Bingo, Sparklers, and a Lobotomy: Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

In Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, ‘Get Out,’ a young black man, Chris, goes to visit his white girlfriend Rosa’s family. “Do they know I’m black?” Chris reluctantly asks, as they pack for the trip.

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Rosa lovingly, teasingly, tells him not to worry. She reassures him: “My parents are not racist.”

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They are not racist

Chris and Rosa drive out to the Armitage’s remote estate, with its welcoming, sweeping front porch and — if you, like Chris, are attuned to such things — eerie plantation-style columns. And at first, Chris’s future in-laws seem nice, welcoming, a little socially awkward. Then they reveal the rotten heart of racism at their core, and Chris finds himself ensnared in a maze of horror.

In other words: maybe another day in modern America.

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There are many things to appreciate about ‘Get Out’: Its humor, for starters. Jordan Peele is half of the comedy duo Key & Peele, whom my husband introduced me to maybe five years ago. (We even paid full price to see ‘Keanu’ in the theater — their very odd comedy about a straight-laced guy and his pothead friend going undercover as gangsters in search of a missing kitten [the titular Keanu!].

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It wasn’t a great film, but we might have liked it if we were completely high. Alas, we were not.) In any case, Peele (right) has a terrific sense of the absurd, and impeccable comedic timing, so it’s no surprise that, in ‘Get Out,’ Chris’s suspicions about the family he’s visiting unravel at the perfect pace, with the occasional sighting of an apparently brainwashed fellow black person — accompanied by the iconic horror-movie violin screech!— making me laugh out loud every time.

The casting, too, is perfection. I don’t know if I have walked out of a movie in recent years and instantly blurted, “That casting was perfect!,” but I did here.

You’ve got British actor Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, playing a loving boyfriend who has some serious misgivings about his white girlfriend’s family, but bravely stays on the scene longer than he should.

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He can’t shake the feeling there’s something weird about these people

His earnestness in getting along with these horrifying potential in-laws rapidly becomes preposterous, but that’s the fun side of the movie. It’s reminiscent of any of the “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” genre, including the very silly but enjoyable (am I allowed to say that on a literary-type blog?) “Meet the Parents,” where poor Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) persists in his goodwill towards his insane, former-CIA father-in-law (Robert DeNiro) despite his fiance (Teri Polo)’s complete obliviousness to the acuteness of his discomfort.

Bradley Whitford makes no wrong character moves as the most smugly liberal of them all, Rosa’s father, a neurosurgeon in a black turtleneck and cords, whose head is so far up the ivory tower that he finds everything that comes out of his own mouth bemusing and wry.

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“I would have voted for Obama a third time”

His wife, Missy, is a psychiatrist/hypnotist, played by Catherine Keener, whose soothing voice and occasional habit of spacing out and then all-too-quickly-recovering makes you wonder about her from the get-go.

Rosa has a brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who comes on the scene as a no-holds-barred, raging fuckup. He’s probably a cokehead or into some more evolved drug I don’t even know of, and he looks like shit. He is obviously the family embarrassment except that he is just stupid enough to be useful to them, latching onto their warped ideals with devoted, unreflective seriousness. He is horrid and despicable and almost sad. Another brilliant move, though I hate to say it myself: he has the freckled face and hands of the classic film slaveowner or overseer, all those Davises and Washingtons and Williamses who, sadly, once spread their slavers’ names in a persistent antebellum diaspora.

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Dude, do not pick sharp things up

There’s the assemblage of strangely vacant-eyed black servants on the property, who spark Chris’s suspicions immediately although he’s oddly slow to feel real fear.

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Mom always loved the kitchen

You can look forward to a hilarious dialogue between himself and the black groundskeeper, who speaks in an odd antiquated diction (the reason will become clear later) and who is just so bizarre I could not keep myself from laughing. But Chris’s response is befuddled and very modern; he mentions the groundskeeper to Rosa, speculating that maybe the guy likes her or something? he had a very weird vibe?

And I can’t go without mentioning Rosa herself: Allison Williams, who is perfect for her role as the classy-but-sexy girlfriend, loving toward Chris, believable and chipper and sweet. She’s the perfect girlfriend for a photographer; you cannot imagine a bad picture with her in it.

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“I would never let anyone talk like that about my man”

Rosa is always rolling her eyes, apologizing for her embarrassing parents, and she tries, rather lamely, to buffer the more uncomfortable conversations. She seems to be on Chris’s side. But when the whole thing flips, her sudden change in manner is impeccable, almost robotic. Within seconds of selling Chris down the river she ties her hair back in a pert ponytail, almost unconsciously, and she’s down to business. It’s a great, tiny gesture on the part of Williams. And you have never seen anyone eat dry Froot Loops and drink milk out of a straw with such a strange and chilling precision.

Any lover of film or fiction feels an instantaneous joy learning that a party scene is on the horizon. Yes (nerd fist-pump!), the dinner party!: from The Last Supper on, a hotbed of intrigue, spilled secrets, unholy alliances making themselves clear. Someone is gonna get drunk. Someone is gonna feel a burning desire for someone else, or a burning hatred, and some fool has just got to make a speech….

Peele writes his own party scene with a nod to probably half a dozen others, but this one is funny and horrifying in its own, new way.

The brilliance of the party scene in ‘Get Out’ is that every white person Chris meets — all the Armitage family members — seem supportive and well-meaning. Instead of blurting anything obviously racist or hostile, they appear so embarrassingly thrilled that Chris is there that they speak to him without any semblance of a filter.

