Early Morning Riser: Love and Weirdness in Small Town USA



Early Morning Riser (2023)

By Katherine Heiny

Borzoi Books, 317 pages



Early Morning Riser is touching, funny, and occasionally tart. Author Katharine Heiny reminds readers that relationships only need to make sense to those in them. There’s a backdoor shout out to advice columnist Ann Landers (1918-2002) whose favorite instruction to busybodies was “MYOB.” That’s “mind your own business” for the text abbreviation crowd.


Jane Wilkes is a 26-year-old second-grade teacher who has recently moved to Boyne City, a real place of around 4,000 people in northern Michigan. Several actual places, including the ice cream/candy store Kilwins factor into the story. Heiny’s Boyne City is a friendly place, but also one prone to gossip and to nosy parkers who give advice whether you want it or not. Locals think Jane is a wonderful teacher, but they try to warn her off of 42-year-old local carpenter Duncan Ryfield. Much of the population love Duncan or, more accurately, has loved him. He’s a free-spirited cowboy/Lothario type who, aside from a dissolved marriage to the realtor Aggie, has had brief flings with most of the single women in the town and adjoining region. When Jane starts to fall for him, the locals as well as Jane’s bossy mother Phyllis, (metaphorically) line up to take bets on how long she will last. 


The weird part is that most of Duncan’s ex-lovers think he’s a great guy who is resourceful and treats women with respect. That includes Aggie, who Jane suspects still carries a torch for Duncan. But she’s now married to Gary, a State Farm agent and a seriously odd guy that we suspect isn’t all there. Among Duncan’s good deeds is throwing work to Jimmy Jellico, a seemingly mentally challenged guy very reminiscent of Rub in Richard Russo’s North Bath, New York  novels. Jimmy’s favorite lines–which he repeats ad nauseam–are “How about that? Isn’t that something?” Like Rub, Jimmy has a very unusual relationship. He is besotted with Raylene, who works at Kilwins, and is either pretty or ugly as sin, depending on who you ask. She’s twice divorced, lives in a trailer park, is decidedly lower class, and seems to have a boyfriend. Duncan figures this is nobody’s business and goes out of his way to involve Jimmy in socializing. Jane easily falls in line with that.


We quickly catch on that eccentricity rules in Boyne City. Some of the local color includes a mandolin player, a lush who falls in love late in life, an almost wedding, and some other relationships that make those of Jane, Aggie, Duncan, and Gary seem almost normal. A tragedy and a scam will throw Duncan, Jane, and Jimmy into an intentional family. Jane will even become a mother. The crisis about that is that Duncan has to wrack his brain to come up with a girl’s name that isn’t that of any woman he once dated!


As you can see, Early Riser is an unconventional novel. One of its finest virtues is that it calls into question the very definition of convention. It has many screamingly funny tidbits, not the least of which are Jane’s career day classes in which she invites guests to share what their work entails. I shall say only that some of it is certainly not what you’d expect second graders to hear! Taco Tuesdays are another sometimes bizarre occasion. On a more serious note, Jimmy is officially “dull normal.” That’s a term that’s still used, despite the fact that it’s an oxymoron that’s roughly as clear as a murder of crows at midnight.


Comedian Lenny Bruce once said, “I hate small towns because once you’ve seen the cannon in the park there’s nothing else to do.” I guess Lenny never visited Boyne City. He would have found a lot of surreal material for his act in the small towns abutting Lake Michigan.


Rob Weir


January 2024 Music: Julian Taylor, Dogo du Togo, Emilie Clepper, Lori Triplett, Shadwick Wilde, Viv & Riley


Afro-Canadian/Mohawk Julian Taylor has put out so much good music of late that I consider him to be my artist of the year for 2023. If you’ve not yet heard him or want to get up to speed, he has released Anthology Volume 1­,18 tracks from his back catalogue that capture him in his various guises: folk singer, rocker, solo artist, band rat, and Canada’s answer to Motown blues and soul. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s masterful in each genre. “City Song” is a bittersweet reminder that a musician’s life on the road is pitted with perils. His journey takes us from Regina to Quebec City and New York. He tells us he “fell down,” but not out for the count. He keeps things simpler but in the same vein on “Ballad of a Young Troubadour,” goes full soul man on “Be Good to Your Woman” (complete with some retro keys), splashes us with drops of Carib vibe on “Just a Little Bit More,” and offers some roadhouse funk in “Zero to Eleven.” No matter how it’s sliced or diced, Julian Taylor is a master musical chef.



