Caught in the crossfire of raging hormones, bad decisions and family tragedy, Hank Fitzpatrick is just a boy not yet ready to be a man. And like many boys growing up, Hank is desperate to impress his father. The impossibly perfect patriarch of the family, John Fitzpatrick decides at age forty-two he wants to have a vasectomy reversal. Is Hank ready to be a brother again at age seventeen? What about his mother’s narcotics and gimlet-soaked uterus? A child will come of this, but not without consequences.
Laura is Hank’s first true love. From their stolen nights together as high-school sweethearts to their final encounter as twentysomething adults, they never figure out how to stop hurting one another. Beth, the girl who loves Hank unconditionally, can only wait for so long before longing turns to regret. But everything will be okay as long as Hank’s best friend Hatch is there to help him exorcise his demons with a half-gallon of bourbon and a bottle of cough syrup.
Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer is more than just a tribute to the last uninhibited pre-9/11, pre-Facebook generation. It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It’s a love story. It’s a subversive yet empathetic, warts-and-all portrait rooted in real-life that kids will read behind their parents’ backs. And if somewhere along the way we can all share in the redemptive power of a belly dancer’s love…well, that’s okay, too.
You can find my five-star review for his book here on my site. He was indeed kind enough to take the time to answer my questions, so I’ll share with you what he shared with me!
Before we hit the Navel Lint (which I find so funny) I have to ask: Did you draw any of Hank Fitzpatrick’s story from, cough, personal experiences?
Most of the book was drawn from personal experience. Without giving away the plot, the father and godfather are very much informed by real life. I was also reasonably promiscuous and experimented with controlled substances in my youth, and I grew up in southern Indiana.
The setting of the novel is at a transitional time for American culture as well as being the transitional time for Hank. How purposeful was that for you as the author? Did you choose the time because of the character’s story or did the time itself choose the story?
I’m a child of the 80s and couldn’t fake it if I tried. The significance of that time period—a “transitional time for American culture” as you say, before AIDS, before 9/11, before Facebook, before reality television—dawned on me only after I wrote it. I juxtaposed the unbridled optimism of the 80s with the somber pessimism of the New Millennium without really trying, which I think gives the story a little less self-awareness and by extension a little more authenticity.
Now, why did you make the Navel Lint collection?
Early on in the editing process for EMOTB there was a push to trim some of the pop culture references, but that was one of the things where I dug my heels in. I wanted to fully immerse the reader in that time period. I happened to know Richard Nash, a futurist and one of the founders of Small Demons—please, by all means, link it for your readers—which is the social media platform behind Navel Lint. It seemed like a perfect outlet for creating a pop culture cheat sheet. In a similar vein, I also created a YouTube playlist called “EXOTIC MUSIC OF THE BELLY DANCER: The Soundtrack” at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL91711D3E0947A6FA.
I personally got a kick out of the cultural references, even though many of my 1980’s-1990’s experiences were immersed in the Southern Californian milieu. Your Navel Lint page made me smile. A young man’s identity with his wheels is kind of a big thing. Can you share about the Oldsmobile/Subaru choices you made for Hank?
You’re probably looking for something profound here, but the answer is way simpler than that. They were my cars. My father was owner and proprietor of Sweany Oldsmobile-Cadillac-Subaru. The ’73 Oldsmobile with flames on the hood and an airhorn that played “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” and the red Subaru Wagon with a dent in the rear hatch from my fist punching it after my girlfriend broke up with me both existed in real life.
John Mellencamp’s song, “Jack and Diane”, was particularly appropriate, I think, in some ways for this story. What made you choose to reference it?
A novel about growing up in southern Indiana minus a John Mellencamp reference is no more appropriate than the Book of Exodus minus a Moses reference. A large portion of the Sweany family tree actually hails from Mellencamp’s hometown of Seymour, Indiana. Also, my father and mother’s names are John and Diane, so I’ve always kind of felt like that song is a private anthem to them.
If Hank’s father were to make a collection for this time in his life, what five things might he choose to have on it? Aside from Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish and an Oldsmobile?
Tough question. Hank’s father is very guarded about his youth. While a humble man, seemingly lacking any and all pretense, he’s ashamed of his poor background. He’s also shockingly naïve in that he comes from a very sheltered childhood and was, to borrow his generation’s parlance, a bit of a square in his teens and 20s. He wasn’t into Elvis, or the Beatles, he never smoked or drank, and he lost his virginity to his bride on his wedding night. He’s like the “anti-Hank”. If I had to name five things, I’d go with these:
- John Phillips Sousa. Besides his family and Notre Dame football, the other real passion of John Fitzpatrick was his music; more specifically, marching band music.
- Old Yeller. John Fitzpatrick’s favorite movie. It never failed to make him sob uncontrollably.
