Words & Music: Astronautalis on Mark Helprin

In the first of a short series in which musicians discuss their favourite works of literature, Andy Bothwell (aka Astronautalis) recalls the time he had to put down Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War.

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

There is a point that you reach, during a snowy drive, across a mountain pass, in an overloaded 4-cylinder car with bald tires, where things get so dangerous, and the tension gets so high, that all you can do is smoke another joint and laugh out loud in the face of death. Your own life having become such a hilarious string of jokes that dying by careening off the top of a majestic mountain, in a car full of your friends, into a pristine snowy valley below, would be such a fitting punchline that you can no longer recall what it was that was scary about this situation.  All you can do is sit back and laugh.

I remember that moment so vividly, being tucked in the back-seat, a mountain of merch separating me from the rest of my tour-mates, as a choir of maniacal laughter scored the semi-graceful, semi-controlled slides of that little green Honda up and down the white-out windings of that Rocky Mountain pass. We had all been sick the whole tour, poor as church mice, and truly mad from living off $3 a day at Wendy’s, NyQuill, and the weed promoters would give us en lieu of actual money. I had been trying, in vain, all morning, to read A Soldier of The Great War, hoping to fall into Helprin’s words, and let it all distract me from my own hunger pains and strep throat. But the tires kept slipping, so the jokes kept coming, and the snow never stopped falling, so I finally surrendered to the chaos and I put the book down. I gave up my hope that fiction would save me from fact, because in that moment the facts were so strange, so hilarious, and so riveting, that even Helprin’s astoundingly elegant work of fiction seemed flawed in the face of such fact. So I had to put it down.

A Soldier of The Great War was my introduction to Helprin’s work, and my first step down a long path of adoration, eventually leading to out-and-out idolatry, and one could even argue, blatant imitation. And though that book truly changed my life, and my music, and my language, every time I think of A Soldier of The Great War my first thought is never of the moments that moved me, the language that shaped me, or the story that entranced me, but that day on the mountain pass, where the world around me was so alive, so insane, and so beautiful, that I had to put the book down.

Since that wild drive through the Rockies almost 10 years ago, my dangerous little hobby of touring around the country with my friends has slowly turned into a tidy little living made from touring around the world with many of the same friends, and yet my life has only become more bizarre, more thrilling, and more insane. Often I think about the criticism Helprin faced later in his career, for what many people thought to be a fantastically naive romance about the overwhelming beauty in the world. And I can’t help but think of how broke we were back then, how sick I was, and how close we were to death on that road, and yet, how truly beautiful it all was. So beautiful, in fact, that I had to put down what would become one of my favourite books, just to take it all in.

Astronautalis will be playing a handful of UK dates this August. Check his official website for details.