Books on GIF #100 — 'No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again' by Edgardo Vega Yunqué
|Books on GIF||Feb 17, 2019|| 4|
Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's selection is ‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again,’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué.
Fair warning: This is going to be a long newsletter. So:
On May 6, 2016, Books on GIF was conceived by two tweets. The first review, of ‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt, was delivered two days later to 15 people. This week, after nearly three years, almost 700 GIFs (I counted) and more than 300 subscribers, we come to a milestone. It’s newsletter number:
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I started Books on GIF as a way to share my love of books with friends and strangers, and also because I was frustrated by most mainstream book reviews. I found them snooty and stale. And everywhere I looked, I saw the same authors, the same books. So I followed the adage to become the change I wanted to see in the world. I appropriated my habit of sending GIF-filled emails to friends on their birthdays and styled myself as your pal who’s always reading something random that might interest you and who won’t give you a bum steer. When I got to review No. 26, of ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit, I realized I also had a responsibility to elevate diverse voices: The authors I choose can’t all be white men. Ditto for the GIFs. And the books can’t all be from the big publishers.
Indulge me as I thank some people. First and foremost, thanks to my partner, editor and spiritual advisor, Donna. Books on GIF would be nowhere without her. Special thanks also to my mom, Leslie, Carla, Heather, Nicole, Maggie, Heidi, Taffy, Danielle, Rachel, Katie, Paul, Julia, Nazim, Alessandra, Allegra, Maya, Howard, Min Jin Lee, Kate, Mathew, Radhika, Wade, Amina, Elena and Jacob for their help and support. (Apologies if I inadvertently forgot anyone!)
Along the way, I learned from several people across the DIY-reviewer universe. They don’t know me, but I want to give credit where it’s due. Newsletters that influenced me for their style, humor and use of GIFs include ‘Two Bossy Dames’ by Margaret and Sophie and ‘Pop a Molly’ by Molly Mirhashem. For review structure and for the sheer joy of talking about things you love, there’s YouTubers AhnaldT101, who reviews a Star Wars mobile phone game, and Shartimus Prime, who reviews action figures. Other influences include The Rewatchables podcast from The Ringer and the newsletter ‘Lipstick & Lemons,’ which is about makeup. For help fleshing out my ‘To Be Read’ list, I listen to Justine and Julia’s ‘You’re Never Going to Read This’ podcast. To hold myself accountable about the books I review, I conduct my own VIDA count.
But I also want to give a special shout out to you guys, the subscribers. So many of you have reached out over these years to offer a kind word, or to recommend a book (like the one we’ll eventually get to below, I promise), or to offer a suggestion for how to make BoG better. Thank you for coming with me on this journey. Thank you for telling a friend about me. Thank you for offering encouragement and support when I feel discouraged and contemplate hanging it up. I can’t say it enough, guys:
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‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again’ (which hereafter I will refer to simply as ‘Bill Bailey’) was recommended by Tana, a subscriber who has been waiting for this review since August. Apologies for the delay, Tana, and thanks for your patience. I had planned originally to review this book months ago, but I kept pushing it back because I worried I wouldn’t get through its 800 pages in time to make my biweekly deadline. I got about halfway through it late last year before I hit on the idea to feature the book in my 100th review. I could tell this was going to be a monumental book, and the extra few weeks would give me time to do it justice. I was like:
This is a tremendous book. It’s beautifully written, and is one of the best books I’ve read about New York City. The main character is Vidamía Farrell, the product of an underage Puerto Rican mother from the Lower East Side and an Irish-American father from lower Westchester who, when the book opens, are estranged. Her father, Billy Farrell, was once a virtuoso jazz pianist who played for Miles Davis before the Vietnam War took two fingers off his right hand and left him with PTSD. Vidamía, at age 12, and against her now-successful and wealthy mother’s wishes, goes in search of the father she’s never met. Once she finds her father, and sees how damaged he is, she makes it her mission to fix him by reuniting him with the piano. She also discovers that the roots of her family tree extend beyond the shores of Puerto Rico into the hills of Tennessee and back to Africa. Back in New York, the story winds through Odessa over on Avenue A, the Cornelia Street Cafe (RIP!) and the infamous McDonald’s on West 3rd Street, among many other places recognizable to New Yorkers. It also hits authentic New York notes, like how the Irish and Puerto Ricans get along (or don’t), and how subway riders will often wait on the stairs of a split-level station to run up or down to catch whichever train comes first. It also nods to the old-school names for the subway lines, like how the 5 train was once known as the White Plains Road line. This book is so New York that if you cut into it, it would bleed regular coffee. Reading it, I was like:
There are wonderful supporting characters in this book, including Vidamía’s free-spirited half-sister Cookie; her complicated self-loathing mother, Elsa; Pop Butterworth, who discovers Billy’s talent; and Wyndell Ross, Vidamía’s boyfriend. But the thing I love most about this book is the writing. Yunqué wrote some beautiful sentences, and he comes the closest I’ve ever seen to capturing the structure of jazz in written form. He deviates from the main story into solo threads about individual characters, and then brings them back into the main narrative without missing a beat. Each time he does this, I am reminded of my favorite jazz record, Miles Davis’s ‘'58 Sessions Featuring Stella by Starlight’ where Miles and John Coltrane executed this to perfection:
