Following the release of his new album ‘Gadzooks Vol. 2,’ the actor and musician shares a booklist steeped in nostalgia
The first time I watched Caleb Landry Jones on the big-screen was in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, a film that sees him inhabit the role of Red Welby, a small-town advertising man caught in the crossfire of a woman’s quest for justice and the ignorant local police precinct. Last Tuesday, I saw him again on a smaller screen—joining me on Zoom from a hotel room in Plano, Texas, in a black t-shirt printed with the face of a white tiger.
Jones is drawn to characters, as evidenced by his cinematic and musical metamorphoses. His recent role as the nihilistic perpetrator of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre (Nitram) earned him Best Actor at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. His performance is reclusive and eccentric, acting so visceral that it’s easier felt than watched. His music is similarly personifying and arresting: the scale of his voice reaches a high-pitched British whine and plummets to a deep gruffness. But what about Jones’ relationship with literature, a realm that is character-centric by nature?
Jones walked me through his earliest memories of reading in the wake of the release of his latest album, Gadzooks Vol. 2. Our conversation began with books by The Greats—Hemingway, Emerson, Steinbeck—the canons of classical literature and musty sophistication. Literature, music, and film all have strong visual characteristics, but the limits of the author, musician, and director meet at the attempt to make one see: the first two through the mind, and the latter through the eyes. Jones had a particularly pessimistic view of the intersection of film and literature; he knows that a great novel doesn’t necessarily make a great film, and adaptation often implies a slight destruction of artistic essence.
Anecdotal and roving, Jones’s literary musings bear a resemblance to the authors he gravitates towards: writers as walkers and wanderers, those who embrace the ebb and flow of the unknown. A similar tendency extends to his process as a musician: “When I’m writing [songs], I enjoy not entirely knowing what I’m talking about, and finding a creative way to say something very mundane,” he explains. “I find myself jumping from one line to another, from perspective to perspective, from month to year, from backwards to forwards. Sometimes I go to record a song without knowing how it’s going to end.”
Arranged in a psychedelic pandemonium, the chameleonic collection of tracks in Gadzooks Vol. 2 captures an uncanny synchrony fit for the acid jams of the late-’60s or early-’70s—think The Beatles’ The White Album. His lyricism is dense and abstract, but not cryptic, making for a rhapsodic anthology. In the fifth song on the record, “Georgie Borge (The Termite),” Jones sings, “Smoked his mind out early, much more sooner than he should / The paradox of one who spun himself out every time he could.” Trawling through the lines of each song are remnants of stories and palpable emotions, his lyrics occupying a space that’s somewhere between text and texture.
Jones has never found himself complacent in the texts we discussed: “Information sticks with me. After I read Emerson, I tried writing essays for about a year or so before I realized I was writing from [his] perspective—from a perspective that I knew more than anybody else. I despised this very much.” To him, songwriting resonates more naturally. It’s not a sanctimonious or prescriptive endeavor, it’s not telling anyone the “right” or “wrong” way—there is no rigid logic or abstract order, but rather a procedure of feverish curiosity and polysemous expression.
In his booklist for Document, Jones reminisces on his literary inspirations, and the remnants of their influence in his creative process and free thinking.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
“This is the first chapter book I remember reading. I got it at the Scholastic Book Fair in the third grade. I loved the title—it sounded so cosmic. It made me feel like an adult to have a chapter book; it didn’t have pictures in it and it was the first book I read from beginning to end. I remember one [scene] where everybody’s dribbling at the same time—it felt like a Twilight Zone episode.”
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
“I’ve never laughed harder reading a book. [The main character] Ignatius J. Reilly’s relationship with his mother had me cracking up every chapter. It was full of these incredible characters; in the first few pages, Ignatius is beating up a cop and blaming his mother for not being somewhere on time, and then there’s an old man calling out ‘communists.’ Toole had written it with a cartoonish feeling—you’d see a puff of smoke come from the side of the street and you knew exactly which character was going to appear.”
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“I’m not good at memorizing Russian names so I had to call everyone Ron, Paul, or John. Half the time, I was having to go back and forth to make sure I was correct. Regardless, Dostoevsky is probably the greatest author I’ve ever read. I don’t think I’d ever gotten inside the head of a character the way he does in this book. I’d built it up so much before I read it—that it was going to be this big intellectual endeavor—I thought I wouldn’t understand it. But I remember starting to read it, and it turned out to be such a simple concept. It felt good to realize that Dostoevsky had written something very complex, but he’d written it in a democratic way, so everyone could read it.”
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I read this when I was 16 or 17—around the same time I started reading Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I was blown away by his ability to relate everything to nature. Reading that book taught me to think more for myself, I suppose. At the same time everything’s fact the way he writes, and that bothered me. I found that ideology and way of thinking was starting to integrate itself into my brain and it wasn’t healthy. I was starting to take everything he was saying as fact, even though I realized I didn’t agree with half of it. But regardless, Self-Reliance opened up quite a few doors for me in terms of being my own person and thinking for myself.”
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“I found The Great Gatsby to be a truly perfect book. I found the same things I love about filmmakers like Kubrick or Antonioni or Kurosawa—where there’s a real aspect of being able to dissect their work and find meaning. There’s a palpable intentionality.”
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
“The books I’m into typically involve characters that are quite delusional. Usually they’re like Quixote—they march to the beat of their own drum. This book had me laughing hysterically.”
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“This book felt like a house that was perfectly built. There was something so poetic in the way that he talked about youth.”
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
“I don’t think I’d be able to read this book in the same way that I did when I was 17. I don’t think Hemingway is as rugged as his writing—I think he’s much more emotional. There’s something so sad about his work—a real melancholy that’s accepted and embraced. I was a pretty sad teenager and felt like he was writing about real things—what a man is and what a man is not. Although I must say that he presents an ideology that is pretty chauvinistic and sexist—I kept thinking, Come on man, your shit doesn’t smell any better than anybody else’s.”
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
“This was the first book I had read that truly felt like an epic. I found myself frustrated because the first 50 pages were quite slow, but once I got past them, I realized how instrumental they were in understanding the rest of the novel. He talks about the sins of fathers in the Bible and discusses the sin in the context of the generations following—he discusses this idea of a circle being broken. And I think that resonated very much with me and my household growing up—can these circles be broken? How long does it take?”