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Look, here comes Chris!

It’s somehow both hilariously awkward and, if you are white, gallingly incriminating at the same time. “He loves Tiger Woods!” one sweet-looking, gray-haired Armitage family member gushes, pointing to her elderly husband. And the man, seeming relieved that this is out in the open, smiles and nods. “I do!” he says. “I do!”

Another woman with a gorgeous Isabella Rossellini vibe, in a slinky dress and accompanied by a far-too-old-for-her husband, asks Rosa point-blank if “it’s really better with…,” then squeezes poor Chris’s bicep.

Rosa, getting to play the good cop at this point, appears horrified. “Let’s go for a walk,” she says, leading Chris away.

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Time for Bingo, sparklers, and a lobotomy!

Peele’s genius move is that the members of the Armitage family are, in general, not saying anything inconceivable. They just seem incredibly un-self-aware. The first words out of their mouths go from zero to sixty and spatter whatever closet curiosity or uncouth soft racism they think of, things no “woke” person would ever say aloud.

And plenty of people would not, I imagine, even think these sorts of things at all, at least not “seriously.” But enough of them have, or might someday, or occasionally do. Let’s remember, as Kendra James points out in her piece for Cosmopolitan (“‘Get Out’ Perfectly Captures the Terrifying Truth About White Women”), that 53% of white American women voted for Trump. (BARRRRRF! -Editor) And that’s what makes this scene’s supreme discomfort so pointed and so sad and, maybe — let’s hope not, please let’s hope not — so accurate.

“What Becky Gotta Do to Get Murked?” asks professor Kinitra D. Brooks, in a piece on the blog VSB (Very Smart Brothas). (And no, this is not a blog I will even pretend to have been familiar with before now, but it’s really, really funny and, as advertised, very smart, and certainly makes my own blog look like the looseleaf notes of a middle-schooler.)

Brooks points out that, though most of the film’s characters die in gruesome ways (it lives up to its “horror” genre in just the last third), Chris cannot bring himself to kill his ultimate betrayer, Rosa.

This reluctance on Chris’ part is particularly notable in the horror genre, in which it is commonplace, expected even, for white women to be killed in increasingly graphic ways. As pop culture scholar Janell Hobson says of this moment, “It’s almost as if brothers are still scared they’ll get lynched if they demonstrate any violence towards Becky—even cinematically.” Why does the film depict a black man so unwilling to pull this trigger?

It’s a great question, and one that’s answered remarkably well in its comments section (there’s something refreshing — a smart online comments section!). One reader, “Vanity in Peril,” has this analysis:

As the protagonist puts his hands around Rose’s throat (somebody in my theatre screamed, “curb-stomp that white bish, crip-walk on her azz!”—to a round of applause) she begins to smile. I saw this initially as her trying to use her white feminine whiles to disarm him but I also interpreted it as whiteness feeling self-satisfied that their assumption that the black man is inherently violent, even when 100% justified, is correct. In that moment I saw a switch over wherein Chris decides to let the white woman die cold and alone on the side of the road. A death that she owns, caused and escalated by her own actions. I saw it as implicating whiteness.

Holy shit, that’s just a blog commenter there.

I agree with “Vanity in Peril’s” take: that in ‘Get Out,’ the burden of guilt needs to remain firmly on the white people. In this film they are the bad ones, and the story works that way. To show Chris as some kind of a monster at the film’s end, even if horrible Rosa deserves it, would muddy the film (which is otherwise quite complex) in a way that it resists being muddied.

Secondly, and this is just speculation here, while Peele may have wanted to make Rosa the true villain of the film, he does not appear to have some heart full of hatred toward white women, and he has a sort of chivalry toward women in general. Dude, I can respect that. (Although now that I think about it, Anna Faris’s character in ‘Keanu’ — a blonde “Becky” if there ever was one — bites the dust pretty hard and graphically in that movie!) Both he and his comedy partner, Keegan-Michael Key, are biracial; their standup bits about their “white moms” are hilarious and affectionate.

Peele is also married to a white woman, Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Chelsea Peretti (another show my husband introduced me to! That man has his finger on the pulse!). Peele and Peretti are expecting their first child. (By the way, while I guess this is neither here nor there, Peretti is a childhood friend of SNL‘s Andy Samberg; maybe you’ve seen this picture of him sitting in the back of her mom’s car in middle school; it’s always made me chuckle, because I like little historical tidbits like that.)

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Comedians Chelsea Peretti and Andy Samberg, back in the day

In any case, this is not about trying to prove that Jordan Peele actually loves white women, and so we should feel okay about ourselves. No, no, no (to quote “Georgina” in the film) — we are fully culpable in every bit of soft racism that Peele suggests. BUT, going back to the film itself here: the script sides so unequivocally against the Armitages that the viewers will hate Rosa whether Chris kills her or not. She is a despicable fake; her professions of love for him as she lies dying ring almost laughably false. Even I wanted her to die, if only because she is such a TERRIBLE GIRLFRIEND!!!

Chris’s character remains unsullied, and Rosa is left like the deer on the side of the road that they hit on their way to her parents’ in the first place.

I am going to be completely honest here. There were moments when, watching ‘Get Out,’ I felt bad about being a white person. I felt like I must be an oblivious, steamrolling, uncool loudmouth, making anyone of color feel uncomfortable, blasting my way through the space around me. It was not a good feeling. But I guess I can just sit here and play my tiniest-violin-in-the-world about it, because in the big scheme of things, what do I have to lose?

