A NOVEL IDEA Joe Pernice

The
acclaimed Pernice Brother takes his new book on the road – by singing it.

 

BY JAKE CLINE

 

Joe Pernice answers the phone after four rings, and his
voice is deeper and grainier than the soft, comforting instrument heard on all
those Pernice Brothers and Scud Mountain Boys albums, works that have brought
this Massachusetts-born singer-songwriter a healthy number of fans and perhaps
an even greater level of respect. It’s the night before Pernice’s birthday, and
he’s admittedly exhausted at the end of what he simply describes as “a long
day.” Traces of his Bay
State accent punctuate
the fatigue and the distance he’s put between himself and his beloved commonwealth.
You see, this loyal son of Massachusetts, who
once titled an album after the state and set his new novel there, is now a
resident of Toronto.

 

“I married a Canadian,” Pernice states plainly when asked
how someone who has been so closely associated with one place could now be
living far away in another. “When we first got married, I knew we wanted to
have a kid and we wanted to have her family around. My wife has dual
citizenship and her family is in Toronto.
And because I was traveling a lot with the band, I figured it was a fair
trade-off [to move here].”

 

That was about four years ago, and even though Pernice has
long since “settled in” to life in Canada, where he and his wife are raising
their 3-year-old son, Massachusetts has never been far from his mind or his work.
In It Feels So Good When I Stop, the
exceptional novel Riverhead Books will publish August 4, the area in and around
Cape Cod is as much of a character as the unnamed,
25-year-old protagonist. The region serves as something of a hiding place for
the narrator, who in a belated case of cold feet, flees New York the day after
his marriage and heads for the East Falmouth house owned by his sister and brother-in-law,
whose own union is one signed legal document away from being over. Trading one
bad situation for another, the narrator quickly realizes he can’t even disappear
properly. With tourist season ended and the town no longer “a madhouse of
vacationers,” he’s as obvious as a Yankees fan at Fenway Park.
“Hiding out on Cape Cod did not exactly
qualify me for ‘off the grid’ status,” he dryly notes. “If Jocelyn wanted to
find me, she could.” 

 

That Pernice would set his novel in Massachusetts hardly warrants an inquiry.
But the novelist pauses to consider why he placed this story – with its timeless
themes of twentysomething anxiety, fear of commitment and human fallibility –
in the mid-1990s, even though references to the age of grunge, Whitewater and pre-millennial
jitters are few.

 

“That’s a good question,” Pernice says. “I think that’s the
setting I needed for me to think back to that mindset of being in your twenties
and acting erratically. It took me back to that time. I felt like I had a
better handle on the parlance of that time.”

 

At that time, of course, Pernice was performing and
recording with the Scud Mountain Boys, a country-influenced band that recorded
for Seattle’s
Sub Pop Records, which makes a cameo in It
Feels So Good When I Stop
when it expresses halfhearted interest in the
narrator’s barely there band, the Young Accuser, an overture that the character
meets with typical incredulity.  “What
the fuck is this?” he says after first reading a letter from the label. Later,
he wishes “it had been even more discouraging.”

 

Pernice makes clear in the novel and in conversation that
his protagonist does not believe he is too good for Sub Pop, the one-time home
of bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden, or too dense to recognize a great
opportunity when one presents itself. Quite the opposite: The narrator is
simply a confused young adult scared of life and unsure of his place in it,
even as he engages in seemingly grown-up acts: getting married, caring for his toddler
nephew and befriending a lonely, grieving mother. Pernice does acknowledge,
however, that the character almost didn’t become the relatable, sympathetic
person found in the novel.

 

“I got to a point where my character was becoming something
other than what I wanted him to be,” the author says, explaining that he had to
toss out 12,000 words to set the narrator straight. “That was a drag. I was a
good chunk into the book and I realized that the character was becoming too
cool, too knowing. I was giving him too many dimensions. I wanted my character
to be a kind of fuck-up, but capable of real thoughtfulness and real feeling.”

 

That side of his nature comes through in his developing
relationships with his 18-month-old nephew, Roy; the assorted townies he encounters
in Cape Cod; and Marie, a tattooed, aspiring
filmmaker who mourns her child equally through alcohol and art. Together and
individually, these people help him become “part of the order of things,” which
Pernice deftly suggests is an enviable place to be.

 

Music, meanwhile, provides succor to the narrator as often
as it spurs regret. A seemingly endless number of musicians and song titles are
referenced or listened to in the book, among them Patti Smith’s “Frederick,”
Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” and the
Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes.” In one scene, a couple of characters even have
an argument about the authenticity of Mel Tormé.

 

“These songs mean a lot to me,” Pernice explains, “and I
wanted to make them mean a lot to someone else. They popped up as I was
writing. I’d hear something and say, ‘Fuck, I have to get that in.’ But I
didn’t go in with a set of songs.”

 

Pernice will perform many of these songs during a two-month tour
to promote the book and a soundtrack album of the same name. The tour will open
Aug. 5 at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and return Pernice to Toronto Sept. 24 with an appearance at the
Dakota Tavern. (A complete list of dates can be found at www.Pernicebrothers.com/tour.  The soundtrack, which Pernice will release on
his own Ashmont Records on August 4, features him reading brief excerpts from
the novel and performing 10 songs mentioned in it, including Sebadoh’s “Soul
and Fire,” Sammy Johns’ “Chevy Van” and Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.” It
also offers a real-life version of “Black Smoke, No Pope,” the Young Accuser
track that catches the attention of Sub Pop in the novel.

 

“I think there are 25 references to songs in the book, at
least,” Pernice says. “We obviously couldn’t get them all on the CD, but I
might want to play most of them [on the tour]. I’ll read about three sections
from the book and play some tunes in between each one.”

 

During the tour, he’s also likely to field questions about
the presence of a fellow Massachusetts
songwriter in the book. In an amusing episode, the narrator and his future wife
attend a show by Sebadoh frontman and Dinosaur Jr bassist Lou Barlow, with whom
they share mutual acquaintances. The appearance is far from forgettable: Barlow
bad-mouths a former boyfriend of Jocelyn, recounts how he learned “to suck the
nitrous out of these big industrial canisters” and unleashes a fusillade of
expletives on two guys who won’t shut up during his set.

 

“I haven’t heard what he thinks about it,” Pernice says. “I emailed
him and asked him for permission to use him in the book. He e-mailed me back
and said yes, but said he didn’t want to know what it was about. I told him,
‘You’re a decent guy in the book.’ He emailed me again and said, ‘You can make
me a dick.’ But I think he comes off as a decent character.”

 

In Pernice’s decidedly raw but warmhearted novel, he’s not
the only one who does.

 

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