Review of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is a book that upsets some people because of the expectations that come with such a work. It is lauded by so many great authors, and assigned in just about every English Lit classroom, so when we sit down with it we expect nothing less than a tectonic event. If that doesn’t happen it’s easy to feel let down by the work, or to wonder what on earth all the hubbub is about. This happens with many great works. All art comes down to taste and sometimes it feels more like work than fun if it doesn’t meet us where we’re at.

Gatsby is an interesting case. Like all great works, it’s a creation of its time, but perhaps even more so. Fitzgerald is responding very particularly to the vapidity of his age. ‘The jazz age,’ which he is so often associated with, and also to the ‘American Dream.’ He prefigures the Great Depression (remember, it was written in 1925) by pointing out the emptiness in a preoccupation with style, wealth, and with the petty trivialities of life. Sound similar to any other time? He does this most notably by pitting Nick against Gatsby, and Gatsby against Daisy and Tom, as representative postures in relation to human happiness.

Fitzgerald is critiquing his time and the idea of the American Dream, but he’s also saying something universal. It’s no mistake that all the main characters in Gatsby are rich. Their wealth couches them in a system of events that Fitzgerald can critique. Against this commonality there is one major difference – Gatsby and the way in which he uses his wealth. While Tom and Daisy use their wealth for its own sake, and are caught up in the fads of their time, Gatsby uses his wealth as a means to an end, the end being his love for Daisy. And his love doesn’t take him into the future. It takes him into the past.

This is why Gatsby is such a enchanting character. His anachronisms are purposefully shallow, aligning with the shallowness, not of his love itself, but of the object of his love. He says things like ‘old sport’, has a bogus pedigree, and is pursuing Daisy with the ferocity of a medieval troubadour. His tragic mistake is in the consideration not of love itself, which Tom and Daisy don’t even really have, but in the correct aiming of one’s hopes. This is why Daisy Buchanan is so easy to hate. She’s meant to be hated while we ponder the meaning of Gatsby’s love for her. We watch him fall for the same incantation so many have fallen for – the nostalgic consideration of the present. This is why Gatsby wants Daisy to tell Tom she never loved him. He wants to rewrite their history.

It’s okay if you don’t like The Great Gatsby. You don’t have to. It sits along many other classic works that take time to digest, and have the occasional hurdle for us to jump over in order to come to terms with the story and ultimately enjoy it. It could be that the book is just as irrecoverable for those of us who weren’t part of the turn of the 20th century as Gatsby’s dream was itself irrecoverable for him.

I give Gatsby 4.2 out of 5 maroon polka-dotted pocket squares

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Review of Huckleberry Finn

UC Berkeley Library

What can be said about Huck Finn that hasn’t already been said by someone better and smarter than myself? Well, it’s about the only book that can unironically be called the Great American Novel because Huck Finn is so full of irony it naturally deflects, like the stronger of two repelling magnets, any attempts from lesser storytellers or critics to parody or critique it. Anything you can throw at Huck is already being thrown by Mark Twain. This is why it’s impossible to exaggerate about Huck Finn. Somehow Twain managed simultaneously to crank his satire and poignancy dials all the way to eleven, and then kept on going, and made a masterpiece.

I must admit I love when Huck Finn is attacked or maligned as a bad book or as undeserving of its status, because, well, there’s that rush you get when someone attacks or even hates something you love, and it’s all the sweeter when they do it from the moral high ground; and attacking Mark Twain or Huck Finn or the ending of Huck Finn from any moral high ground is stepping into an obvious trap.

Let me just say that Huck Finn isn’t a how-to manual for upending racism, although many readers have superimposed that onto the novel. Huck Finn is a highly symbolic and picaresque story. (I think the best serious novels have to be in some way be deeply unserious at their core, and since Don Quixote was Twain’s favorite novel, I suspect he thought something similar.) The whole point of novel writing is not to spout a lesson or wag a finger (many writers fill whole volumes of this sort of thing), but to entertain and, if you happen to possess a once-in-a-generation talent, to facilitate a sense of wonder, which, as a writer, requires making yourself lower than the reader rather than higher. Something Twain was always happy to do for us.

