How To Build a Home for the End of the World (Perennial Press, May 1, 2022) is a dystopian road trip novel that considers how people negotiate care in the throes of ever-unraveling crisis. Keely Shinners pays tribute to the songs that inspired the novel.
Keely Shinners is a writer from Fox Lake, Illinois, and now lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. Their essays have appeared in the journals James Baldwin Review & Safundi as well as the publications Africanah, ASAI, Mask, The Sun Magazine, and Full Stop. They are the editor of ArtThrob, founder and editor of [in review] and co-founder of Best Friend Club.
The Ultimate Road Trip Mixtape for the End of the World
According to Keely Shinners, author of How To Build a Home for the End of the World.
“Countdown to Armageddon” – Public Enemy
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – Gil Scott Heron
The first thing you need to know about the End of the World is, as Professor Griff says, “it already been in effect. Go get a late pass.” The way Ida puts it in the book is: “The End of the World is a name that functions only for those who don’t already see the world as uninhabitable. People who don’t know disaster has a history. And a cause. Water or no water, the world’s been ending. The world has ended already.” In other words, we already know what it is like to live in post-apocalyptic times. Especially Americans. What is the genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples and the destruction of their land if not an apocalyptic scenario? Not to mention our history of slavery which obliterated any chance of our society understanding the values of freedom, humanity, democracy or any of the other lies our country tells itself.
Gil Scott Heron denies these lies. He promises: “The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.” Heron lets us know that the End of the World – if the End of the World means the collapse of the state, the fall of capitalism, and the return to the commons – might,, paradoxically, save us after all. This is the thesis of How To Build: at the end, there remains room for hope, healing, and love.
“The 23rd Psalm” – Bobby McFerrin
“Amazing Grace (Solo Piano and Harmonica Lead)” – Nicholas Jack Marino
“The Wicked Flee” & “The Grave” – Carter Burwell
Now, if you grew up Midwestern and God-fearing like me, you might find some hope, healing, and love in old hymns. Nicholas Jack Marino’s pared-down version of “Amazing Grace” is perhaps the most nostalgic for me. And nostalgia – on a road trip across America at the End of the World – is important. Nostalgia represents what is beautiful in our memories, and if we can face the beauty, we can face the pain too. The road trip, anyway, is an excellent excuse to face the painful parts of your past from which you would otherwise hide. The car becomes a sort of confessional booth: you ask questions you wouldn’t normally ask, remember stories you wouldn’t normally remember.
The road, we might say, demands revisitation. Hymns too demand revisitation and, sometimes, revision. I think Bobby McFerrin does so gorgeously in “The 23rd Psalm,” simply changing the He of God to She. Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, inspired by “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is another example. The road at the End of the World demands revision. What I mean by that is: can we look past nostalgia in our collective memory? Can we face the pain that lies beneath?
“American Pie” – Don McLean
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” – John Denver
“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“American Girl” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
“I’m On Fire” – Bruce Springsteen
“Every Breath You Take” – The Police
“One Tree Hill” – U2
“Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac
“Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones
If you grew up with a Midwestern and God-fearing father like me, you probably remember driving in the car and listening to some – if not all – of these songs. As corny as they are, I love them. I love them because they are corny. In the book I call them, “Songs sung at weddings and reunions, by fathers and soldiers everywhere. Songs of simple woe.” They are talismans of the American Dream. Accordingly, they are full of longing but without substance. In this way, they are a lot like the roadside attractions one might find on a road trip at the End of the World. The diners, the tourist traps, the neon lights. These, too, are nostalgic and demonstrably beautiful. They are also painful and demonstrably hiding something.
At the End of the World it is easy to see. These songs, these attractions, they are baubles that affect comfort. They constitute the architecture of the American Dream. Like Tom Petty sings, “She was an American girl, raised on promises.” This architecture hides the expense of the Dream, which is bloody, and which we have yet to pay. Merry Clayton tells us so when her voice cracks in “Gimme Shelter.” “Murder!” she cries, piercing the Dream. At the End of the World, it will come time to wake up and pay our dues.
“Backwater Blues” – Bessie Smith
“Downhearted Blues” – Bessie Smith
“Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith is also, for me, the “Empress of Armageddon That’s Been In Effect.” “Backwater Blues” is about a real-life flood that left over 200,000 people homeless and claimed nearly 500 lives. It also, more generally, about systems that unhome and displace – systems that kill. Bessie Smith is fed up with those systems: “Black water blues done called me to pack my things and go. 'Cause my house fell down and I can't live there no more.” There is something to be said about refusing a home – or a system – that is inhospitable. This, at the End of the World, might be a good reason to set off on the road in the first place. In “Downhearted Blues,” she sings, “I got the world in a jug. The stopper's in my hand. I'm gonna hold it until you meet some of my demands.” It is about meeting the unrest of an oppressive world with mutual unrest.
“Baby Pa” – Group Home
At the End of the World, all roads lead to riot. This is how the novel ends, with people in the streets crying “Fuck that!” and “No justice, no peace!” The cry is disorganised, but not without cause. It is a collective cry that refuses a system that denies a collective memory. It is a cry that pulls the truth out from behind the veil of nostalgia: “We speak what we feel. And what we feel must be real.” In this cry, there is some hope. To paraphrase a line from the novel: this is not repair, but it could be. This is not redemption, but it could be. This is not love, which is another name for miracle, but it could be.
Editor's note: If you dig this mixtape consider putting in an order for the book at https://www.perennial-press.com/how-to-build-a-home.
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features staff writers from Flypaper and select music critics invited to review projects and write guest articles. To be released sporadically.
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