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NewCityNet Vowell Language

Essayist Sarah Vowell makes reality funnier than fiction.

By Shelly Ridenour

APRIL 24, 2000: 

Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World by Sarah Vowell (Simon & Schuster), $23, 244 pgs.

Seeing the film "High Fidelity" got me thinking about something recently: the art of making mix tapes. In the movie, Jack Black's record store clerk character strives to impress his friends by putting on tape what he can't put into words, constructing the ultimate Monday morning pick-me-up via Katrina and the Waves. John Cusack's leading man pursues women with compilation tapes he carefully crafts just for them, even when he knows better -- never mind sex addictions, this is the inability to control premeditated flirting. In real life, I know men who brag about the mix tapes they make for potential love interests, considering it not only a practiced wooing technique but a talent.

And in the Nick Hornby novel upon which the movie is based, the same character says, "To me, making a tape is like writing a letter -- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention, and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs... oh, there are loads of rules."

I'm not the only one thinking about it, either. It's a topic humorously, yet thoughtfully explored in Sarah Vowell's new collection of essays, "Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World." In "Thanks for the Memorex," Vowell recounts her "long distance love affair by cassette tape," a relationship separated by many miles but bridged by "Memorex mash notes."

"I liked picturing him in his little house, flipping through records and putting them on, taking them off and timing out the cassette so he could fill it up as much as possible but still avoid those immoral endings in which the sound gets cut off in the middle," she writes. Just one problem: "While we cared for each other, we cared very little for each other's taste in music."

"My tapes were all lovey-dovey and romantic," Vowell remembers, on the phone in her New York apartment, "like Blondie's 'In the Flesh'... 'darling, darling, darling, I can't wait to hold you.' He was trying to introduce me to music he liked; he wanted to share his passion with me, but it was all this techno crap. On the one hand, I felt it was sweet that he was making tapes of... I guess you could call them songs, that he adored. But looking back, I feel sort of sorry for him -- I mean, I guess some girls could be wooed with Aphex Twin. I'm a real verse-chorus-verse girl."

No kidding. Pop music plays an important role in both her life and writing, working its way not only into her essays (Frank Sinatra, Jonathan Richman and Sleater-Kinney have all popped up in her work) but also her contributions to "This American Life" (Vowell is a contributing editor to NPR's WBEZ-FM-produced show) and Salon, which features her arts and entertainment column online every other Wednesday. (In fact, Vowell's recent Salon piece "Songs That Kill" explores pop music as the soundtrack to murder in the novel/film "American Psycho" -- "Even though sometimes the reader feels like [Bret Easton] Ellis is letting Bateman get away with murder, the author punishes his protagonist: He has no peace; and despite the fact that Bateman shall have music wherever he goes, it's Phil Collins' 'Sussudio,' which strikes me as punishment enough.")

"My rock 'n' roll fantasy is that occasionally, every now and then, a song I like comes on the radio," she writes in the "Cannoli" essay "Your Dream, My Nightmare," in which our intrepid reporter visits a Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp where fans learn guitar tricks from the likes of Rick "Rock 'n' Roll Hootchie Koo" Derringer. "I've rarely dreamed of befriending my rock idols. Like I really want to toast in the new year with Jerry Lee Lewis or go shoe shopping with Courtney Love or build sand castles with a peach like Lou Reed. Just because I have them in my heart doesn't mean I want them in my life."

A follow-up conversation with Vowell reveals more. "I have a lot of rock 'n' roll heroes, but I don't necessarily want to be around them; a lot of them are weird and scary," she says. "Like Bob Dylan-he's formidable. It would be nervewracking to be in the same room; being at home with his records is more than enough.

Vowell grew up in the Wild West of Oklahoma and Montana, listening to the likes of Dylan and Walter Carlos (a "conceptual" artist who covered Bach fugues with a Moog on albums like "The Well-Tempered Synthesizer"; Vowell played baritone in the school marching band) and worrying about Armageddon compliments of Pentecostal teaching. ("I lost my innocence the old-time religion way, reading the nursery rhyme of fornication that is the Old Testament," she writes in "The End is Near, Nearer, Nearest.") She eventually moved to Chicago to study modern art history in the M.A. program at the Art Institute, and it is here her career really took off. Vowell spent 1995 listening to the radio -- pop music, alt rock, all sports, NPR and lots and lots of talk -- and keeping a log of her habits and observations, the result of which became her first book, "Radio On: A Listener's Diary." Not only did the book earn her a Newsweek nod as one of 1997's "Rookies of the Year in the Arts in America," her research led to a relationship with "This American Life"; pieces she contributed to the show have now found their way to the printed page, with several of them showing up in "Take the Cannoli."

Vowell moved to New York last summer, "for personal reasons, which are boring. Let's just say I think Chicago will survive without me," she says. "I miss the things that people who live in Chicago miss about Chicago... the Bulls, Lounge Ax. I also miss the Lake, the Waco Brothers, and the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which is probably my favorite place in the world."

