Popular Music
From Vittula

Mikael Niemi
Laurie Thompson,

(Seven Stories Press)
So I didn't get my flu shot so two weeks later I got the flu and after lying half-in half-out of bed so I could leave my leavings in the plastic wastebasket and since I could never get back to sleep I pawed through the mountain stack of new books and came up with Popular Music from Vittula.

It is the story of Matti and Niila growing up in Pajala --- a tiny town in Sweden, close to where it touches Finland. It is cold and dark, but the people in Stockholm are bringing in electricity and paving the roads and somehow the two boys come across a record of roskn roll musis with four young men from England singing Ollyu nidis lav and Owatter shayd ovpail. The Beatles --- and later Elvis --- come to northern Sweden.

If this is beginning to sound like an ice-clogged Our Town of the 60s, don't you believe it. There are drinking parties where young men speak only in vowels and wet themselves. There are funerals where several hundred heirs fight viciously over the spoils. There is a ghost of grandmother who haunts young Niila until they face her one night and, oh, cut off her penis and bury it.

There is fumbling love with a black-haired beauty in a hot-wired Volvo, a sauna that gets so hot that only Matti survives ... to fall to the floor, puking (which set me off again). This is Lake Woebegone with nuts, a Jean Shepard never-ending story set in the icy tundra of the northlands instead of Jersey City.

Popular Music from Vittula sports a catchy style of writing, a circularity that sounds suspiciously like the age-old shaggy dog. Here's a shot of several older women doing ladies' aerobics in a gym that "smells of fish and varnish, as there always is in old PE halls, a sort of fetid smell of torture by ropes and horses and flying rings. Plus an acid stench of female sweat and sex:"

    My God, but the flesh quivered! Tits jiggled like flour sacks, spare tires swelled like rising dough. It was lucky they had no sense of rhythm --- if they'd all jumped in time with the music, they'd have gone through the floor. Then they started prancing around the room with giant strides. Colossal legs clomping around like elephants. Sweat poured in torrents over the double chins and into the canyons of their cleavage, varicose veins glowed blood red.

Popular Music from Vittula is episodic, just like our childhoods. Too, like our childhoods, it is filled with unreasoning terror and bursts of sunlight and laughter, people direct from Gargantua and Pantagruel with monstrous appetites doing monstrous deeds: drinking and eating and beating each other (and their children) until all are senseless.

Too, there are some tales that will never leave you alone: Grandad's seventieth birthday where most of the drunken visitors end up laid out, row by row, on the floor; Matti getting trapped in an old boiler; a ghastly old witch-man, Russi-Jussi who, when asked for help with the ghost who will not leave Miila in peace, turns into a lovely woman,

    She'd been there all the time, hidden under the surface. Now she was leaning forward inside him, as if behind a darkened window pane, pressing up against the old man's wrinkles and smoothing them out from inside. She was a beauty. Thick womanly lips, a smooth, high forehead, arched eyebrows, bitter and very sorrowful eyes.

So I have done my reviewerly job, have told you about it. But I want to give you one more vision to go along with the ones above. I want you to imagine me before (or after) trips to bucket, guffawing, wiping the tears from my eyes, blowing my nose. Then going back to the book, unable to leave it alone, hanging on as long as possible, then, reluctantly, laying it down, so I could do my upchuckerly job, all the time hurrying it along so I could get back to this wonderful tale, never ever wanting to lay it down, that something sweet so rare in books, taking us by storm, heaving us through the night, Popular Music from Vittula and I coming together head-to-bucket, coming together as one.

--- L. W. Milam
Go to a reading from this book


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH

Send us an e-mail