I think as long as people are free to buy and read any book they like–these days who knows how long that will last?–a certain type of person will always hate and go so far as to want to censure Huck Finn, either by trying to tarnish Twain’s reputation or by some other “committee” or “board” decision or some such trash. You know the type. This is the person who eats kale because “they just like the taste of it,” or the person who would rather than simply congratulate you on exciting news must instead immediately share something of their own, or who complains endlessly that the reason they cannot find a date is because their standards are so “high.” These are not people to have in your life. Really, these are lizards who look like people, and things like Huck Finn will always get on their nerves because there is no twinkle in their eye.

As long as Huck Finn is around and making noise it means that great art need not be sterilized. It means that deep down we still believe great stories are from the heart and not from strict moral philosophies or propagandists or boardrooms full of bores. It means, despite all evidence to the contrary, we can still have a bit of fun now and then. It means that the schoolmarms still haven’t yet outsmarted Huck, and hopefully never will.

I give Huck Finn 9.4 out of 10 whoopee cushions

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How Reading Denis Johnson Can Make You a Better Writer

Denis Johnson died on May 24, 2017 at his home in Sea Ranch, California.

Johnson wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels, journalism, and screenplays. Taken together, it’s an astounding body of work. Every book he wrote is like nothing else you will ever read. His voice was unique and irreplaceable.

His three rules for writing were:

1) Write naked. That means to write what you would never say. 2) Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it. 3) Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Many people who have read Denis Johnson come to him by his most famous book, a collection of stories entitled Jesus’ Son.

Jesus’ Son is famous for a few reasons. First, it’s amazing. This is no guarantee you’ll personally like it, depending on your taste, but what is certain is that people will still be reading Jesus’ Son many years from now. And secondly, the subject matter of the stories is something very few have pulled off. Namely, the everyday condition of people at the bottom of society—junkies, losers, burnouts, etc. But Jesus’ Son isn’t a journalistic study from a disinterested ivy league alum or a hack beat poet. Denis Johnson himself struggled with drugs, alcohol, and immense personal struggle. That and the first person tense tinges the stories with a sense of direct experience. And apparently the literary world is filled with ambiguity about whether or not Jesus’ Son is straightforward autobiography. If that’s true, even if it’s only a little bit true, that would be quite alarming. As you will soon see…

Without laboring any further to try and explain Jesus’ Son to you, it’s probably best to look at the text itself.

One very short story in the collection is called “Dundun.” It’s as good a place as any to get a grasp of what Denis Johnson is able to do on the page, and more importantly to learn lessons about how to write a brilliant short story.

The beginning of “Dundun,”—

              I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmeceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck. 

             He greeted me as he was coming out into the front yard to go to the pump, wearing new cowboy boots and a leather vest, with his flannel shirt hanging out over his jeans. He was chewing on a piece of gum.

            “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

            “You mean you killed him?”

            “I didn’t mean to.”

            “Is he really dead?”

            “No. He’s sitting down.”

            “But he’s alive.”

            “Oh, sure, he’s alive. He’s sitting down now in the back room.”

            Dundun went on over to the pump and started working the handle. 

There’s a lot to take in in this little chunk of text. Immediately we are aware (as we are for all of Jesus’ Son) that drugs are playing a central role and are likely a part of any conceptual gaps or confusion we may experience during the narrative. Many writers write about drugs. And many do it horribly because they use drugs as an excuse to jump all over the place or overuse dream images and hallucinations which only tends to disorient and bore the reader. Johnson, on the other hand, hasn’t overstepped any bounds. We are aware something horrible has happened. We see Dundun is apparently more out of touch than the narrator as he casually is working the water pump. But the narrator is immediately concerned and goes to investigate.

