife Vivian from the side of the road of Route 17 in the summer of 1969. I used to blast Havens as a disgruntled kid eager to break out of my suburban walls, and it vibrates throughout the book as it asks: how do we free ourselves from the crap that we carry? It’s ringing in Ira’s ears the day of his hallucinatory health crisis. Plus, maybe it’s A Walk on the Moon talking, but the song’s also horny as hell.

“Summer, Highland Falls,” Billy Joel

An ode to the region, Bill Joel is on the rotation at The Breakstone Diner where Paige works as a server. The polarity – “it’s only sadness or euphoria” – is a nod to the emotional spectrum the characters, and the place itself, swing between.

“Strange Girl,” Laura Marling

Released in 2020, this song technically couldn’t land on a playlist for a book that takes place in 2014. That said, I picture Paige, somewhere in Florida, cruising on the Expressway with this song at top volume, as a victory lap, a celebration of herself. Finally, she has arrived.

“American Pie,” Don McLean

The voice of Tzvi, my tragic Hasidic character, emerged one night like elegy, like “dirges in the dark.” Unfamiliar with most mainstream music, he knows this universal song. He believes all Americans recite it from memory, like he does with his morning prayers.

“One Day,” Matisyahu

Haunted by his mother’s death, suffocated by his religion, traumatized by sexual assault, Tzvi is trying to leave the fold and forge his own path. This hopeful song imbues him with the courage to seek out Mitzrayim. It is his “Eye of the Tiger.”

“Girl from the North Country,” Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

When Noreen and Ira finally get together, they make a road trip to the city. He wants his ex-wife’s blessing to sell the property; she wants to clinch an offer from the developers. This classic duet would play on the return drive, after they stop at the cemetery to visit Ira’s parents’ graves. It is one of the most romantic songs I know. They might just have a chance, these two.

“Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison

Before they arrive home, Ira comes upon a deer in the middle of the road. (Tzvi means deer in Hebrew in the sole symbolic, or astral element in the book.) As he sets up his flares, as he pulls the animal to the side, as he recites the mourner’s prayer, the seven-minute song plays to the leather seats of the abandoned car: “To be born again.”

“Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen

Somewhere in the distance of the Sullivan County Fair. Spoiler alert: The End.

Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collections Doll Palace re-released by 713 Books, and Jerks from Mason Jar Press. Her work has been honored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, and has appeared in The Millions, The Washington Post, Best Small Fictions, Epiphany, Split Lip and elsewhere. She teaches with Jericho Writers and lives with her family in Brooklyn.

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