January 30, 2023
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
David Nutt's collection Summertime in the Emergency Room is filled with surprising and inventive stories of outcasts, told by one of our master storytellers.
Sam Lipsyte wrote of the book:
"When it comes to David Nutt, the only thing I love more than his sharp, inventive and seismically funny style is the deep humanity from which it springs. His is a brilliant and much needed voice in these sad, ridiculous times."
The muzzy-headed characters lurching through these nine stories have been hobbled by loss and infirmity and, too often, their own poor choices and rash mistakes. They bungle opportunities. They self-medicate. They self-sabotage. In that spirit, I’ve paired their stories with songs that speak, I think, to their failures, their aches and afflictions, and also their wry humor and occasional (and mostly accidental) fortitude.
I was a floundering musician before I became a floundering writer. Much of the energy—and most of the joy—in writing, for me, resides in the boisterous clamor of the language. The clang, the fizz, the crunch. To this day, I remain somewhat bifurcated between playing in raucous bands and writing a kind of raucous fiction.
I doubled up a lot of songs because the bifurcated mind is not a decisive one.
THE BLISTER SISTERS
“Hammering So Hard” by Squirrel Bait
“Runaway Return” by Fugazi
An acerbic woman tries to cope with her twin sister’s suicide by retreating to their childhood home, only to be interrupted by her dead sibling’s doppelgänger, whom her mother seems to favor.
Louisville’s Squirrel Bait were teenagers when they recorded a pair of moody, hyper-caffeinated punk albums that were as brash as they were melodic. This is one of their teen-angst-iest songs, so it’s fitting for a story about a restless exile returning to the nest. Also, structurally, whether it’s an album or a story collection or a playlist: You gotta start hard, man. The Fugazi tune is a classic “black sheep returns to the flock” tale. As a co-middle child and prodigal son myself, I can tell you: This one hits home. And sometimes home hits back.
A KIND OF SWIMMING
“Outpatient” by Jawbreaker
“Chartered Trips” by Hüsker Dü
A disoriented father, recently discharged from a psychiatric facility after recovering from a nervous breakdown, defies his unofficial house arrest and sneaks out on a late-night journey across town, unraveling as he goes.
I logged a lot of hours in hospitals and doctor’s offices when I was a child. Spinal meningitis, appendicitis, Lyme disease, chicken pox, plantar warts: I collected maladies the way other kids did baseball cards. Despite my best efforts, infirmity has always crept into my fiction. “Outpatient” sets the scene. The anesthesia being administered. The soothing voice of medical professionals who are patiently awaiting their next coffee break. Those haunting words: “Count backwards from ten.” The Hüsker number captures the urgency of embarking on a long voyage, one that is mental as well as physical, rife with frustration and doubt, and no round-trip tickets offered, no guarantee of return.
THEORIES FOR THE ETERNAL DOG
“Dogs” by Pile
An agoraphobic man who can barely leave his apartment is tasked with caring for his homicidal drug dealer’s dog. So he dumps the dog on his elderly parents, and then mills about their house, drinking their beer, sleeping on their floor, another forsaken stray.
This song is unbearably sad. The good kind of sad. A solacing sad. Who doesn’t hear the barking of dogs in the distance as a clarion call for his or her own existential reckoning? Who are these well-adjusted people who shut their windows and resist the howls? Where do they live, and, more importantly, how do they live with themselves? My dog died last spring. Now my house is overrun with cats. Please send help. Oh lord, this song ruins me.
“The Wait” by Metallica
A crew of inept employees knocks a giant hole in the earth, accidentally killing their supervisor, and then they wait around for … what? Punishment? Salvation? Another meager paycheck?
One bright spot amid the incursion of cats in our household: My wife recently succumbed to my nostalgia for ’80s metal. Or in her words: “I’ve caught my husband’s midlife crisis.” The original song by Killing Joke is wilder and scuzzier, and—let’s face it—vastly superior, but the Metallica version is the one I grew up with as a preteen metalhead in suburban New Jersey, and it’s the one that I would listen to right now if I was knocking a giant fucking hole in the earth for minimum wage.
OUR LADY OF BLEAK HEARTS
“Spikes to You” by Drive Like Jehu
“Straight into Darkness” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
A family has a calamitous auto accident, and the nuclear unit gets blasted to bits. The wife is zombified. The child is mute. And the husband? He seems mostly fine. But maybe that’s because he’s been deeply deranged all along.
Drive Like Jehu’s Rick Froberg is not what I’d charitably call an intelligible singer, but his lyrics are often brilliant, in the caustic, twistily menacing manner of cutlery salesmen and morgue attendants. He’s also kind of hilarious, especially when he’s sharpening his knives on the suburbs. “Bits and guts and pieces hanging from the trees. Stumpy mow the lawn, c'mon, ya gotta bare piece a' ground.” Darkness comes in many flavors and gradients. Tom Petty shows up with his cherry-sunburst Rickenbacker and craggy drawl and magnificent horse teeth. Frankly, his enunciation isn’t much better than Froberg’s, but the sentiment is very much the same, both men standing amid the blasted landscape of the domestic dream, squinting into the night, wondering: Is that darkness me?