            I went around the house and in through the back. The room just through the back door smelled of dogs and babies. Beatle stood in the opposite doorway. She watched me come in. Leaning against the wall was Blue, smoking a cigarette and scratching her chin thoughtfully. Jack Hotel was over at an old desk, setting fire to a pipe the bowl of which was wrapped in tinfoil. 

            When they saw it was only me, the three of them resumed looking at McInnes, who sat on the couch all alone, with his left hand resting gently on his belly. 

            “Dundun shot him?” I asked.

            “Somebody shot somebody,” Hotel said.

            Dundun came in behind me carrying some water in a china cup and a bottle of beer and said to McInnes: “Here.”

            “I don’t want that,” McInnes said.

            “Okay. Well, here, then.” Dundun offered him the rest of the beer.

            “No thanks.”

            I was worried. “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

This additional scene-setting adds more uncertainty to the original situation. Not only has McInnes been shot, but he is among people who seem not to have noticed or who are at least fuzzy on the details. Johnson does this with one piece of dialouge. “Somebody shot somebody.” We get a broader sense of indifference and the influence of drugs. Also, we see Dundun is already developing as a character. The reason he was outside pumping water wasn’t for idle amusement, but to fetch water for McInnes. Meanwhile the narrator continues his concern, “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

            “Good idea,” Beatle said sarcastically.

            “We started to,” Hotel explained, “but we ran into the corner of the shed out there.”

            I looked out the side window. This was Tim Bishop’s farm. Tim Bishop’s Plymouth, I saw, which was a very nice old grey-and-red sedan, had sideswiped the shed and replaced one of the corner posts, so that the post lay on the ground and the car now help up the shed’s roof.

            “The front windshield is in millions of bits,” Hotel said.

            “How’d you end up way over there?”

            “Everything was completely out of hand,” Hotel said.

            “Where’s Tim, anyway?”

            “He’s not here,” Beatle said. 

            Hotel passed me the pipe. It was hashish, but it was pretty well burned up already.

            “How you doing?” Dundun asked McInnes.

            “I can feel it right here. It’s just stuck in the muscle.”

            Dundun said, “It’s not bad. The cap didn’t explode right, I think.”

            “It misfired.”

            “It misfired a little bit, yeah.”

            Hotel asked me, “Would you take him to the hospital in your car?”

            “Okay,” I said. 

Johnson complicates the effect of drugs by slowly revealing the failed attempts of the group to help McInnes. It’s not that they are hardened junkies bent on depravity and destruction; they simply can’t carry out the tasks they wish to, leading to their request of the narrator to drive McInnes to the hospital since he is the only one of them that is sober enough to do so. This is a nice subtle little element of realism.

            “I’m coming, too,” Dundun said.

            “Have you got any of the opium left?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said. “That was a birthday present. I used it all up.”

            “When’s your birthday?” I asked him.

            “Today.”

            “You shouldn’t have used it all up before you birthday, then,” I told him angrily. 

            But I was happy about this chance to be of use. I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked. 

            In the car were Dundun, McInnes, and myself. 

            This was Dundun’s twenty-first birthday. I’d met him in the Johnson County facility during the only few days I’d ever spent in jail, around the time of my eighteenth Thanksgiving. I was the older of us by a month or two. As for McInnes, he’d been around forever, and in fact, I, myself, was married to one of his old girlfriends. 

            We took off as fast as I could go without bouncing the shooting victim around too heavily. 

            Dundun said, “What about the brakes? You get them working?”

            “The emergency brake does. That’s enough.”

            “What about the radio?” Dundun punched the button, and the radio came on making an emission like a meat grinder.

            He turned it off and then on, and now it burbled like a machine that polishes stones all night.

            “How about you?” I aksed McInnes. “Are you comfortable?”

            “What do you think?” McInnes said.