It is that bridge, our bridge, that is the star of her fabulous essay "Michigan and Wacker," in which the author attempts to trace "the whole history of America" from a vantage-point intersection above the Chicago River. From Louis Joliet's prophetic map, connecting "the missing link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, and thus the Atlantic and the Gulf;" to riverside settler Jean Baptiste Point du Sable ("Chicago's schoolteachers like to impress upon their students that Chicago's first resident, du Sable, was a black man. And just think, it only took 204 years for the town to elect its first black mayor"); to the historic technological innovation of McCormick's reaper, to the Trib's Abe Lincoln connection, right on up to the bridge's role as a major player in action films. "We used to ship grain from this corner," she writes of the Michigan/Wacker historical vortex. "Now that entertainment is America's second biggest export, the product we ship is Keanu."

At the 1998 Public Radio conference in San Francisco, Vowell and fellow "TAL" contributor David Sedaris -- himself a much-hyped non-fiction commodity -- read essays about their childhood music lessons, with Vowell accompanied by an elementary school band. According to a note on the "TAL" Website, "Sarah rocked the crowd so hard that afterwards," David announced to anyone who would listen, 'She must be destroyed.'" The piece she read, "Music Lessons" -- also found in "Take the Cannoli" -- analyzes accidental life lessons the author gained from her band-geek days, like how the Darwinian implications of high-school cliques carry over to the real world. "Orchestra kids wear tuxedos. Band kids wear tuxedo T-shirts... The one thing the band kids and the orchestra kids had in common was a unified disgust for the chorus kids who were, to us, merely drama geeks with access to four-part harmony."

The real world is the exclusive focus of Vowell's work, and when she takes on her conflicted blood connection to the Trail of Tears via a road trip with her twin sister, confronting a hapless volunteer at Andrew Jackson's Old Hickory; or remembers her secret collegiate obsession with the "Godfather" movies; or paints a vicarious, unromantic portrait of the ghosts of the Chelsea Hotel, it is at least as passionate, as creative, as clever and as enjoyable as anything anyone could ever make up.

"I have no interest in [writing] fiction," she says, "although, a lot of my writing has, to use a yucky word, 'fantasy' scenarios, but about real people." Visiting the weirder-than-fiction alternate universe that is Disney World, she writes, "I am drawn to Tom Sawyer Island because a tribute to Mark Twain would not be out of place in a theme park of my own design. Should Vowell World ever get enough investors, I'm going to stick my Tom Sawyer Island in Love and Death in the American Novel Land, right between the Jay Gatsby Swimming Pool and Tom Joad's Dust Bowl Lanes, a Depression-themed bowling alley renting artfully worn-out shoes."

Writing in first-person, how does she handle the inevitable temptation to edit reality?

"I do edit reality in that I hope I skip the boring bits. But I am a journalist, and I do believe in truth. I take the term 'non-fiction' seriously," she says. "I was just writing an essay about Joyce Carol Oates' new novel about Marilyn Monroe ["Blonde"], about how I feel sorry for fiction writers. With non-fiction you can write about every kook out there, but fiction has to be seem believable."

But does she ever feel pressure from friends or family members to remember things their way?

"They're welcome to remember things their way in their own writing," she laughs. "Most of my writing at least tries to be funny, and idealizing things isn't funny. My stuff is usually self-deprecating, and a key to humor is making fun of yourself more than anyone else can."

In the essay "American Goth," Vowell hires a team of stylishly ghoulish goths, lead by one Mary Queen of Hurts, to transform her into a creature of the dark in an attempt to seem more "menacing." "I have been called a curmudgeon by Bitch magazine. That's the image I'm cultivating," she writes. "But truth be told, I'm not as dour-looking as I would like. I'm stuck with this round, sweetie-pie face, tiny heart-shaped lips, the daintiest dimples, and apple cheeks so rosy I appear in a perpetual blush... I come across so young and innocent and harmless that I have been carded for buying maple syrup." Transformed through a corset, bustle, black nail polish and a painted-on birthmark in the shape of a snake, to the point that she is "as goth as a Cure album dipped in blood," Vowell is able to "pass" at a club and enjoy her new-found menacing air -- until "I look at my watch right before midnight and realize I'm missing 'Nightline.'"

"I feel like some engaging, interesting, curious things have happened to me, and I'd rather write about those things and edit out the boring stuff," she says. "I don't presume most of my life is interesting to other people. I'm a nerd, and I live a nerd's life. I was in school for twenty years, so most of my life was spent doing homework, which doesn't exactly make for a good yarn.

"I'm thinking about writing a story about an organ transplant story I heard, which might be an urban legend. I heard about a guy who had a kidney transplant, afterwards he started having nightmares about being murdered; and it turns out the person whose kidney he received had been murdered in an alley. A person who got one of my organs would be bored having nightmares about French exams."

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