“The Lonely One” by the Wipers
“Who Rocks the Party” by Les Savy Fav
A quiet, lonesome guy, who happens to be hiding some horrific scarring, gets duped into a blind date with a woman who happens to have a fetish for meek men with horrific scarring, yet somehow the matchmaking doesn’t stick. Our sad bachelor ends up at a party that’s even more disastrous than the date.
Almost all of these stories feature socially inept loners trying to navigate a civilization that has atomized into ad-hoc cults and strange cliques. If you know anything about Greg Sage from the Wipers, he’s a loner par excellence: built his own analog gear, shunned scenes and bandwagons and cash-ins, remained ferociously independent, all to the detriment of whatever kind of career a gloomy-neo-psychedelic-garage-punk-alien-outlier might expect to scrape together. There’s no subtext in this song. The pain of solitude sits on the surface, tightening its necktie—or is that a noose?—while blinking back the tears. I didn’t realize just how terribly lonely my characters were until I saw them stacked side by side in book form. At the same time, a lot of these stories conclude with parties, weddings, group gatherings, although these never seem to end well, either. Les Savy Fav has a knack for writing unhinged party anthems, the kind that make parties feel like the most thrilling and horrible night of your life. Who rocks the party? Agony. Agony rocks the party.
“Send His Love to Me” by PJ Harvey
“Who Are You” by Tom Waits
A bodybuilding paraplegic harbors an unrequited crush on his charismatic stoner best friend, the one who accidentally broke his—the paraplegic’s—neck in an inane stunt gone awry.
Love: It’s the worst affliction of all, right? With the exception, I suppose, of death by fire or drowning or hydrochloric acid or high-rise defenestration. PJ Harvey and Tom Waits make any type of romantic dalliance sound both sensuous and grueling, lurid and lush, and not without a few torn shirts and broken bones along the way.
BEATRICE AND BONE
“Hey Cuz” by the Afghan Whigs
“1049 Gotho” by Idles
A pair of drug-addled office temps attempt to negotiate the incongruities of white-knuckled recovery and banal, white-collar life.
Drugs crop up often in these stories, which is a bit weird because I find most drugs to be a tedious waste of time and money and brain wattage that would be better expended by sitting around the house, making playlists for books nobody will read. I guess it’s the desperation and vulnerability of addiction that interests me—what a character in another story calls “all these temporary patches that require additional patches.” Addiction stories are love stories, of course, in which love is catastrophically misdirected or misplaced, and there’s also a platonic love story here, shoehorned into the squalor.
“Hey Cuz” crystalizes that manic, pharmaceutically-induced desperation at its most red-eyed and skeezy. “1049 Gotho” is desperation of a different, but no less tortured, order: the twitchily churning human brain’s inability to chill the fuck out and not destroy itself with grim thought. Both songs have the rousing propulsion, the lunatic careening, of Wile E. Coyote skidding off the ledge of a very steep cliff and greeting the nothingness with a smirk, then a scowl. Then a swift plummet.
A quick aside: I was a huge fan of the Afghan Whigs in the early-to-mid ’90s. Years later, I found out my father began his journalism career working for the father of the Whigs’ bass player (John Curley and John Curley Jr., respectively) at a newspaper in Bridgewater, NJ, where I had grown up. In his 20s, the younger Curley was a photographer for a Gannett newspaper in Cincinnati. In my 20s and 30s, I worked for a bunch of Gannett papers in NJ and NY. Nice symmetry there, the artsy sons following their fathers into a doomed trade, although Junior ended up in the Afghan Whigs, and I didn’t.
“Lionel Valhalla” by Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death
“Auto Rock” by Mogwai
A sports editor takes a brief break from her disappointing newspaper career to visit her declining father and drag him to a wedding that neither wants to attend. They don’t have a very good time. They don’t even attend the right wedding. The trip is a herky-jerky, death-haunted affair, with a lot of sarcastic jabs to deflect the sourness and sadness between father and daughter, and daughter and herself. Which I guess is an accurate summary for the book as a whole? The fact is, many of these stories were written after my father died suddenly. The song “Lionel Valhalla” concerns a guy who hangs himself, then goes to the underworld and discovers the afterlife is just as mundane and dehumanizing as the depressed existence he tried to flee. Is that a downer? You betcha. “Auto Rock” is the encore, or maybe the outro, the wistful coda. A kind of funeral dirge for aging indie-rock melancholics who eke out a little solace from loud guitars and sad-ass songs. It seems apt to conclude with an instrumental, too, something pensive and wordless. Because, my god, what do we need all these useless words for anyway?
David Nutt is the author of the short-story collection, Summertime in the Emergency Room, published by Calamari Archive in May 2022, and a novel, The Great American Suction (Tyrant Books, 2019). He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two cats.