‘Bill Bailey’ was humming along at a good rhythm for more than 600 pages before Yunqué decided to craft a sequence that to me felt like he was slamming both his hands down on the piano in a loud crash. The section follows another of Vidamía’s half-sisters, Fawn, and the so-called ‘Four Horsemen of Avenue B.’ I’m not going to describe it here, but the scene is so violent and brutal that it stopped me in my tracks like:
I stayed up late staring at the ceiling the night I read this scene wondering what Yunqué was driving at. I ended up with two thoughts: 1) that jazz often relies on dissonance, so it fits with his overall structure; and 2) that senseless violence and brutality is as much a part of New York as jazz (names filled my mind of other women who have suffered unspeakable violence in this city, like Imette St. Guillen, Sarah Fox, Nicole duFresne and this Columbia Journalism student). The scene bothered me so deeply that it almost overwhelms the things I like about this book, but I’m trying to keep it all in perspective. Maybe I’m too squeamish a reader, but it bothers me when I have to read about intense violence against women that only seems to serve the narrative purpose of inspiring male characters to have cathartic moments. I’m still not over this scene, clearly. I’m like:
‘Bill Bailey’ also offers multiple perspectives on race. First, it is a paean to New York as a melting pot. Second, it endeavors to situate Puerto Ricans amid, and outside of, America’s ongoing black-white racial struggle. It seems to resist the use of ‘people of color’ as a catch-all term for people who are not white. One of the characters says ‘people of color’ serves only to expand the othering of blacks by whites to people of all races. Characters also argue that Afrocentrism is morally equivalent to Eurocentrism, and that both are equally bad. The politics of the book ring faint bells of outdated ideas from the 1990s, and I wondered if Yunqué actually believed these things, or, if he were still alive, that he would continue to believe them after seeing the positive impact of ‘Black Panther’ and:
Yunqué, who happens to be the stepfather of singer Suzanne Vega (who’s name-checked in the book), wrote an important novel that affected me deeply across a range of emotions. It reminded me about the New York I fell in love with when I was growing up north of here and coming down for the Puerto Rican Day Parade blasting Frankie Cutlass on the car radio. I was envious of the ethnic pride and joy Puerto Ricans felt and showed that seemed to seep into every corner of the city, wishing I could be a part of it, like:
The book also reaffirmed that writing can be beautiful and provocative at the same time. Even though I was bothered by one scene, I can’t deny there’s magic within these pages. You should read this book.
How it begins:
In the not so merry month of May 1988, when her studies had evolved into a drag, Vidamía Farrell, finishing her sophomore year of high school, again became as restless as she had the previous four years. In spite of ample evidence of her eventual metamorphosis into a scholar of consequence, the upcoming end of the school year had become an extra-special time ever since her parents, but mostly her mother, and perhaps for the wrong reasons, had come to the understanding that it would be ethnically beneficial for Vidamía to spend part of the summer with her father.
As she stood rigidly inside a quadratic equation and stared at a sky full of nimbusian elephants, Vidamía thought again of her father, Billy Farrell, in her mind a figure of considerable mythic qualities, whom she had both admired and pitied once she got to know him, and decided that it was in everyone’s best interest to help him make a reentry into more acceptable human society. She didn’t meet her father until the age of twelve, when she learned that once upon a time her father had sat in the middle of a Vietnamese rice paddy, under a shower of steel, cradling the broken and forever useless body of her uncle, Joey Santiago of Rivington Street on the Lower East Side of New York City, whom she would never meet since time and space didn’t allow for such stratagems.
Billy Farrell had cried while he held the eviscerated corpse of his ace, his homeboy, his reefer-smoking main man. Such was the shock, that Billy didn’t notice that the drizzle of steel, while it had barely touched his own head, had meticulously erased his catalogue of the musical techniques of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, and other jazz pianists. However, even if that aspersion of steel had not removed from consciousness the complex knowledge of flatted sevenths, augmented ninths, intricate harmonic patterns, and improvisational virtuosity that Billy had at one time displayed, he would have been unable to perform adequately, he believed, his own renditions of such standards as “Moonlight in Vermont,” “April in Paris,” “Back Home Again in Indiana,” or “Autumn in New York” not because he lacked a geographical metronome, but because that baptismal of steel had neatly severed, at the root, the middle and pinkie fingers of his right hand, rendering him an eight-fingered jazz pianist, a phenomenon more rare than an arctic orchid.
‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Billy Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again,’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2003 and by Picador in 2004. 789 pages. $1.99 via Alibris.
In case you missed it: Books on GIF #99 featured ‘Unclaimed Baggage’ by Jen Doll.
What’s next: In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday. Also in the queue are ‘Thin Rising Vapors’ by Seth Rogoff, ‘Postcards From the Edge’ by Carrie Fisher and ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ by Scholastique Mukasonga, among others.
Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want me to review.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!
Until next time,