SOUNDTRACK: VIC CHESNUTT-At the Cut [CST060] (2009).
Vic Chesnutt died in December. I have limited exposure to him, although I really enjoyed his previous Constellation release North Star Deserter.
This release (his second to last) shows him playing with much the same line up as North Star. And it is just as harrowing and passionate as the other.
It opens with the fantastic “Coward” in which, stating how courageous it can be to be a coward her proudly sings “I am a Coward!”. This track is one of the rocking ones on the disc, which is split pretty evenly between cacophonous rockers and slow moody acoustic pieces. Another great rocker is “Chinaberry Tree.” The lyrics are simple and the chorus is just the words Chinaberry Tree, but it is fantastic.
My preferences run to faster music, so I enjoy his noisier tracks to the simpler, acoustic ones. And yet, lyrically, his songs are so moving that I easily get sucked into the narratives. The most notable song on the disc is “Flirted with You All My Life” which is about death, specifically about his past suicide attempts. It’s really moving. And even the seemingly simple “Granny” is a well-written mood piece.
Chesnutt had all kind of physical problems (when he was 18 he was in a car accident and had been mostly paralyzed) and he had been in pain most of life. It’s a shame he felt compelled to end his life, but we still have his music to enjoy.
[READ: March 27, 2010] Fever Chart
About half way through this first-person book, the narrator has a mental breakdown and tries to bite his hand off. That should tell you right off the bat whether or not you want to read the book. (Add to that that the narrator also has terrible bowel problems).
I had received an excerpt from McSweeney’s over the summer, and of all three books in the sampler, I enjoyed this one the most. Little did I know how utterly surreal the story would get once that excerpt was over!
The cover of the book shows a man walking down the street with blood dripping from his hand. This seemed like an odd choice to me. However, for the bulk for the story, the narrator seems to be walking down streets with blood dripping from his hand (the one he eventually tries to bite off) so it perfectly encapsulates the tone of the book.
The story opens in the middle of a series of events from the narrator’s past (the first few sections are written in a wonderfully disjointed way that keeps the reader off balance). Jerome Coe is currently living in an Apartment in Boston. It has no heat. His toilet is frozen solid and he is sleeping between his mattress and box spring to keep warm. After ages of complaints to his landlord, one day the heat kicks on. Full blast. And Jerome cannot turn it off. Soon, wallpaper is peeling of the walls and steam is flowing from his windows. He is naked in his apartment and is preparing to run outside into the freezing weather just to escape the heat.
While he is standing outside, half-naked, a car pulls up and the driver, a woman named Tommy, asks him to jump in.
It turns out that Tommy knew Marta. Marta was a woman who Jerome sort of knew at the mental institution where the both resided. Jerome and Marta had each escaped. But while Jerome was living in an apartment, Marta has crashed her car into a tree.
Tommy says she wants to visit Marta’s home town of New Orleans. Since Jerome has nothing else to do, he agrees to go with her. But the car trip is fraught with peril and after some serious words, Tommy winds up slicing open his hand with a barrette. They come to serious blows in the frozen parking lot and Jerome escape with her car.
That sounds like I’ve given away the whole story, but it is barely the first third (I didn’t even mention Tommy’s family and the hilarious things that happen at their house).
Jerome drives to New Orleans where he attempts to start a new life. He gets a job as a grilled cheese maker (and quickly rises to tremendous fame (!) in the position). And all the while he is staying in a hostel. His roommates are two Danish homosexuals, Knops and Dik, and a woman from Quito called Miranda. He has never actually met any of them because they stay out all night and sleep all morning.
The receptionist at the hostel, Caroline, befriends Jerome (probably because she is a lesbian and that takes the pressure off both of them). One day he discovers that Miranda (who he actually never knew was female, as he never saw her) went back to Quito. Caroline tells him that she thought he had a really cute philtrum. And, with this piece of information, he spends the bulk of the next few chapters obsessing over her.
All this time, by the way, Jerome has his bleeding, unhealing hand wrapped up in a diaper or some other kind of pseudo-bandage
And this is still less than half of the entire story.
Cotter packs so much story into this demented tale, that it’s really hard to summarize it adequately. Suffice it to say that trouble follows Jerome wherever he goes. Even when things start to pick up (he actually likes his job) his boss begins dating his next door neighbor (whom he hates). And the neighbor starts coming around to the restaurant.
I haven’t even included all of the madness of this story: a psychopathic bartender’s boyfriend, Mr Zits, Omar Sharif, masturbation into socks, a big blue dildo and an action sequence that culminates at Mardi Gras.
With all the absurdity, I really enjoyed the story. It was so weird I pretty much never knew what was coming next. In the back third of the story a new character is introduced and she is treated as if she has been in the story for chapters and everyone knows her. I thought that I had simply forgotten her, until I realized that she was a new character but everyone else is so weird they don’t treat her like she’s new.
The only time when I didn’t enjoy the book was when Jerome started hunting down the aforementioned bartender bully. I was concerned that the story was going to culminate with some kind of conventional revenge narrative. But I should have had faith in the madness of Cotter. Because even from there, the story veers in three other directions.
If this sounds like a nightmare, well, I’ve definitely toned it down from the original so stay away! But if any of this madness appeals to you then you’ll likely enjoy the book. Within the madness of this narrative, there is genuine empathy for others, there is an awful lot of humor, and a twisted delight in serendipity.
But let the reader beware: strange things are afoot here. Oh, and I have no idea what the title means.