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  mark cirino

Lou Reed always says his goal was to inject the loftiness of a novel into a rock song. With Name the Baby, I attempted to do the complete opposite. I tried to write a novel that rocks. My aim was for the book to have the spunk and spontaneity and spirit of true blues or no frills rock, the kind which combines familiar chord progressions and straightforward language with cacophonous feedback, and high infectious energy. I decided instead of pretending to be a virtuoso, masquerading as some kind of wizard of words, I'd be raw and completely honest with every syllable. It would be a symphony as done by a garage band with blown out amps.

It's easy to read Visions of Cody or Howl and clearly see how profoundly Kerouac and Ginsberg were influenced by jazz. I think one read of Baby, and it's obvious that the author's sensibility, too, lies not in libraries or museums but mainly on the FM dial. Classic novels are not my foundation or my inspiration. Of course, neither is jazz. I don't think I even know anyone who truly likes jazz. Whenever I hear jazz, my Pavlovian response is that I'm reading People waiting for the dentist to see me. If Wynton Marsalis were playing a concert in my backyard I'd draw the blinds. Pulitzer and all. Draw the blinds and crank up Green Day.

That could be a faulty sensibility, but it's my only one, and I had to be completely true to it when I wrote. I am not an intelligent person. I'm not wise, and I haven't the slightest handle on craft or technique. But that doesn't forbid me from writing whatever I want to, or telling a story the way I like it to be told. There's no illegality in that. The freedom I gain from avoiding the writing style of an English professor allows me to focus on infusing a kind of base energy into a difficult, unnatural form which for me had grown stale and lost any trace of excitement or fascination.

Good rock music is always exciting to me, though. When I finished my Arizona novel, I cooled off by driving out to Denver to see John Fogerty play a show. Now that was art. I learned more about fun and communication and writing during "Born on the Bayou" than I ever did in an NYU classroom. Or anywhere else. His guitar was an extension of his Self more than the computer will ever be for me. And that's what rock lends itself to, a direct channel to the essence of humanity, what a person is, what a person feels. It's unfiltered, there's no transference into learnedness which robs the feeling. I know Fogerty got a more profound crowd reaction during the nonsense of "Looking Out My Backdoor" than I could during even the peak moments of my novels. That's quite a tough truth to cope with, but I'm comfortable with that. I think that's the way of the world, the difference between fiction and music, and I just have to adjust.

So my adjustment was to take what I loved about rock-n-roll and maintain it, to not discard it. Keep the rhythms and the language and the mindset, and celebrate it. I mean, keep in mind all the books among which Name the Baby is shelved. Should I have entered the philosophical arena to compete with Crime and Punishment? Did you want me to try to match Gatsby's perfection? Joyce's inventiveness? No, no, even I am too smart for that. All that was left to do was twist the volume knob, twist it clockwise... and drown them out with big noise. Like Calvin from the funny pages says: if you can't win by reason, go for volume.

I read a truly inspirational novel two, three times a year. I hear a great rock song every few hours. I had to write in a way which stimulated me. That was the only way I could summon the audacity to assume I could hold the interest of strangers for 70,000 words.

At its best, I hope Name the Baby achieves the simple truth of a street musician with thirteen coins in his upturned hat. Any more or less than that, and it fails.

William Blake was the first great bluesman.

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Before I started writing novels, my focus was on songwriting; I played a lot of guitar. This was and is my true love. Something about music is more celebratory and magical than anything a novel can do. Maybe the communal aspect of it all. The guitar has brought me more joy than the laptop ever will. However, it became a frustrating situation to be writing anonymously in a medium which is based on the premise that there will be an audience. I was too shy for that next step, to get up and perform. Your brain needs to be wired in a special way which compels you to get on stage, and that was never what I was drawn to. In theory it sounded exciting, but the notion that you'd display yourself seemed mortifying. I never got around to making that leap. Eventually, I translated everything I learned about the songwriting process into the novel writing process when I wrote Baby. This means wordplay, rhyme, rhythm, imagery, aggressiveness, the sounds of the words and not just the meanings, timing.

I was 24 when I wrote Baby, and I know that's somewhat unusual, it's a little earlier than people expect you to write novels. I see that two ways. In one sense, I'm overwhelmed because I really had no right to expect to reach an audience so quickly. I do feel fortunate in that regard. On the other hand, I fully recognize what a lazy bastard I was during high school, during parts of college, and I feel physically ill that I didn't have the faith in myself to sit down and write one or two back then. I know I would have written a really interesting novel as a younger guy than 24; I regret I didn't. Teenagers have remarkable thoughts; the problem is they are force-fed villainous propaganda that those thoughts are meaningless, frivolous, and that adult concerns are more valid. So yes, 24 is young, but 17 year olds should get busy, don't wait until you turn a certain age, a certain arbitrary numeral.

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The main thing I'm doing beside writing is playing as much soccer as possible. I play in two leagues, and I get out about four times a week--two games and two practices. This is something I've done since I was four. I think it's my Italian side coming through. I played at NYU for my three years there, and I still enjoy getting out there as often as I can. It's a pretty fun sport to play for someone my size (5'9", 150). And here's the secret: I always fit in because every team needs a left-footed shooter. Someday, I'd like to do for soccer what Hemingway did for bullfighting or sniping defenseless elephants. Peter Handke wrote a wonderful novella using soccer as a metaphor, it's called The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.

For the future, I have a couple nice ideas for some more novels that should keep me busy for a while. I guess every book I write is a response to the one I just finished. I have to concentrate on that technical aspect which I feel the one I just finished lacked. That way, I'll keep improving. But you know how it is, you plug one hole and two more spring loose. With one of these, I'm bound to get it right. Aside from novels, I'd also like to find a bunch of musicians and write the libretto for a musical with them, a blues musical, a bluesical! That's my ultimate dream.
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Copyright © 1998 Mark Cirino.