RE: RARA-AVIS: RE: Soul Circus

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 25 Mar 2003

miker wrote about Pelecanos:

"The thing I wonder about in his books is the era-specific references and the frequency of them. To an extent, it parallels the social history novels I've read by O'Hara, Heath, and Gores, with one critical shortcoming. Those other books open up an era you didn't live in and make it come alive. Unless you are already familiar with what Pelecanos is talking about, the music he mentions tells you nothing. It's like an insider joke."

Well, he did the same thing in his historic novels as in his contemporary ones. For instance, he did his research for Big Blowdown so he could use just as many '40s brand and music names as his more current books. Now I don't know my '40s music (especially not the white pop charts) as well as that of the rock era, so some of the names did go over my head, but it didn't bother me, just told me that music was important in the lives of the characters, even if I didn't always know the specific cultural significance of a particular song. That said, the black music (most of which I did recognize) playing in the diner was very important, as it signaled the acceptance of blacks in a diner along a street where integration was a big issue.

There seems to be a love it or hate it reaction to Pelecanos's name dropping (well, there are probably also those who just skip over those parts). It works for me, in a big way. Now I know my pop music, so I recognize the vast majority of the names. And liking a particular song or artist does tell me a lot about a character.

That said, I can see the insider joke complaint (even when it makes me feel like an insider for catching the references). However, as much as Pelecanos does love to namecheck obscure (and usually deserving) artists, he usually puts at least one big name in each list (even if it may be a negative reference), so there will be at least one hook for a non-fanatic.

Still, wouldn't it be great if his books came with soundtracks? The CDs could have instructions (play these songs while reading chapter 3) or they could be broken down by character, with a few favorite songs for each. Unfortunately, I'm sure the clearances and licensing would be cost prohibitive, especially at the volume of references Pelecanos uses.

Still, it's a cool idea I wish more would try. I'm currently reading Nick Hornby's Songbook, a collection of short essays about some favorite songs of his; it comes with a CD collecting some of the more obscure tracks he discusses. The Brit edition of Simon Reynolds's Generation Ecstasy (well, it was titled Energy Flash over there) came with a CD of examples. Still, those are books about music (and the songs copyright holders probably figured readers would want to check out more recordings by the artists on the CDs they liked), not books that include music.

That CD that came out with a Vachss book a few years ago, was it made up of songs that were in the book or songs inspired by the book?

Syndicated intended to put out books shrinkwrapped with tie-in hip hop CDs of songs mentioned in the text, but the plug was pulled after just one or two books.

Ace Atkins's blues tracker books would also seem custom made for this and many of those songs are probably in the public domain.

"It damages shelf life. Maybe he's writing for the present and doesn't care how it will read in 30 years."

Can anyone write for anything but the present? Do you really think any of the pulp writers, for instance, thought about whether or not people would be reading them in later generations?

It seems to me that this issue of writing to a "human experience that transcends a particular time" is a corollary of the "transcends genre restraints" argument. How debilitating it would be to worry about every reference and whether or not it will be understood in 30 years. I can't think of a particular title, but I've read authors who were clearly trying to "write for the ages." And how stilted and boring they were
(probably why I can't remember a title). A story is told through the details. And in a consumer driven time such as ours, details include a lot of brand names, including the brand names of music.


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