“Why black people?” Chris asks Jim Hudson (played by Stephen Root!!!!), a gallery owner who’s apparently “scouted” him for the Armitage family’s nefarious plan, and  whose cerebral cortex will be implanted into Chris’s brain.

“Who knows?” Hudson replies. And then he goes into a whimsical but rather stunning mini-monologue: Maybe white people just want to be what they cannot. They want to be cooler, stronger, faster. Who really knows?

Just like the Armitages, blurting whatever taboo racist assumptions come into their weirdo heads, Peele puts assumptions about white people out there, too. He lays it all on the table. It’s pretty brave.

But maybe not as brave as going into your future in-laws’ house in the first place, against your better judgment, when your friend told you to just…. GET OUT.

 



 

p.s. One of my favorite Key & Peele skits is “Continental Breakfast,” which is just nerdy and punny enough, with a dash of physical comedy, to delight the likes of me. I can almost promise that you will laugh. Please enjoy:

The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War

“They said he was home, but no one had proved it.”  — Benjamin Busch, “Into the Land of Dogs”

David Foster Wallace has said that fiction creates “one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” He’s talking specifically about reading fiction, but I think–despite most fiction writers’ prideful assertion that their work is art, never “therapy,” and, damn it, not even “therapeutic!”–that writing fiction can have the same effect. Writing in isolation, then putting that work out into the world, having it met halfway (if you’re lucky), is somehow both the nurturing and annulment of loneliness all in one.

The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, a new anthology of fiction by veterans, is often about loneliness. It’s also often very witty, dark, moving, surreal, absurd, and gut-wrenching. Each of the 25 standalone stories, by writers well-known within the veteran-writing community and beyond, is its own unique experience; each voice is different; each will make your head spin in a slightly different way, and will leave you with a different aftertaste: sadness, relief, horror, or a headshake and a dry chuckle. But in trying to think of a cohesive way to describe these stories, what I kept coming back to was the characters’ loneliness, which keeps many of them in a kind of purgatory. They are neither still at war nor truly back at home. This theme has been explored before, sure, but most commonly in nonfiction. The Road Ahead is most successful, even dazzling, when its contributors allow their imaginations full, fictional reign. In these stories, some male writers take on the challenge of writing female protagonists, and quite a few American writers delve into the Iraqi or Afghan perspective (Kristen L. Rouse, Maurice Decaul, David James). The results are very good, with all of these authors writing fiction that is both an artistic practice and an effort of empathy. In other stories, most notably the exciting run that starts with Matthew Hefti’s “We Put a Man in a Tree” and continues unabated to the end of the book, experimentation takes the form of surrealism, or a Southern-Gothic bleak humor (Adrian Bonenberger’s “American Fapper,” and yes, that means what you think it means), or pure poetry (Decaul’s “Death of Time”). Here, the stories gain a momentum and darkness that make them riveting.

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There’s a soldier who carries his Warrant Officer’s decapitated head through the Afghan desert after a helo crash, helmet and all, wanting to bury it so it will be safe from Taliban and dogs, in Benjamin Busch’s contribution, “Into the Land of Dogs.” (It’s creepy, surreal, sad, and also darkly comical, perhaps a somewhat perverse nod to Tom Hanks’s “Cast Away” character who spends his days with his volleyball, Wilson. But what if Wilson were a human head?!)

There’s a story narrated by the ghosts (!) who taunt and bait a veteran, egging him to violence and feeding on his psychic pain (“We Put a Man in a Tree”). There’s a Marine who fakes his own combat injury–even though he’s already injured–because he’s terrified he’ll return home without a combat ribbon (Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades”). Lauren Halloran’s protagonist is an Air Force mechanic, freshly home from a deployment her jealous stateside boyfriend couldn’t quite hack, who commences her reentry into civilian femininity with a plan she calls “Operation Slut.”

The tragicomedy hits its zenith with Eloise, a brilliantly-written wounded warrior’s wife in Brandon Caro’s “The Morgan House,” forced to take part in a pizza-party-of-pity she doesn’t want, while her kids run amok and her triple-amputee husband chides her for being obese:

“Eloise here, she can eat enough for both of us, ain’t that right honey?”

“Don’t mind him.” She rolled her eyes, as though she’d heard the rib a million times already. “He gets this way when he’s whacked out on them pills.” She paused for a moment and laughed forcibly before adding, “Which is pretty much all of the damn time!”

These are veterans imagining other veterans, imagining civilians, imagining veterans’ wives and people with either less or (hopefully) more of a burden than they, themselves, carry.

Through fiction, they look loneliness, deceit, human frailty, and hope in the eye. Here’s David Foster Wallace again:

Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

I can’t speak to all of those, here on this blog. But fiction? Absolutely.


The Road Ahead is quite lovely as a work of art, from cover to cover. With wry, elegant interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch, it stands alone as an artifact and keepsake, and is simply a beautiful book.

I love the idea of illustrations accompanying short stories; it adds both gravitas and flair, and somehow makes the story feel more complete. The act of illustrating a story, kind of like a different form of note-taking, also deepens the experience for the reader as well. So I made myself doodle while I read, and while my illustration skills are amateur indeed, it was a fun exercise — almost like being back in elementary school and drawing pictures along with your book report. (And if this blog is not a glorified book report, I don’t know what is.)

