Monday, December 01, 2008
John Darnielle's Master of Reality
John Darnielle is the main guy from my favorite band, The Mountain Goats. Recently he wrote a book for Continuum's 33 1/3 series, in which various creative people respond to a single album in a short volume of between 25,000 and 30,000 words (a third the size of my superhero book). These can range from lit-crit-style analysis of lyrics and music journalism to, in Darnielle's case, a novella. The series is masterminded by my editor and friend David Barker, who is a total genius.
Darnielle's book is on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality. The first half takes the form of a journal written by a 16 year old in a psychiatric institute. The second half consists of letters written ten years later from the same kid to the doctor who was in charge of him at the institute. In the first half he is trying to convince the doctors to give him his Black Sabbath tapes back, as it is the only thing that is going to make him feel better; in the second half he tries to explain to the doctor why Black Sabbath matters so much to him, from a more articulate perspective.
Darnielle, in his songs, is a storyteller, most often writing from various fictional personas, so he has no trouble establishing a voice -- here it is a very Catcher-in-the-Rye perspective. The first two "journal entries" consist only of the words "FUCK YOU ALL GO TO HELL." The third begins "I am sitting here writing this, it is 10:30 at night and lights out was half an hour ago (which is stupid by the way) and I am angry I want to kill somebody and that is not a threat so if you write that on my chart all it will do is make me want to kill MYSELF!!! EVEN MORE!!!" Darnielle used to be a nurse and still works with children, so he knows from where he speaks. Surprisingly the most moving part of the novel is its dedication: "to all the children to whom I ever provided care, in the earnest hope that your later lives have brought you the joy, and love, and freedom that was always yours by right".
I initially thought that I wanted a radically more distanced and articulate voice in the second half of the novel, to get a very different perspective on Black Sabbath. But there is something really honest about Darnielle's showing us that the kid's experiences in the psychiatric institute really did harm him just as he said it would, and that he did not grow up to be some total success with no emotional baggage. Ten years later he is still very stuck, working a dead end job. What Darnielle gives us is not a story of success, but one of survival -- because of Black Sabbath and its surprisingly positive message, this kid, who was going to kill himself will survive. That understated strength is the best part of the novel.
My only complaint with the book, and this is really not Darnielle's fault because it was probably never his intention, is that at no point did it make me want to actually listen to Black Sabbath. He does a good job explaining why it matters to this 16 year old, and this 26 year old, but I wanted it to matter to me. It was a different perspective on the album, but I stayed on the outside of that perspective the whole time. I could sympathize but never identify. Darnielle can make strange things matter -- I have a Backstreet Boys album on my iPod because of him -- and I was unfairly looking for that from him this time around.