The narrator’s desire for drugs is again reasserted, connecting it to the beginning of the story, but the complication of this motive provides him an opportunity to “be liked.” It’s telling that this is a worthy trade off in the eyes of the narrator. To me, this is why all of the stories in Jesus’ Son are relatable to the non-drug user. Johnson’s real subject matter isn’t drugs so much as the motivation for taking drugs, i.e. a lack of human connection and a desire to feel that connection, or at least to feel the feelings that tend to accompany that connection. And we will see this logic build a climax which could be interpreted as bizarre if this underlying condition isn’t held in mind.

             It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.

            What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts. Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say. 

            “We’ll never get off this road,” I said.

            “What a lousy birthday,” Dundun said. 

            McInnes was white and sick, holding himself tenderly. I’d seen him like that once or twice even when he hadn’t been shot. He had a bad case of hepatitis that often gave him a lot of pain. 

            “Do you promise not to tell them anything?” Dundun was talking to McInnes.

            “I don’t think he hears you,” I said.

            “Tell them it was an accident, okay?”

            McInnes said nothing for a long moment. Finally he said, “Okay.”

            “Promise?” Dundun said. 

            But McInnes said nothing. Because he was dead. 

If we reverse engineer this section, we can find many surprising things. First, we have obviously reached the level of tragedy. McInnes is dead and the worst has been realized. But we also see, just before this revelation, an admission of guilt from Dundun. “Tell them it was an accident, okay?” Dundun’s main concern is to establish a refutable innocence, to cover his own ass, and McInnes’ last words reveal he’s willing to play along for Dundun’s sake, even as he dies. “Okay.”

What at first seems like an overly poetic two paragraphs describing the fields around them becomes an understandable reflection on the part of the narrator, who knows what’s coming in advance, to try and find physical significance and beauty foreshadowing the moment McInnes dies. What are moments like this supposed to be like? Are there signs? The narrator wants to find significance, but seems to recognize that moments like this are just like any others. Death is normal and banal. “Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say.”

            Dundun looked at me with tears in his eyes. “What do you say?”

            “What do you mean, what do I say? Do you think I’m here because I know all about this stuff?”

            “He’s dead.”

            “All right. I know he’s dead.”

            “Throw him out of the car.”

            “Damn right throw him out of the car,” I said. “I’m not taking him anywhere now.”

            For a moment I fell asleep, right while I was driving. I had a dream in which I was trying to tell someone something any they kept interrupting, a dream about frustration.

            “I’m glad he’s dead,” I told Dundun. “He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.”

            Dundun said, “Don’t let it get you down.”

            We whizzed along down through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. 

            “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” Dundun said. 

            Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn’t even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.

            Dundun tortured Jack Hotel at the lake outside of Denver. He did this to get information about a stolen item, a stereo belonging to Dundun’s girlfriend, or perhaps to his sister. Later, Dundun beat a man almost to death with a tire iron right on the street in Austin, Texas, for which he’ll someday also have to answer, but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.

            Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into something like that. 

We’re reminded, almost surprisingly, that this is a story about Dundun. The ending reveals that this episode is the first of many heinous acts committed, and it’s retelling is perhaps an attempt by the narrator to remember back to when it all first went wrong for Dundun. When the first domino fell.

Although the two characters seem to show almost complete indifference when McInnes dies, clearly the narrator sees some significance in the death. Otherwise he wouldn’t invoke “the time before history,” and “the moment before the Savior comes,” in his closing description. These spiritual symbols are woven into the physical landscape and the bleakness of the Midwest, placing Johnson in a long tradition of American writers.

When the Savior does come it’s in the form of Dundun’s eventual fate… “but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.”

Dundun gets what he deserves and yet the narrator is trying to plead his case until the end. Yes, he shot a guy. But we are asked partially to consider the role of drug usage, which, the author implies through metaphor, isn’t as voluntary as it may seem. And at the beginning of the story Dundun’s fetching McInnes water then offering to go along to the hospital with the narrator shows that, at least at first, he’s not all bad. But then it happens. And the tragedy of Dundun is allowing oneself to be trapped by one’s own fate, and to turn into something one wasn’t before. “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” he says. And that’s one brutal metamorphosis.