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I want to say a few more words about the stories that made the most impact on me, before I take my leave.

There are five women veterans featured in The Road Ahead, and all of their stories are worth reading. From Kayla Williams’s grieving Sgt. Kate Stevens, trying to find solace in casual sex, to Teresa Fazio’s narrator, concerned about her attraction to an enlisted man who seems, somehow, less sturdy than she, each story examines femininity in the context of war.

The one exception to this theme is Kristen Rouse’s “Pawns,” which is different for the effort Rouse makes to contemplate people very different from her: a former Afghan commando named Nasir, now defector and truck driver trying to live a life of peace, confronted with a former enemy (an old man who is now a friend) and a young Jihadist who confounds and angers him. Nasir, passing the time playing chess and hoping the Americans will let their vehicles through, is drawn back into dark memories of a failed mission he barely survived.

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if God wills it

The boy stared with cold eyes at Nasir. ‘Taliban would pay your family if you explode yourself,’ he said.

Nasir froze and felt a chill shoot through his body. Then his face flushed with anger. ‘Taliban would pay my family one time. I pay my family each truckload I deliver. I came back to my country ten years ago to make my family’s life better, not worse. The Taliban have nothing for my family that I do not already give them,’ he said, growing angry.

‘The Americans are infidels,’ the boy said.

‘The Taliban are no better,’ Nasir said.

‘God is the greatest,’ the boy said.

‘God is the greatest,’ Nasir replied in a harsh tone.

‘I will be a foot soldier for Islam,’ the boy said.

‘Who has filled your head with such foolishness?’ Nasir asked.

Matthew Hefti’s  aforementioned “We Put a Man in a Tree” stands out for its many bold moves, most notably its narration by the group of ghosts who have attached themselves to a man named JJ, rooting for his self-destruction. From Nadir, who is seven, with a white nightgown and “darkened red tummy…elegant, like the flag of Japan,” to Ray, who “never stops smiling with gritted teeth….no one came and saw him in the home,” these ghosts follow poor JJ, tormenting him, whispering to him when he looks in the bathroom mirror, throwing rocks at him til he goes blind. He does not seem entirely aware of them, only of the effect they have on him. But Hefti still manages to work in a dark humor that, at times, made me laugh out loud:

‘How are you weird?”‘[JJ asks ‘X,’ the kid who confides in him at a bar/restaurant]. You seem like every other twenty-one-year-old kid I’ve ever known.’

‘Twenty-two,’ X said. ‘And I don’t feel I can tell you.’ He looked down into his beer for a long time. ‘But then again,’ he said. ‘I feel you’d understand. The thing is, I still have my V-card.’

…Over and over the kid apologized, and JJ said, ‘Stop it. That’s great. I stand in awe of you. You really don’t have to apologize. I’ve been there.’

We jumped in, of course, and asked, ‘How is he not weird?’ and ‘How can you really say you’ve been there?’

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he still has his V card

From there, the story takes a shocking turn, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it kind of kept me up for about half a night. As did Brian Castner’s “The Wild Hunt,” which gave me an actual bad dream (THANKS, CASTNER), but I mean that as a compliment.

Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” also stuck with me, for its surreality, its post-apocalyptic feel (man wandering in the desert with his compatriot’s head), and its gorgeous, precise language. One section of the story echoes the phrase “He found…he found..” in a sort of lulling voice, almost making the post-apocalyptic desirable. “He found belongings left along trails from the south….He found a house sitting like litter at the base of the ashen valley, saved by solitude.”

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this dog is disappointed there’s not more meat on that bone

He thinks of the men who perished in the crash: “His body was torn in ways blood couldn’t imagine…No one was buried complete.” Like Jacob wrestling the angel, he fights a vulture in hand-to-hand (wing?) combat.


In his discussion of The Road Ahead, Peter Molin of Time Now asks how war lit will change in this post-Obama era, the age of Trump. He notes, “The Road Ahead points more clearly to where we were on November 7, 2016, than to where we are going after January 20, 2017.” I had this same impression, but perhaps would not have known how to vocalize it. The stakes are escalating, Molin notes. And it’s true that there is a certain indulgence to the feel of The Road Ahead, a playfulness that has little to lose. What will veterans’ fiction look like in the age of Trump?

I have no solid answers, but I do have a few guesses. First, the risque play of the sexual power differential is going to take on a very different feel; I felt this shift almost immediately with the recent election, while watching the HBO series Westworld. What had felt like daring forays only weeks before felt suddenly, after Trump’s victory, distasteful and unwelcome. Suddenly, violence against women, no matter how campy or self-aware or absurd, did not feel at all funny. Would Bonenberger’s story “American Fapper,” terrific as it is, have been written immediately after a Trump victory? How about PJ Frederick’s “The Church?”

During Obama’s presidency, too, there was an almost odd whimsicality to media in general, to advertisements and music videos and the like. Self-expression was everything! What could go wrong? You’re the fat kid at the prom? Go ahead and dance, everybody will love you for it! You’re a man who wants to wear some makeup? You go, girl! People will respect you!

Alas, as we have seen, an entire culture does not change that quickly. For the past eight years, when it comes to political expression, a sort of whimsical, twee, collective nostalgia or empowerment seemed to fit the bill. Just be yourself, and society will catch up to you! Trump’s victory has shown that “society,” unfortunately, is far behind. All that time that adorable twenty-somethings were dancing around in Coke ads, thrilled to be themselves, Trump’s America was watching. Waiting. Ready to rip those little snowflakes a new one, like the cadre of ghosts in Matt Hefti’s story. You’re doing better, you’re working on your life, you’re in recovery? Loser, joke’s on you.

