Etta James, Sadie Dunhill, and the tears for yesteryear

on January 23, 2012, 10:00am

“I have never been what you’d call a crying man,” Jake Epping states in Stephen King’s latest work, 11/22/63. It’s a running sentiment throughout the 849-page novel, which follows a time traveler (Epping) aimed at stopping the death of President John F. Kennedy. King, best known for his macabre fiction and the sensational, critically acclaimed The Dark Tower series, carves out an adventurous, sweeping, and emotional novella that takes the reader to 1958 and the years following. There are deathly sweet root beer floats, classic cars, and countless references to the author’s previous works, including his 1986 novel, It. What’s most fascinating about the book, however, is how endearing it all is. Two to three hundred pages into the story, you start thinking, Christ, I’d never want to leave. There’s this charming innocence to the way people lived during that era – from manners of speech to the fabrics of love to the unity of small town life. Admittedly, you’re not thinking about how fucked life was for some people – you know, like minorities? – and that’s because King only whispers about it. Instead, you’re too swept up in the glistening, Norman Rockwell-like details: family dinners, school dances, weekend getaways, and, um, pound cake. Did I mention love, too?

I cried after reading this book – which startled me. Like Epping’s character, I hardly cry. It’s not that I’m this chauvinistic male who thinks crying is for wimps, not at all. I’m a big fan of crying and an even bigger fan of those who cry well. In fact, I have this mental (and completely asinine) list of some of the best actors to cry in film. Mel Gibson? Tom Cruise? Your average psychopaths, I guess. In all seriousness, though, crying is an important part of life; it lets us release all the angst we’ve built up over short, or often long, periods of time. My problem is that I feel like I shed tears over the most insignificant things and it weirds me out. Did I cry when my mother was admitted to a psychiatric ward? No. But, pop in The Untouchables, let an hour and 30 minutes pass – roughly when “that Sean Connery scene” occurs – and I’m catching snot in my hands. This year has lead me to believe things might change; already I’ve cried twice. Once after reading the book I’m currently discussing here, and then last Friday at the news of Etta James’ death.

Okay, so that last part is only a half-truth, but only because of my situational discomfort. I was sitting in my office, doing half a dozen things, and I hardly had the concentration to really cry. It didn’t help that my door was open, either. However, that didn’t stop me from shedding a tear, or two, or three. What’s so perverse about this is that I’m not even a huge fan! Off the top of my head, I can’t even name two songs by James, but I can name one. And it’s that one song that triggered those tears, namely because it’s one of the most singular, beautiful tracks in music history. You guessed it… “At Last”. Let’s talk about it for a second.

Originally written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the musical Orchestra Wives, “At Last” was first recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with vocals provided by Ray Eberle and Pat Friday. (I only know this because of Wikipedia.) Prior to James’ death, I was convinced it was hers and it essentially is. Like Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Gary Jules’ take on Tears for Fears’ “Mad World”, James took the song on paper and breathed a soul into the notes and lines. Prior to 1960, it belonged to Gordon or Warren or Miller or whoever fiddled about with it. But after James issued the single, it would always be hers. Just listen to it! The strings that FedEx shivers down one’s neck, the balmy piano and percussion work that lures you in, and James’ velvet, mesmerizing vocals paint a timeless portrait assuring everyone that beauty truly does lie in simplicity. Few songs work with this sort of magic, and hardly anyone has ever conjured it since.

I’m quick to contend that’s the reason I cried on Friday, but in my heart, I know there’s a deeper reason. It goes back to my fruitless desire to live in the past. You see, I’m an increasingly nostalgic person, but it’s more problematic than that. Although I’m quick to fall for the current trends that capitalize on my past childhood (e.g. Teen Nick’s recent The 90’s Are All That programming, Urban Outfitters’ new line of neon-clad winter wear, or Yuck’s self-titled debut), I’m overwhelmed by this awkward nostalgia for periods of time I’ve never lived. Woody Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris, deals with this conundrum. In it, Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter whose recent passion has skewed from the silver screen to that of the Golden era of literature. While in Paris, and appropriately at midnight, he finds a way to travel back to the 1920’s. He drinks with Hemingway, goes to parties with the Fitzgeralds, and falls for a woman named Adriana. Without spoiling too much, because it’s really a splendid film and Allen’s first grand slam in years, Michael Sheen tells Wilson early on, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

He’s not wrong, but to me, he’s not right, either. I just feel it’s more difficult than that. It’s not that I think a different time period is better; instead, I’m envious of certain aspects of particular eras. When listening to James belt out “At Last”, I yearn for a time when that was an essential track, where something so simple was considered landmark, where time felt so delicate. To me, today races by too fast. We’re juiced by the Internet and flogged by the rapidity of digital information. “At Last” is an absorbing track that slowly embraces you and asks for your time. You don’t listen to it while doing errands, or commuting on the train, or even while you’re writing at home. This is the activity. Personally, I don’t think our society is really cut out for that anymore. I also don’t think anyone could produce a track like this, either. Today, a singer like James would essentially be “pasteurized” in the studio, or oversold to countless ads, shattering the raw talent and its unique intimacy altogether. Maybe I’m wrong, or just making too general of assumptions, but it depresses me to cope with the present sometimes.