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Cincinnati: Summer 1995

(This post is dedicated to and inspired by James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 which you can read here.)

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Time moved very slowly when I was six years old. I have read many theories about this. Some say that because a child’s brain and body are so new, the blood and heart so fast and the cells so active, the speed at which they are moving actually causes time to slow down around them. Others say that because young minds have a shorter attention span, they become bored more easily and therefore feel time’s passage more acutely. Like staring at a clock. I don’t necessarily think these two are incompatible or contradictory. My own theory is that, being shorter, kids’ heads are closer to the earth’s gravitational pull. You know, Einstein’s Law of Relativity and all that. Like I say, I remember these long days. Especially in summer. There are echoes and images of days like this buried in my mind, like at the bottom of the well, folded in upon one another, made complicated and probably inaccurate by time and age, but with a common innocence strung together by cracked sidewalks and chain link fences and telephone wires. For instance, one strong image is of our next door neighbor’s bird bath which was always splotched with moss, and the stone it was made of looked very old like a gravestone from the Civil War. When I was finally tall enough to see over the bowl, I remember being disappointed to find that there was no water in it. And no birds either. There were only the husks of dead nuts, leaves, and twigs that had fallen from the trees above. Now, I realized why squirrels would have wrestling matches in there.

At this age my head was still pretty close to the ground but also I was growing up. This summer was a transitional one. I was learning how to ride a bike. And having just turned six years old that July, I was to begin kindergarten in mid-August. How could I have known that from here on out, after this point we all cross, I would always have somewhere to be during the day and some task expected of me, and that every summer thereafter would be an unsuccessful attempt to recreate a freedom that only exists in childhood? No, none of us really know what is coming. We are so eager to grow up.

Our street was somewhat narrow. The houses were close together, built before World War One, a type of classic American look, with thin strips of yard and thin strips of driveway and small porches, and sometimes brick and sometimes vinyl siding. There wasn’t a single rainy day on that street. Well, of course I’m sure it did rain sometimes, but if it did I don’t remember, and it’s my childhood memory, so what the hey; every day on that street was sunny. And the summers especially were hot and blue.

I was shooting basketball at our next door neighbor’s house—their whole backyard was an asphalt driveway rimmed with some dumpy looking trees—and, as I dribbled the ball around, before every shot, I thought, God, help me to be more like the Red Power Ranger.  Dear future self: please do not end up like Creulla de Vil. If I made the shot that was God telling me I would be more like the Red Power Ranger. There were many other such scenes that summer. If, for instance, I could put my head under water long enough to touch the bottom of the pool or if I went across the monkey bars all the way without letting go, I had achieved a certain type of acceptance from the universe. That was how games and dares worked.  Without the ability to distinguish between Republican or Democrat, I was working very hard and crudely on the ideas of good and bad. I can’t remember this, but I would imagine that the tenor of public life back then was still very colored by the falling of the Berlin wall and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But I was not even tempted to think about that because, as kids say, that was grownup stuff. That was for people who had shrunken down the world to an unmysterious thing they could fit inside their head.  But kids know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The idea was to be brave in real life. Like dad. He had a mustache. And when he shot a basketball he made it. At the park the other taller men looked silly when he dribbled around them and he swished three pointers. The taller men, with their hands on their knees, would say, Oh, man, he’s quick. I knew if I did everything right and brave I could one day be a man with a mustache, dribbling around taller men, shooting three pointers.

This is all very cute but I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. What we talk about when we talk about earlier times, about our childhood, is an imposed simplicity that only exists in the mind. What is truly idyllic are probably not periods of time in history but periods of time in personal history. But, what of it? Lest we prematurely jump to the wrong conclusion, we should also ask, What isn’t in the mind? And what is the real imposition? Even when our bodies get old and our blood slows down and our heads get further from the earth and we grow mundane and sober and we begin to be tempted to think that the End is Nigh, is that not also in the mind?