With Trump promising a defense budget bloated and inflated beyond Henry Kissinger’s wildest dreams, and veterans guaranteed, or maybe enslaved, to a war that will simply never end, war fiction will surely take a new direction. The stakes are higher, and things may get more serious.

I hope the war writing of the future doesn’t lose its humor. I hope the kid gloves are not on too tight.

The one thing I feel confident in? That these veterans’ voices will continue to be perceptive, funny, witty, heartbreaking and wise. That, I’d bet money on. On that, I’m 100% sure.

—–

Bonenberger, Adrian and Castner, Brian. The Road Ahead. Pegasus Books, 2017.

Buy The Road Ahead here.

Cruel & Lovely World: Susanne Aspley on Writing, Life, Humor, and the Authority to Tell the Tale

by Mary L. Doyle (Army veteran, author)

Full disclosure, Susanne Aspley is not just a friend of mine, she’s a sister. I say that because we served in uniform together and aside from blood relationships, wearing the same uniform while enduring service in butt-crack parts of the world can bring a closeness that is unachievable any other way.

Most recently, the butt-crack part of life we’re sharing is that of finding the right words to put on the page. We commiserate together, encourage each other, and now that she has released her latest work, I get to celebrate it with her and share in her excitement. I’m so glad the rest of the world can now read this book.

The first time Susanne handed me her work to read I was nervous. I knew she could write. I’d read plenty of her work as a journalist. I just didn’t know what she would do when it came time to write a novel. As it turned out, Ladyboy and the Volunteer was easily one of the best books I’d read in a while. Susanne won a bunch of accolades for it, deservedly so, and I couldn’t have been happier for her.

Over the last several months, like any good author, Susanne struggled with her latest book, Granola, MN. I’d get email and text messages from her screaming that she didn’t know what she was doing, that everything was shit. Weeks later she’d be happy that her main characters, Allison and Toby, had worked things out, only to grow frustrated with them again. All the while I looked forward to reading the story because I knew that if Granola was anywhere near as interesting and funny and quirky and brilliant as Ladyboy was, I’d be looking forward to hours of reading enjoyment.

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I’m happy to report that Granola, MN, is Aspley at her best. It’s a story of love and healing told with a kind of humor that sometimes sneaks up on you and at others times smacks you in the face. She shows us a world through the eyes of someone who is unapologetic about her naiveté which means she moves through life with an artless candor that is amusing and heartbreaking at the same time.

Just when you thought a topic might be something growing a little bit stayed, a little bit worn down, maybe something you thought you understood, Aspley gives us a completely unexpected viewpoint that makes it fresh and absorbing. I admit to reading this in small bits then going back to it like a treat I hoarded because I didn’t want it to be over. Lord knows, I needed a laugh at the time. If you feel like that at all, you’re going to want to read this.

Here is the blub:

Allison Couch has her hands full dealing with the assorted flakes, fruits and nuts in the small town of Granola. One summer morning, Toby Davenport moves back home. A young, black, Afghanistan War veteran, he has a heart of gold but a guilt-fueled addiction. Together, they take on parades, pit bull rescues, game show auditions, driving lessons, building inspectors, racism and falling in love. Heartbreaking, slapstick, and rambunctious, life never goes as planned. But there’s always hope, in Granola, Mn. 

It’s a fantastic book. One I hope you’re going to enjoy as much as I did. And here’s what Susanne has to say about it.

The last time I saw you was when we were attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in Washington D.C. I know that wasn’t your first AWP but it was the first where you were on a panel and your first time meeting up with the strong military writing community that has sprung up around that convention. What did you think of the experience?

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Susanne Aspley (with Eric Chandler) at AWP 2017

For the past year, my social life consisted of sitting behind a computer, banging my head on the desk as I dealt with Allison, Toby, Grandma and the rest of the character in Granola. I enjoyed their company and miss them, but I gave them a happy ending so I know they are okay without me. I then managed to crawl out into the real world and attend the AWP Conference in D.C. Writing is very solitary, so what a delight to interact with real people! Real writers! Real poets! Once there, I hardly felt worthy. I felt the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many writers say they feel when surrounded by such talent. Specifically, meeting authors and poets that I truly admire who write about war, and subjects related to war, had me nearly tongue tied. However, I was welcomed into the pack of veterans, active duty, military spouses and family members who write. Each and every one was supportive and encouraging, the way the military community usually is. I look forward to next year when I can spend more time learning and laughing with them.

Your novels, both Ladyboy and the Volunteer, and Granola, MN, take a rather irreverent look at the world. Even the most tragic and ugly aspects of humanity are looked at with a hint of humor and a unique perspective. Is that how you see life? Is it easier for you to explore some of the difficult themes you conquer by looking at things in this way?

Humor is an emotional release. When something is bad, it’s a way to process the pain so it becomes tolerable. It deflates what is bad to a manageable level. Soldiers in the field are a good example of this. In my books, the characters are constantly being tossed back and forth between tragedy and comedy. But that’s the duality of life. Ridiculous and serious, cruel and lovely. However, humor is also extremely subjective. When writing it, you run the risk of sounding offensive, juvenile or just stupid.

