Black Crow White Lie
Casperian Books; 159 pages
In the film noir classic "The Night of the Hunter," Robert Mitchum plays a preacher who tattoos the word "love" on one hand and "hate" on the other — a symbol, he explains, of the struggle between good and evil. The protagonist of "Black Crow White Lie," Candi Sary's new novel, faces this conflict in a deeper sense. Carson Calley, a preteen who moves with his alcoholic mother in and out of Hollywood motels, often responds to frustration with clenched fists; when others aren't watching, he pounds walls, vandalizes bikes, even smashes store windows. Hate, adolescent angst — it has the same effect.
But Carson's hands harbor a loving power as well: When he holds them over a wound and concentrates, he sees and feels a rush of energy through his body, and the ailment disappears. "Black Crow White Lie," which came out last year and recently won the Reader Views Literary Award for the West-Pacific region, is about which side of Carson's energy will triumph — whether he'll give into his nastier impulses (especially after a plot twist that causes him, and us, to doubt the power of his gifts) or whether, like the proverbial physician, he'll heal himself.
It's no small feat for a novelist to capture a child's voice convincingly. Sary, a Costa Mesa resident and UC Irvine graduate, pulls it off throughout "Black Crow White Lie." Carson, who narrates the story, comes off as a bright, thoughtful kid who is still a kid nevertheless (he uses "mom" instead of "mother"), describing the seamy Hollywood streets in detail while still sounding plainspoken and wide-eyed. With his mother often in the hospital or off with her mysterious boyfriend, Carson clings to a pair of surrogate father figures: Faris, a tattoo shop owner who concedes to inking a crow on his pubescent shoulder, and Casper, who works at a head shop and sees business potential in Carson's healing fingers.
Those men take the place of Carson's real father, a man who, per his mother's stories, died when Carson was a baby and served with the U.S. military in "the special forces that no one knew about." While Carson devours the stories whole, it's not hard for the reader to discern that the pieces don't add up. A stretch toward the end, when the hero goes to Washington, D.C. in search of his father's grave (he hopes to use his healing powers to resurrect him) and gradually discovers the truth, ought to elicit a shudder from anyone who's lived through the middle-school years.
Just as Carson expects a revelation at the end of that cross-country trip, the reader may expect an action-packed epic after the opening pages of "Black Crow White Lie." The book, though, turns out to be surprisingly low-key — and that's one of its greatest strengths. Sary has a natural grace to her writing, and she treats her hero's power almost casually, as if being able to cure the sick were no more remarkable than being able to throw a baseball accurately or play a tricky Mozart piece. Since the author doesn't pump up her story with melodrama, it works all the better as metaphor — haven't we all spotted that rare ability in ourselves and wondered if we could hold onto it?
It takes until nearly the novel's end for the meaning of its title to become apparent; by the last of these 159 compact pages, reality and fantasy seem equally strong, equally beguiling. Given its length and subject matter, I suppose Sary's work qualifies as a young-adult novel, but its message may resonate beyond the teen years. What this book asks is whether we can identify our calling in life and use it as a gift for others, and in "Black Crow White Lie," Carson accomplishes that feat. So, as a writer, does Sary.
Cradle to the Grave
Moonsville Records; LP
Moonsville Collective's music and lyrics take you back to simpler times. When mining gold and drilling for oil would make you rich and dreaming about fishing was just as good as the real thing.
Those are some of the songs found on their 10-track album "Cradle to the Grave." Recent winner of Best Country/Americana at the 2013 OC Music Awards, the Collective's second self-produced album is a collection of songs about, simply put, life. Lyrics about losing a loved one, a tribute to an influential country musician and even a well-known moonshiner are accompanied by catchy riffs that'll have you clapping along.
The LP opens with "Millionaires," which transports you to a time when the fastest ways to make money were mining gold, refining cotton or drilling for oil. "Gold gold, white gold, black gold; we're getting rich" are the lyrics often repeated during the chorus, and once it imprints itself onto your brain, you'll catch yourself singing along.
But if you listen closely to the lyrics, the boys at the Collective made the mistake of referencing the city of Deadwood, S.D., as being in North Dakota. It may be a nitpicky detail that doesn't affect the song in any way except accuracy, but a little fact-checking would be nice.
Speaking of lyrics, the words found in "Rum Runners" shouldn't be taken too seriously. The song is a story of a man who shot and killed his mother and father because of their rebellious lifestyle. According to the lyrics, both the mother and father were sleeping with other people and having their kids deliver rum. It's a really catchy song, but one shouldn't focus too much on what they're saying.
"In My Mind" makes you remember that life can be simple and that one can do anything — well, in their mind. Anyone can "catch a six-pound trout" or be "kissing Zelda Fitzgerald and still be in [their] bed." The Collective's simple, laid-back sound on this track makes you want to take a nap, regardless of where you are, and dream about almost anything.
Moonsville Collective took the time to record two ballads about two very different people: Levon Helm and Marvin Sutton. In "Gone but Not Forgotten," the group pays tribute to multi-instrumentalist Helm, who is best known for his time with the Canadian-American roots group the Band and their hit song "The Weight," on which Helm drums and sings lead vocals.
The Collective touches on Helm's concert series called the "Midnight Rambles" and his battle with cancer. And as the chorus suggests, Helm is neither gone nor forgotten as he's "sitting on a bale of cotton."
The other tribute is directed toward Tennessee moonshiner Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton in the song "Ballad of Popcorn Sutton." It's a song about the well-known microdistiller who made Tennessee white whiskey up until the early 2000s. According to a story by the New York Times, Sutton was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but committed suicide four days before having to report to prison.
After listening to the album multiple times, it's clear to me why Moonsville Collective was picked as Best Country/Americana for 2013. It's not the typical country music that you hear on the radio. They don't sing about red Solo cups or being an "Accidental Racist," like on Brad Paisley's latest album. It's about the simple things in life, and Moonsville Collective has captured that in this album.
I've jumped on the Moonsville train, and I'm curious to see where it goes.
—Anthony Clark Carpio