Dogo du Togo is a singer, a band, and an homage to Dogo’s homeland. For those whose geography skills are rusty, Togo is a West African nation tucked between Ghana and Benin. Dogo is the smooth lead vocalist of a movable feast band that includes guitarists, a bass player, various backup singers, and all manner of drums and clicking percussion. Dogo now resides in the Washington, DC area but the band is pure West Africa. Think hypnotic rhythms, bright guitar riffs, call-and response vocals, and music that makes you sway. The album, simply titled Dogo du Togo, mostly spotlights festive songs. Try “Obligation” and “Soké Wo,” which features a women’s backing chorus.  If you these–and I like them a lot–seek out Dogo du Togo on Bandcamp and other musical platforms. They will bring sunshine into your gray winter.



Emilie Clepper lives in Quebec City, where she spent much of her youth, and she identifies as Canadian. That said, The Family Record probably isn’t what you think. It includes her father Russell (Porch Brothers), who is as Texan as the Brazos is wide. This album crosses three borders. “Pablo’s Mandolin” gallops across the southern line into Mexico and takes a Texan twang with it. “Texas Sunshine” also has giddyap, this time through the blue bonnets. So Emilie is a PQ cowgirl, yes? Well… what do you want to do with “La Valse à Gaètan,” which sounds like Texas is a ‘burb of Quebec City? Speaking of which, Emilie also sings a vibrato-heavy “Streets ofQuebec.” I guess it goes to show you shouldn’t judge an album by its cover. This one grew on me more every time I listened.


Staying in the unexpected vein, don’t be surprised if When the Morning Comes, the latest release from indie Nashville-based Lori Triplett, is her breakthrough. It officially releases in March but can be pre-ordered now and is an excellent blend of folk-based singer/songwriter tracks and Nashville production. Check out “Hollow White Oak” with its ghostly nostalgia feel and you’ll know right away that Triplett has chops. On the sweeter side of things, try the piano-led “Things I’m Letting Go Of.” A few of the songs are drenched in too much production and would benefit from dialing back the atmospherics, but Triplett can definitely air things out. It’s not on the new album, but if you want to get more of a sense of her talent, listen to her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” There’s only one Joni, but I didn’t turn off Triplett’s version of one of my favorite songs of all time.



Shadwick Wilde has squeezed a lot of experience out of his life, not all of it good. He grew up with an activist mother and has lived in San Francisco, Havana, and Amsterdam. He came out of his punk rock phase and went into addiction rehab. Forever Home is a 360º turn from the punk ethos, a mellow album (with powerful vocal transitions) that signal a man who has found some peace but understands that love and life are fragile. In the album’s namesake track” Wilde sings, You are my forever home/I think I’ve always known. But such is his love that were she to decide upon a ”better home,” I would burn it all down so you court start anew. The high piano keys, ringing tones, and gentle melody are emblematic of most of the record. His “Easy Rider” is an easy glide, not a wild ride. He promises, Your precious cargo is safe with me. On another track we understand that cargo to be “Two Girls with Hazel Eyes.” Lest you think Wilde consumed by sentimentality, “Floating Away” contains both a metaphor of floating like water and hoping we end up in the same sea, but also acknowledges that it’s not up to me.



