Literary Mixtape: Jack Of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

Here we feature an imagined music playlist inspired by a character from a work of fiction. Different works are chosen based on topicality, commemorative celebration or whim, and will serve as the inspiration for our sonic excursion.

I’m diving into the world of  Jack of Spades, Joyce Carol Oates’ taut, tense, page-turner of a thriller, published in 2015. The story follows Andrew J. Rush, a successful writer of “middlebrow” crime fiction, and his family. Rush, a wealthy but frustrated author, has adopted the pen name “Jack of Spades”, under which he writes tawdry, sexually explicit thrillers in a near-fugue state. Convinced that

his family and friends would be genuinely shocked and appalled by these salacious tales, Rush goes to great lengths to hide his alter ego from his loved ones, with eventually dire consequences.

Literary Mixtape

Oates uses this conceit to cleverly explore the duality of human nature, the fragility of the psyche and the potentially devastating consequences of both hubris and paranoia. She also paces the story beautifully, meting out details in such a way as to expertly ratchet up the suspense and sense of impending dread.


I’m taking a somewhat different approach with this month’s column. In the blurred and disassociated spirit of the story, I won’t be assigning a playlist to a specific character, but rather approaching it as one would a film score, in an attempt to capture the overall ambiance and atmosphere of the book. Here is my soundtrack to Jack of Spades.

Listen to the songs on this playlist.

jack of shades

Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday (1941) Originally known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song”, by the composer Rezsö Seress, this composition became more widely known after the release of Lady Day’s blistering, melancholic re-penned version. “Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless”

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by The Platters (1958) The Platters brought such beautiful vocal melodies to their cover of this Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach classic that it’s easy to miss the feelings of loss, humiliation and desperation that serve as the song’s tragic undercurrents.

Jealous Guy by John Lennon (1971) Over a pretty piano melody, Lennon laments his jealous nature. What begins as a lucid self-examination of insecurity devolves into an ominous warning. “Watch out baby, I’m just a jealous guy/ Look out baby, I’m just a jealous guy”

I Burn For You by The Police (1982) One big jangly, forebodingly primal sound collage, courtesy of Sumner, Copeland and Summers. Possession by Sarah McLachlan (1994) Pierre Marchand’s production on this song, inspired by McLachlan’s experience with an obsessive fan, provides a moody, propulsive backdrop for her rich, impassioned vocal performance. “Into this night I wander, it’s morning that I dread/ Another day of knowing, of the path I fear to tread”

Black Is The Night by DJ Vadim feat. Kathrin deBoer (2007) Vadim incorporates elements of dub into his downbeat production style, creating a lush tapestry with which to showcase Kathrin deBoer’s soulful vocal. “Mind will drift away, carrying me down/ Let me say and do anything I like to”

The Unfallen Kingdom by Gramatik (2009) Stripped-down piano gives way to ominous keys, beautiful strings and a quaking low-end that anchor Gramatik’s spine-rattling boom bap percussion line. An eerily breathtaking sonic composition.

Is  It Over? by Thievery Corporation feat. Shana Halligan (2011) Messrs. Hilton and Garza go ape with the reverb to create a tangible sense of dread with this lush soundscape, while Shana Halligan’s voice caresses the beat seductively. “Fragments remind me of a memory that’s now broke/ Shadows and fiction, I don’t understand”

Henrietta by Yeasayer (2012) This dubbed-out track—actually about an historic cancer case—manages to be at once funereal and uplifting, full of texture and emotion. “Fever in the night, and the tremors come on/ But it’s you who’ll survive, just like nobody thought”

Warrior Lord by Poliça (2014) This track manages to sound as if it were recorded entirely underwater, with Channy Leaneagh’s ethereal vocals filling the air bubbles on their way to the surface. “I can’t reach my love, where you’re wasting away”

Greg is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in New York city. He is currently at work on a short story collection, as well as a feature film script. Listen to more Literary Mixtapes, here.