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Aspley (lower left) and her children

Just about everyone in this story has a tragic past and Ally seems to take all of that history into consideration when she thinks about them. What are you telling us in terms of human interaction?

 In the military, the term, ‘in the shit’, means being in combat. In the book, Toby was very much ‘in the shit’. Mr Whitehead, Morton and Sheldon were all ‘in the shit’, over in Vietnam, WWII and Korea, respectively. However, many characters have been ‘in the shit’, which doesn’t involve combat.

For example, the character Zach. When he’s on the porch talking to Allison, it’s funny and tragic at the same time. He’s never been in combat, but obviously he’s knee deep ‘in the shit’ with his baby and wife. And Allison has been as well. I think everyone has been ‘in the shit’ at some point in their lives, some deeper than others. We have no idea what’s going on with the people we encounter every day.

There are many themes of mental illness in this book, from depression to suicides. Some of that mental illness is portrayed as quirky, while other aspects are serious and life threatening. What was it about this topic that made you want to dig into it? What did you hope readers would learn?

 I can write with great experience about depression and alcohol abuse. I hit rock bottom eight years ago. I have been hospitalized, in treatment and in jail because of service connected depression and alcohol abuse. I threw it all in the book for Toby and Allison to deal with. And they do. Toby gets the help he needs in the end, and it works for him, because he is willing to work at it. I want vets who are still struggling to know some days are better than others, but there is always hope if you accept the help out there and work at it daily.

From pit bulls to guinea pigs, animals play a large role in this story and they seem to have the same kind of attention to personality as the human characters in your books. The way your characters play off the animals seems to reflect on their character as well. Why is this?

In my opinion, how people treat animals is a direct reflection on their moral character. In Granola, Allison and Toby rescue a pit bull on their first ‘date’. In Ladyboy and the Volunteer, the old man rescues his dog, Scabby, from the horrific dog meat trade that still happens in Thailand.

I believe if someone sticks a firecracker up a dog’s nose or forces them to fight till death, the owners are twisted individuals who have no right to be in a civilized society. They probably victimize people as well. Minnesota passed a law to allow prosecutors to charge animal abuse/cruelty on a felony level. Prior, the most they could charge was a misdemeanor. We can thank Colonel/MN Senator Don Betzold for getting this legislation passed. Betzold was a JAG officer in the 88th Army Reserve.

Toby and his mother are the only black people in this small town. As a white author, do you feel you have the authority to write about such topics?

I have no authority whatsoever. But I live in a world with black people so have black people in my book. I can’t get in his head what it’s like to be black, but I can relate to him being a veteran, struggling with depression and drinking too much. That’s how Toby and I, as the writer, relate.

I can relate to Toby’s mom, Mrs. Davenport, as a single mom. In the book, when Allison goes over to talk to Mrs. Davenport after the accident, Mrs. Davenport expresses regret she didn’t make a bigger issue out of Toby’s depressive behavior at home. But as a mother, I get that. We want our kids to figure things out on their own. But there’s a fine line when you have to step in before it’s too late.

What made you want to explore these themes of racism? Do you worry about facing the same kind of backlash with this book and the black community?

 In 1995-96, I was married to an Arab-American. He was Palestinian Muslim. His sisters and dear mother wear a hijab. With him, I experienced racial ignorance toward him and nastiness toward me. We often handled it with humor, which would defuse the situation. But, quite honestly, he was extremely anti-Semitic. He held contempt toward another group of people as well. And that wasn’t right, either.

Our country is very racially divided. The story is written first person, present, from a young, white woman’s point of view. I’m not young anymore but still white, so feel okay writing from this perspective. Keep in mind, I’m not relating to Toby as a young black male. I relate to him as a veteran, to his depression and drinking too much. Those things don’t care about color or age or nothing. Besides that, I think Toby is a just a really great guy.

Regarding backlash. I’ve already received a hate mail for having a pit bull on the cover of Granola. I was told to get my ‘facts straight’. The gentlemen directed me to a dog bites org website. Well, if you don’t like pit bulls, or the fact a white author wrote a book with a black character, then don’t read Granola, Mn. If you don’t like Thai ladyboy prostitutes, then don’t read Ladyboy and the Volunteer.

One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes is:  “As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

Granola, MN takes place in a small town filled with characters many people might recognize. Did you have a particular Minnesota town in mind when you wrote the book?

 Granola is based on the small town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where I grew up. Scottsbluff was filled with wonderful ‘characters’. It was mostly white, but (my guess) 25% Mexican. They were originally migrant workers for the sugar beet fields who eventually immigrated permanently. There was also a large population of Native Americans. Growing up there, us kids didn’t have a problem with race because we were too busy having fun.

Your first book, Ladyboy and the Volunteer, explores the world of transgender people and you faced a bit of backlash from the trans community about the book. What was that like?

 I heard from several prominent American transgender women after the book came out. When I wrote back, we engaged in respectful conversation regarding my experience with my real life friend, Christine. Christine was a ladyboy. In Thailand, based on what I experienced with her, this is considered a third sex. Not a man transitioning into a woman, or man dressing up as a woman, or a man identifying as a woman. Christine was a complete and whole third sex. Using the word, transgender, is the best word to translate this in English. She, Velveeta and Samantha, were a third sex. The book better explains all of this.

ladyboy2

I received a negative review from a book critic who is a former Peace Corps volunteer. Apparently, my Peace Corps ‘experience’ book didn’t match his expectations on what a Peace Corps ‘experience’ should be. Ladyboy and the Volunteer could have easily been a memoir. Five years ago, I pulled out a box of over 40 handwritten diaries I wrote during my service in Thailand. I made up the fat German and the mysterious briefcase thing, but most other scenes in the book are events that happened. Many parts of the book are transcribed word for word from my diaries. One of my favorite (and true) parts is the tuktuk driver in Bangkok, after I got robbed. He didn’t speak English, but his fatherly kindness was universal. It’s something my own dad would have done.