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At a Small Smoky Jazz Bar in a Forgotten Corner of Heaven

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Start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses

“Every interpretation of a myth impoverishes and suffocates it; with myths, it’s better not to rush things, better to let them settle in memory, pausing to consider their details, to ponder them without moving beyond the language of their images. ” – Italo Calvino

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I find a lot of people are very interested in the idea of Greco-Roman mythology but don’t know where to start in their exploration. With all due respect to academic introductions to mythology—I am thinking of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for example—I believe the best way to learn about mythology is to jump right in and get your hands dirty with the original source material. Hesiod’s Works and Days is a popular option or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You certainly can’t go wrong with either of those choices but there is another option that I think may be more accessible to the average reader, and no less substantive.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is my choice. It’s an incredible book with more in it than I could possibly describe in one or one hundred blog posts. Written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, Metamorphoses is a poetic re-telling of 250 various Greek and Roman myths, reinterpreted through Ovid’s indelible vision of Greek literature and of life.

My personal favorite story from the Metamorphoses, a good place to start for the would-be mythology geek, is Ovid’s version of the story of Phaëthon. An underrated one, in my opinion.

Phaëthon, an otherwise pretty regular kid, learns that he is the son of Phoebus (who is confusingly both Apollo and not Apollo) god of the sun. This knowledge of his parentage turns Phaëthon into a pompous turd. One day one of his friends gets fed up and challenges him. So Phaëthon travels east to the sun palace to get proof from Pheobus himself:

There stood the regal palace of the Sun, soaring upon its many lofty columns, with roof of gold and fire-breathing bronze, and ceilings intricate with ivory, and double-folding doors that shone with silver… [Phaëthon] had climbed the steep path leading to the dwelling place of his reputed parent, he went in and turned at once to meet his father’s gaze–though at some distance, for he could not bear such brightness any closer.

Phoebus sat in robes of purple high upon a throne that glittered brilliantly with emeralds; and in attendance on his left and right stood Day and Month and Year and Century, and all the Hours, evenly divided; fresh Spring was there, adorned with floral crown, and Summer, naked, bearing ripened grain, and Autumn, strained from treading out her grapes, and Winter with his gray and frosty locks.

Surprisingly Pheobus is happy to oblige Phaëthon’s request. In fact he permits him to ask for anything as a proof of their relation. Phaëthon asks if he may drive his father’s sun chariot through the sky for one day. Pheobus responds:

Your deed reveals the rashness of my speech! Would that I were permitted to rescind the promise I have given! I confess that this alone I would deny you, son!

Pheobus describes as a warning his daily routine. Far from being a stroll through the sky, it is a treacherous journey:

“The first part of the track is steep, and one that my fresh horses at dawn can hardly climb. In mid-heaven it is highest, where to look down on earth and sea often alarms even me, and makes my heart tremble with awesome fear. The last part of the track is downwards and needs sure control. Then even Tethys herself, who receives me in her submissive waves, is accustomed to fear that I might dive headlong. Moreover the rushing sky is constantly turning, and drags along the remote stars, and whirls them in rapid orbits.  I move the opposite way, and its momentum does not overcome me as it does all other things, and I ride contrary to its swift rotation. Suppose you are given the chariot. What will you do?”

Phaëthon completely ignores his father’s pleading, missing not only the dangers that lie ahead which he is completely unprepared for, but also his father’s own respect for his daily task. The ordering of the cosmos and the passage of time. Obviously Pheobus takes his job very seriously and is even reverent and humble towards it. But still poor dull Phaëthon insists that he drive his father’s chariot:

The boy has already taken possession of the fleet chariot, and stands proudly, and joyfully, takes the light reins in his hands, and thanks his unwilling father.