- José Jiménez. The fictional character created and performed by comedian Bill Dana on The Steve Allen Show in the 50s and 60s. If all you did was say his catch phrase—”My name, José Jiménez”—John Fitzpatrick would disintegrate into delirious laughter.
- Parnelli Jones. The ’63 winner of the Indianapolis 500 and John Fitzpatrick’s all-time favorite race car driver.
- “My Old Kentucky Home”. While he and his father were both Indiana-born, John Fitzpatrick’s mo
ther hailed from the Bluegrass State. Her family traced its roots to the hills and tobacco fields of south-central Kentucky, which was where John spent much of his childhood.
What about Beth?
- Fleetwood Mac. Her favorite band.
- Rick Springfield. For whatever reason, Beth is his groupie for life. She will stop whatever she’s doing whenever “Jessie’s Girl” comes on the radio or MTV.
- Tie-dyed apparel. Her fondness for Springfield and hairbands notwithstanding, deep down Beth feels like she was born a generation too late.
- A pack of Marlboro Lights. Beth has few vices, but smoking is one of them, and she has an obsessive personality. Later in life, after she quits, it drives her crazy that Hank can smoke a pack of cigarettes on a summer vacation and then not smoke again until their summer vacation the following year.
- American Anthem. The mid 80s movie starring Olympic gold medalist Mitch Gaylord, Beth’s gymnastics crush.
All right, I’d like to touch on religion and its influence in Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer. Hank is self-identified as Catholic. I grew up Catholic, so this was familiar territory. Hank seems to take Catholicism as a cultural rather than spiritual matter. Still, I sensed the effect of this throughout with his flashes of conscience and his always-interesting thought processes. Was this a definite choice you made for his character or did his spiritual “place” come as a byproduct of the story? Could he have been, say, a Baptist and still be Hank?
First off, full disclosure: I was baptized, confirmed and married by the Catholic Church, but if I lived a thousand years ago, I’d be a prime candidate for excommunication. I think priests should be allowed to marry, women should be allowed to be priests, birth control should be free and available, and abortion should be rare but legal. At this point in my life I’m a lapsed Catholic at best, and have been known to attend the occasional non-denominational Protestant service when I’m really looking to get my “Jesus on,” but I still strongly identify with my Catholic upbringing.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s be honest here: Protestants are spectacularly uncool. Before anyone goes all Martin Luther on me, realize I mean that as a compliment. There are things inherent to Catholicism that has always given it a singular literary cache: its mystery, its pretense, its flaws, its hypocrisy. Nobody cares about Don Corleone if he’s Baptist. Nobody wants to see Dan Brown send Robert Langdon running through the streets of Salt Lake City.
Stripped down to its core, EXOTIC MUSIC OF THE BELLY DANCER is the story of a boy learning how to be a man. That’s what makes the metaphor of the belly dancer so perfect. Hank Fitzpatrick, for various reasons, is emotionally detached from his sexuality and his masculinity. What better object of his affection than a photo of a busty belly dancer without a face? And what better institution to reaffirm this emotional detachment than the hyper-patriarchal Catholic Church? It’s an institution rife with contradiction and sexism, telling us that we must venerate Mary above all others, but that she cannot bless the transubstantiated body and blood of her own son because that privilege is reserved for a pedophilic priest. Patronizing and objectifying are merely two sides of the same coin, and therein lies not just the Church’s crisis of faith, but Hank’s as well. His “flashes of conscience” are as old of a struggle as the Ten Commandments themselves. I think part of Hank’s appeal is that, his raging libido be damned, he’s a guy who earnestly and profoundly loves women. He just can’t seem to figure out how to do a little more honoring and a little less coveting.
Thank you, Brian! I very much enjoyed your book and appreciate your having shared some of your inner thoughts regarding the story’s basis and development. I wish you a very successful launch, tomorrow!
You can find this book by clicking on its cover, above, or go directly to The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House.
Since 2000, Brian Sweany has been the Director of Acquisitions for Recorded Books, one of the world’s largest audiobook publishers. Prior to that he edited cookbooks and computer manuals and claims to have saved a major pharmaceutical company from being crippled by the Y2K bug. Brian has a BS in English from Eastern Michigan University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1995. He’s a retired semi-professional student, with stopovers at Wabash College—the all-male school that reputedly fired Ezra Pound from its faculty for having sex with a prostitute, Marian University—the former all-female school founded by Franciscan nuns that, if you don’t count Brian’s expulsion, has fired no one of consequence and is relatively prostitute-free, and Indiana University via a high school honors course he has no recollection of ever attending.
Brian has spent most of his life in the Midwest and now lives near Indianapolis with his wife, three children, and a neurotic Husky/Border mix named Hank. He’s currently working on his next project, Making Out with Blowfish, which is the sequel to Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer and the second book in a planned trilogy. For future details, check out the author’s website at : www.briansweany.com