Ladyboy earned you a McKnight award. Did this recognition inspire or intimidate you when you started writing your second book?

I am grateful and humbled that some people like my style of writing. Not everyone does, and that’s okay. Writing a book is like raising a child. You pour your heart and soul into it and when it’s time, you push it out the door into the real world. You hope it succeeds and doesn’t get judged harshly.

What else would you like to add?

The bottom line/intention of me writing this book is I want people to smile. Life isn’t easy. It’s disappointing. It’s dispiriting. It’s like, why even bother getting off the floor because everything is so fucked. Then something amazingly beautiful happens, like the old lady bumbling up to the grocery store, and she gives you the sweetest little smile for no reason, and you realize, wow…It’s all going to be okay.


About the author:

aspley3Susanne Aspley is the author of the novels Ladyboy and the Volunteer and Granola, MN.

Aspley retired as a Sergeant First Class after serving 20 years in the US Army Reserve as a photojournalist with tours in Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait and Panama.

Aspley also served in the Peace Corps, Thailand, 1989-1991. She then worked in North Yorkshire, England as well as Ra’anana, Israel.

She holds a degree in English Lit with a minor in Film from the University of Minnesota and is a graduate of the Defense Information School, Ft Meade, MD. Retired, she enjoys her kids, rescued pit bull, and surly cat in Minnesota.

About the interviewer:

Mary

Mary L. Doyle has served in the U.S. Army at home and abroad for more than three decades as both a soldier and civilian and calls on those experiences in much of her writing. Mary is the award winning author of The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, The Sapper’s Plot, and The General’s Ambition, in the Master Sergeant Harper Mystery Series; The Bonding Spell, a new urban fantasy series and the co-author of I’m Still Standing; and A Promise Fulfilled, memoirs that tell the stories of strong women warriors. She has also penned Limited Partnerships, an adult romance series now released in omnibus format. All of her books are available on Amazon.com.

I’ve Heard That Sound Before: the 1950s Sound in Modern Music

Note:  I write about 1950s music on the “Fifties Culture” page of my book web site The Longest Night, but those posts can be hard to find. So here are my most recent thoughts on fifties music, and I’ll put them up on The Longest Night in a few days. – Andria

Sometimes, when performing her 2011 hit “Rolling in the Deep,” British singer Adele opens with her own rich, glossy vocals: “There’s a fire burning in my heart…”

But other times, the stage stays darker a little longer, and the voices of her backup singers lead in, with a crisp,  haunting a capella–“Rolling in the deep… tears are gonna fall…,” sounding for all the world like a Top 40 hit from 1959 or the early sixties, and you’re tricked into listening for the voice of, say, Martha Reeves or Diana Ross to come in and join them.

It’s a one-two punch that works: “Rolling in the Deep” was Billboard’s top single of 2011, and, receiving my much-smaller-scale personal nod of approval, is one of the few Adele songs I listen to voluntarily. You’ve got the distantly familiar, strong-but-feminine backup sound combined with the steamrolling vocals of Adele busting in on top, fully intent on beating your poor heart like a pinata. (“You had my heart inside of your hand,” she sings, “and you played it to the beat.” Ouch!)

Simon Reynolds, writing for the New York Times the year of the song’s release, notes

The song is basically 1960s rhythm-and-blues tightened up with modern production. Everything about “Rolling” — its melody and lyrics, Adele’s delivery and timbre, the role played by the backing vocalists — gestures back to a lost golden age of soul singers like Etta James and Dusty Springfield.

And he’s right; this is where I think the song gets its power. Reynolds, however, is not a fan of this development. “Once pop music was something by which you could tell the decade, or even the year,” he complains, “but listening to the radio nowadays is disorienting, if you’re searching for a sound that screams, ‘It’s 2011!'” This sounds a little funny now that it is 2017, of course (although people like me may still be behind the times enough to be searching for a song that screams that it’s 2011), but Reynolds (author of the interestingly-titled Shock and Awe, which is not about Bush-era military decisions but rather about the rise of glam rock) is serious about his concern with the “atemporality” of today’s pop music, a lack of a clear and definable 2000’s sound, which he sees as stemming from both the staggering backcatalog of music available on iTunes, You Tube, and so forth, as well as our Spotified ability to tailor our listening to sounds and singers we already know we like. (Intelligently, he links this to our fondness for instant-nostalgia apps like Hipstamatic, which grant us a shallow ability to artistically channel the past, perhaps without understanding it.) All the musical epochs are getting jumbled up, he seems to say, and it’s diluting whatever could have been a clear and distinguishable 2000’s music.