Once morning comes the outcome is what you might expect:

When the unlucky Phaethon looked down from the heights of the sky at the earth far, far below he grew pale and his knees quaked with sudden fear, and his eyes were robbed of shadow by the excess light. Now he would rather he had never touched his father’s horses, and regrets knowing his true parentage and possessing what he asked for. Now he wants only to be called Merops’s son, as he is driven along like a ship in a northern gale, whose master lets go the ropes, and leaves her to prayer and the gods. What can he do? Much of the sky is now behind his back, but more is before his eyes. Measuring both in his mind, he looks ahead to the west he is not fated to reach and at times back to the east. Dazed he is ignorant how to act…

But Phaëthon is far from the only person effected by his actions. What follows from his inability to control the chariot is an apocalyptic earth-destroying fire:

Great cities are destroyed with all their walls, and the flames reduce whole nations with all their peoples to ashes. The woodlands burn, with the hills. Mount Athos is on fire… Then, truly, Phaethon sees the whole earth on fire. He cannot bear the violent heat, and he breathes the air as if from a deep furnace. He feels his chariot glowing white. He can no longer stand the ash and sparks flung out, and is enveloped in dense, hot smoke. He does not know where he is, or where he is going, swept along by the will of the winged horses.

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Zac Brown & the Art of the Ballad

Country music is a genre with such a rich tradition in storytelling it is basically a trope. But the lonely troubadour singing sans his wife and dog is a caricature not because it’s true, but because it represents a very small portion of highly visible country music which has been infected with the same plug-and-play formulas endemic to every sub-genre of pop music. The same goes for the lazy whiskey-drenched summer fling and the scorned lover whose strong personality is underscored by a particular style of boot.

Zac Brown, my favorite modern day country artist, said it best in a 2013 interview:

“To me, country music has always been the home for a great song. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”

Zac_Brown_Band021-XL
by Jason Bullinger, heyreverb.com

I originally became interested in Zac Brown because his sound was everything I admired in country music without any of the negative baggage. His gruff baritone voice is not overly twangy. He plays a nylon-string acoustic guitar on most songs that opens up the instrumentation to more folksy tonal qualities.

But most importantly, his lyrics are connected to this great storytelling tradition in country music. This is the tradition of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard whose songs are Shakespearean in scope. There are almost no tropes and no sentimentality.

A great entree into this kind of country song is Zac Brown’s Colder Weather.

Colder Weather is a deceptively complex song. It’s the story of an estranged couple parting ways, though it isn’t clear why:

She’d trade Colorado if he’d take her with him
Closes the door before the winter lets the cold in,
And wonders if her love is strong enough to make him stay,
She’s answered by the tail lights
Shining through the window pane

He said I wanna see you again
But I’m stuck in colder weather
Maybe tomorrow will be better
Can I call you then
She said you’re ramblin’ man
You ain’t ever gonna change
You gotta gypsy soul to blame
And you were born for leavin’

The piano starts as the driving force through the first verse and chorus, like a typical ballad. But the song slowly builds into the second verse by introducing slight percussion and slide guitar as reinforcement, and then additional strings and bass in the second chorus.

As the song reaches it’s peak at the bridge, the lyrics change tense from the third to the first person. This has the effect of changing the song from a story to a confessional. This is no longer a song about an unnamed guy and his girlfriend. It’s a song about Zac Brown. Vocally, he jumps octaves at almost the same time the tense changes, easing the transition:

Well it’s a winding road
When your in the lost and found
You’re a lover I’m a runner
We go ’round ‘n ’round
And I love you but I leave you
I don’t want you but I need you
You know it’s you who calls me back here

But what I think makes this a great song is the metaphor it’s based on. I am a sucker for a good metaphor. It’s never clear whether the cold weather is actual weather preventing them from being together or whether it’s really emotional distance that cannot be bridged, you were born for leavin’. Their meeting is always deferred, maybe tomorrow will be better, which, for me, makes the story more poignant. Far from a sentimental love story, it’s a tragedy. The cold indifference of the weather is likened to that mysterious urge to either stay or leave, which cannot be controlled or understood. Things will never change for them but on the other hand, there’s always tomorrow.

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