Viv & Riley (Vivian Leva and Riley Colcagno) are a 20s-something bluegrass duo based in Durham, North Carolina. Their Imaginary People album builds off the title song to probe the various ways in which we idealize ourselves. Needless to say, there’s sometimes a gap between perception and reality, as Viv informs us in  Imaginary People, which is disguised as a self-confessional. She has a sweet voice and carries most of the leads; Riley takes a few, but mostly he harmonizes and adds really fine fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar. (Some might recall his days with the band The Onlies.) Riley does take the lead on “Is It All Over,” which is not a breakup song; it’s an ethereal little piece that probes climate change and consequences of denial. “Kygers Hill” is a pop-infused slice of nostalgia inspired by Viv’s Blue Ridge Virginia childhood home frontloaded–a pun if you listen to the lyrics–with all the stuff you miss and all that sent you running away. If that’s too Top 40ish for you, check out their cover of the old timey standard “The Blackest Crow.”



Rob Weir



The Son: Powerful and Well-Acted



The Son (2023)

Directed by Florian Zeller

Sony Pictures Classic, 123 minutes, PG-13 (language, trauma)



I won’t tell you that The Son is a fun night of viewing, but I will say that it’s a powerful, well-acted film. In 2020, director Florian Zeller gave us The Father, which was certainly one of that year’s best. Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar that year for his role as Anthony, an imperious pater familias suffering from dementia and delusions.


The Son is also about a toxic family. Some have called it a sequel to The Father, though it could be considered either a different film altogether or a prequel. Hopkins again appears as Anthony, this time with the surname of Miller and is fully in command of his faculties, though he is an acidic right-winger without an ounce of pity or compassion. The title character Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman), is estranged from his father and is determined to be a better man and father.


The Son is based on the question of whether the Italian proverb “what’s bred in the bone will not go out of the flesh” is a biological imperative. Peter isn’t off to a great start. His son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is dealing with childhood trauma, his anger and deep sadness of observing his father cheat on his mother Kate (Laura Dern). The two amicably divorce, but years later Nicholas carries unhealed scars. At 17, Nicholas insists he can no longer live with his mother, has dropped out of school, and begs his father and his second wife Beth (Vanesa Kirby) to take him in as he wants to turn his life around. 


Peter views this as his chance to make amends and be a good father to Nicholas, though Beth is leery. Things go well and not so well. It’s clear that Nicholas is on an emotional roller coaster. A suicide attempt lands Nicholas in an in-patient mental health facility and Peter isn’t sure which way to turn. He visits his father with pretense of checking in on him, but really in the vain hope he has late-in-life wisdom to offer. Hah! He gets nothing but venom and contempt from Anthony. He also seeks advice from Kate, with whom he remains friendly, because Beth is focused on their newborn child whose safety is her primary concern.


Nicholas is deeply unhappy and hates the facility. In a tearful conference, Nicholas insists he’s better and begs his father to take him home. Beth isn’t keen on the idea and Nicholas’ counselor, Doctor Harris (Hugh Quarshie), insists in the strongest possible terms that Nicholas needs much more treatment. But when Nicholas gives his word that he has conquered his demons, what would you do if you were Peter?


Each of the five central actors–Jackman, Dern, Kirby, McGrath, and Hopkins–are riveting. Hopkins only has what amounts to a cameo role, but his performance is more than enough to make you suspect that the Millers might be cursed. It also makes you wonder if escape or redemption is possible. Jackman wears his desperation on his sleeve and would move heaven and earth to do the right thing–if only he knew for certain what it was. Maybe the women involved know, but Dern and Kirby have their own concerns and doubts. Young Zen McGrath excels in planting seeds of hope tinged with fear in the hearts of all involved.


Does everything turn out well? You might think so. You might be right. You might be wrong. On the surface The Son is a film short on action if your idea of a drama involves thriller sequences. Ah, but such things are movie devices that seldom bear resemblance to reality. As Tolstoy famously remarked, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In literature and film, he couldn’t have hit the nail any more squarely on the head. How long could a novelist or a screen writer sustain a tale of a happy family? Fifty pages? Fifteen minutes?


The Son is an interior movie based upon a play by Zeller and Christopher Hampton. In either form it is provocative and shattering. In the popular mind, families are the stuff of Bob Ross paintings, Hallmark cards, and inspirational quotes. The reality is much messier.


Rob Weir