Reynolds could not have predicted the rather ominous cast his concern with dilution would take in today’s neo-fascist political environment. And, as a music geek/snob, it’s practically Reynolds’ job to disparage the listening public for their broad tastes and to lament something about modern music; I almost appreciate him for it. But from the production end, I think most modern bands worth their salt still know their influences.  The Bleachers sound like the late seventies and early eighties to me, The Weeknd often channels Michael Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen sounds like Debbie Gibson. One smart blog I found by pure coincidence– the humorously-titled “Trip to the Outhouse,” whose Texas-based writer seems to be former Air Force, for what it’s worth!– caught the similarity, intentional or not, between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and the heavy, pounding beat of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Kaw-Liga” (a connection the blogger made, Mr. Reynolds should note, by listening to Sirius Radio). Now that’s a throwback influence! Perhaps there are just more influences than ever before.

Nice connection, “Trip to the Outhouse,” whoever you are!

In any case, I’m not wandering this world searching for the song that screams that it’s 2011 or even 2017; for the purposes of this blog I’m interested in 1950s music, which has, happily for me, already happened. And it’s music that continues to reverberate through what we hear today, in ways that may be “throwback” but which I’d argue are also innovative. Such nods to the past can be campy, like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats; mass-market-calculated for an emotional teenage audience, as with Taylor Swift; or an intelligent and moving homage, in the case of Leon Bridges.

I’ll start with Bridges–a staggeringly talented 26-year-old (!) singer/songwriter from Ft. Worth, Texas — because his sound and style unabashedly, and most consistently, channel the 1950’s and ’60s:

Interestingly, he’s the same age as Taylor Swift (also born in 1989, a year she must find significant in, hopefully, some way other than her own birth, for she titled an album after it).  While Swift crisscrosses genres and musical epochs like Spotify on fast-forward, perhaps exemplifying the Hipstamatic syndrome Reynolds laments, one thing is consistent to my ear: her yearning, egocentric, emotionally overblown lyrics. Sometimes they focus so intently on her own reflection-in-the-mirror regarding a relationship (multiple songs reference her “cherry lips”…she’s “standing in a nice dress” — the English teacher in me wants to write, “Be more specific, please!”) that they feel quite genuinely like the thoughts of someone who was born in 1989.

But other times, her pure, almost senseless longing, and vague but affectionate descriptions of her young-man-of-the-moment, feel quite directly channeled out of 1950s music.

“He’s so tall, and handsome as hell,” she sings, in “Wildest Dreams. “He’s so bad, but he does it so well.”

Where have I heard that before?

Try the Shangri-Las, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”:

Well what color are his eyes?

I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.

Is he tall?

Well, I’ve got to look up.

Yeah, well I’ve heard he’s bad.

Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.

Or try “He’s So Fine,” by The Chiffons:

He’s so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
That handsome boy over there
The one with the wavy hair

He’s a “soft-spoken guy, also seems kinda shy.” (Well, that’s refreshing! At least he is not just the bad boy. And though he goes unnamed, it’s better than just calling him “Mr. Lee,” which, now that I am a parent, creeps me out to no end.)  But in any case, the young man’s vague description, coupled with the singer’s intense desire, is a recipe for mass-market dollar signs that perhaps no one has used as successfully as Swift. She’s so bad, but she does it so well.

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How about some fifties-inspired camp?

There are several influences at play here in the video for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’s “S.O.B” (though the lyrics would never have made it on the 1950s airwaves), but the idea of rockin’ in a jailhouse was perhaps done most popularly by Elvis Presley in 1957.

Rateliff also riffs on Johnny Cash’s famous Folsom Prison and San Quentin performances, but the addition of self-deprecating humor shows he doesn’t think he is the Man in Black, nor is he trying to be. He and the band perform with a sort of blank absurdity–the group-therapist drummer in an utterly depressed blue sweatshirt amuses me in particular– that feels modern and very funny, while also hearkening obviously back to musical predecessors.

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Last of all: This is not a 1950s reference, but I’m adding it in from a storytelling perspective:

“Cleopatra,” by the Lumineers, uses an older mode of storytelling that I enjoy very much. I have to credit my 11-year-old daughter with pointing the song out to me, because in general I find the Lumineers a little saccharine. “Mom,” she said, “this song is interesting, because it’s a man singing like he is this lady Cleopatra. I mean, he’s singing the words the way Cleopatra would tell the story.”

The poor child probably regretted this observation instantly because I launched into an excited, annoying, possibly pretentious monologue: “Well, Nora! That’s from a folk singing tradition! Men and women often sang from the point of view of one another. And you know what? I bet we can trace that to the Bible. Like the Psalsms: people basically stand together in church and recite each other’s confessions and stories. They know that they are not King David, of course, and yet men and women alike recite his words from his point of view. Or like Paul: ‘When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.’ Men and women both say that. Right?”

And she was probably like, “Fine, Mom. Can we listen to some Taylor Swift?,” once again proving that she is probably smarter than me, and that Taylor Swift may be smarter than us all.

I don’t think this video really adds much to The Lumineers’ “Cleopatra,” other than a typical high-def commercial-type tearjerker thingy-ding . But the song itself is quite lovely.

I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress
When you knelt by my mattress, and asked for my hand
I was sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress
With my father in a casket, I had no plans

And I left the footprints, the mud stained on the carpet
And it hardened like my heart did when you left town
But I must admit it, that I would marry you in an instant
Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress just to have you around

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

There’s a storytelling, even tonal similarity, I think, between, say, some of the best Joan Baez and this particular Lumineers song. Sometimes the feel is what matters, and you don’t need a fancy music video to get to it. Sometimes, like my daughter Nora, I just hear something and think to myself, I like that.