112263cover Etta James, Sadie Dunhill, and the tears for yesteryearThese feelings I have toward “At Last” mirror my thrill and enjoyment of King’s latest work. About halfway into the book, Epping – once again, the story’s time traveling protagonist – falls helplessly in love with another character named Sadie Dunhill. A troubled librarian, on the run from an abusive, psycho-sexual husband (classic King, amirite?), Sadie is dazzled by the man with the ultimate foresight. It’s less King and more Nicholas Sparks, but it’s a new side to Maine’s finest, and I went with it. I went a little too far, really. My love for these characters turned to obsession and eventually into a passionate respite from reality. I romanticized not only the characters, but their situations, and each page offered another extension on my mental trip back in time. I’d visualize quiet sunsets over healthy fields, I’d dream for the intimate nights where only souls could entertain and the digital escapes were still decades ahead, and I’d pine for the innocent, star-crossed romances – the sort of love sensationalized in songs by The Beach Boys or The Beatles. By the end, I think I cried because that trip had come to an end, and I realized it was all just a fantasy. There was no return.

Everyone has a tragic flaw. Mine is that I’m always looking for a way to escape the present; it’s just my nature. It should be no surprise then that my favorite film is Back to the Future or that my favorite band still remains The Beach Boys, a group whose best album (Pet Sounds) features a song titled, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”. What perfect poetry to underscore my dilemma: “Every time I get the inspiration/To go change things around/No one wants to help me look for places/Where new things might be found.” To play Devil’s advocate, new things surface left and right in today’s day and age, and I’m constantly surprised and bewildered by all of them. But, they’ll never pluck the same chords that Etta James’ “At Last” does for me. To reiterate Brian Wilson’s past fears, I guess I really wasn’t made for these times – maybe one day I’ll stop crying over that.


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July 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm

I bought this book on friday, expecting a time-travel adventure with some Stephen King wierdness thrown in. I finished it today ( Monday ) and I’m stunned. Like some of you, I keep getting choked up, and I havn’t cried at a book for years.
King captures the feel of the past perfectly and, I think, the feel of what it would be like to find oneself there. ( I’ve always thought the first thing you would notice would be the smells.) And I felt like I was with Jake as he roars down the almost empty turnpike in his Ford Sunliner.

More than this though are the characters. Now Mr King’s always written good characters, people that I feel are almost freinds by the end of the book, but in this one he excells himself. I actually found myself really angry with the author at some points because of the dreadful things he inflicted on them at times, and, yes, I am in love with Sadie Dunhill.

Would I have abandoned a lifetime with Sadie to save the world from catastrophy?
Would I hell!

Nick Steidel
May 22, 2012 at 6:58 pm

I am just a teenager (16) but a mature one. This story really spoke to me, and I also have a wish to live in the past. The relationship between Jake and Sadie seemed to represent the same unreachable ideal that living in the past represents for Jake/George (and me). Whenever I read a very good book, I’m always depressed after reading it, and this hasn’t happened to me in a while except for this book. This is also my first King read, and I have heard that he’s never written anything like it (I did catch up on some of his self-references though). The ending was bittersweet, but like everyone else, I wish that Jake could have stayed (and that I could have lived in that era! Swing music [although it was dying at this point] and all!)

Allen Young
May 9, 2012 at 10:45 pm

  One of the best novels i’ve ever read.The type of book you wish would never end.Was sad Jake and Sadie could not end up together but thought it was a nice but sad touch that he got to see her still alive in 2011.

Rob Rotar
February 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Never been a Stephen King Fan, but I picked up this book because  I’m a huge fan of time travel stories, and the whole JFK fiasco has always fascinated me. I suppose I too have that wish I could go back 20-30 years and make a few changes…nothing monumental, but significant to me, anyway. That being said, I didn’t find the book I thought I was going to find, I found something much deeper. I just finished about 2 hours ago and can’t stop tearing up. I had a Sadie in my life, lost her in 2008…but she was Sadie to a “T.” She had a John Clayton in her past, I rescued her from him, and like Jake, I lost her, but not for such a supposed “noble” reason. I feel affirmation that others were touched in the way I was.

James Joseph Maumus
January 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Just finished the book myself, and then stumbled upon your editorial after searching the “knothole” for “Sadie Dunhill”. Your analysis gripped me because I cried after reading it too (and while reading this editorial…guess I’m the opposite of Jake Epping, as I cry at everything).  And I think I did for exactly the same reasons. I wish I could walk through one of those bubbles to go back 20 years myself.  Maybe more. But, like Jake learned, you need to understand the consequences of your actions, and how reliving the past affects the future (which, of course, is the present).  I started learning the concept of “string theory” a few years ago from reading Stephen Hawking’s and Michio Kaku’s works. I had no idea this book was a testament to that theory. I think that might be why I cried. Then again, it could be because I fell in love with Sadie Dunhill myself. Or maybe because I have my own Sadie Dunhill in my past (like I am sure all of us do).  Anyway, thanks for writing my feelings in this editorial.  Well done.


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