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Alienation, Imagination, Secrets and Sins in Thomas E. Kennedy

by Duff Brenna


Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight.
By Thomas E. Kennedy.
    University of Missouri, Kansas City: BkMk Press, 1997.

With the publication of a third novel, The Book of Angels (Wordcraft of Oregon, 1997), and a second short story collection, Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight (BkMk Press, 1997), Thomas E. Kennedy confirms his reputation as a consummate writer and storyteller. Kennedy has been writing from Copenhagen, Denmark for the past 23 years, sending his stories, novels, poems, criticisms, interviews and articles across the Atlantic. His place in American Letters has grown exponentially in the nineties, a decade in which it seems he has come to literary prominence without the help of “Big House” publications, where today’s best-selling novel is often recycled from yesterday’s hack work pumped out for readers who like fiction to be as plot-driven and predictable as television sit-coms.

Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight’s eight stories deal with self-tormented, self-exiled men and women. Surrounded by friends or family or co-workers, the message is still the same, though played out in different forms in each story—we are essentially isolated, essentially alone, ever condemned to contest against the loneliness and fear and conformity which society and conscience feed us.

In the first story, “Bonner’s Women,” Bonner sees a former lover in a bar and feels embarrassed by the memory of the intimacy the two once shared. He finds himself ashamed and wishing that the affair had never happened, that he had stayed “home with his wife and children where he should have been.” The former lover has aged and so has Bonner and there is nothing left of the experience except his self-castigating regret that he ever met her in the first place. Seeing her again forces Bonner to remember what the affair had made of him:

You should hear what they say
About you: cheat cheat cheat . . .

He recalls the religion he has abandoned and its moral teachings and he thinks of his father kneeling beside a bed at night, saying prayers that Bonner no longer believes in. He remembers how effortlessly his former lover had lied to her husband and how eventually Bonner himself couldn’t tell when she was lying to him, and how one day it hit him that he would never again know what truth was. From that moment on, there was nothing left but a huge dread and the knowledge that the affair would be inside him for the rest of his life, “a smudge” that he could never erase.

“Bonner’s Women” is a moralist’s tale, an exploration of guilt and what guilt does to us and how it controls the perspectives we have and how it seals us in an unforgiving morality. The hidden, secret world inside our minds binds us and makes us condemn ourselves endlessly. Bonner will never get over his failures, his indiscretions, and there will never be any beauty or romance again in his life.

The story closes on his preoccupation with his mother’s and his own inevitable aging and death. He looks out his window on a winter morning at the snow falling, the flakes clicking against the panes and he envisions his children playing in the white “virgin snow.” They will one day follow him to the edge of forever and beyond, just as he in turn will follow his mother. His children’s lives filled with mistakes and burdens of guilt and spiritual failures will mimic his own. It is the story of every generation condemned to death at the moment of birth and weighed down through life by baggage carried forward from the past.

Kennedy adds a philosopher’s authority to his observations, which are filled with flashes of wisdom, humor, wickedness, hope and a deep compassion for the suffering and despair of men and women. In the layers of his writings is often a sense that we are overwhelmed with the complexities of our lives, that we are withering beneath a barrage of rapacious consumerism, that we are experiencing a spiritual debasement against which we struggle as hopelessly as Sisyphus with his prodigious boulder. It is a world repeatedly seen through a prism splitting itself into haunting memories of self-annihilating sins, mortifying secrets and demolished hopes, which obviate any but the most transient moments of pleasure, peace, or contentment. As in the world outside of fiction, no one forgives himself for his incapacity to live up to social codes and moral ideals.

And yet this is not to say that the over all essence of Kennedy’s work is built on despair or disillusionment or romantic pessimism. The inner lives of his characters are too rich to be called irredeemably dark. Despite the pressures working on Kennedy’s men and women, they are never “less than zero.” They are seldom self-pitying. They do not cry out in anger at their tormented lives. Bloody but unbowed, they seek out what it means to be who they are in the late twentieth-century in a world where the relentless data of science tells us of an oblivious cosmos that exists without meaning.

“Dust,” the fourth story in the collection, seems to have been inspired by T.S. Eliot’s belief that he could show us fear in a handful of dust. Infinitesimal monsters people the dust and they are out to get Cathleen, who has seen mAGNIfied pictures of the little creatures, “Millions in every clump of dust.” In “Dust” as in “Bonner’s Women,” self-censorship and betrayal of others and the battle with conscience re-occur. The neurotic Cathleen has a boyfriend who has grown tired of her behavior and contemplates leaving her to her fate, but his innate humanity makes him hesitate, even while he ponders the need to get away from her:

Deliver me from the Irish Catholic tragedy. Let me pack my bag and leave her and not give it another thought. Tell it as a memory one day. Poor girl was sick in the head. No choice but to leave her.

We are in another moral tale—to leave or not to leave, to save one’s self or sacrifice one’s self? How far are we supposed to go with those to whom we’ve made commitments? If the loved one gets ill, goes mad, or is somehow no longer the person you fell in love with, do you have the right to leave her or him? Or are you obligated to stay because of the life, the experiences, the love you shared together?

The simple answer is that you must stay, it is the ethical thing to do. But what the story measures are the different capacities that each of us have for tolerating a life that is no longer our own, no longer controlled by passion moving in the “right” direction, but by fears moving in the “wrong” direction. Cathleen’s boyfriend, may rationalize his decision to abandon her, but he finds in the end that between the thought and the act are layers of memories and feelings that can make saying goodbye impossible. In the end, his heart proves to be more muddled than he knew, his love not as shallow as the story has led us to believe. It is a revealing ending, exquisitely perfect and, as seen in retrospect, inevitable.

Johnny Fry in the story “Kansas City” also finds saying goodbye a difficult thing to do. He wanders from San Francisco to Kansas City, drinking martinis and searching through the labyrinth of the past for clues as to why he lost his wife and why his life has been a series of failures. We are shown a man who falls in and out of “love” instantly, a lonely man searching for an ideal woman who does not exist. Fry hopes that she will appear, the one that will change his life, make it all better. He is permeated with a romanticized view of himself and others.

In the bookstore, City Lights, where Fry plans on buying a book of poems and meeting the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he sees a slender woman whose face “had rid itself of all expression.” She is a hardbody in jeans and a shirt and Fry tries to make contact with her by asking her about Ferlinghetti. The woman gives him an abrupt answer, “Couldn’t really say,” and he leaves the store thinking, goodbye, you are not my new life.

Later on, Fry meets another woman, a waitress who serves him a drink, and when she squeezes his shoulder he realizes he will remember her forever because she has confirmed his existence just when he needed it confirmed. He needs desperately to be validated by another human being, to be viable for her, to be touched by her, in order to know that he really is alive. His eyes go from woman to woman with continuous longing that this one or the next one will change his world and give him a sense of meaning and purpose.

Fry finally reaches a kind of mystical awareness when he goes to Kansas City and sees a painting by Francois Gautiere entitled The Midwife, a picture of a peasant woman giving birth. Fry studies the painting and wonders what brought him to Kansas City and the museum. Symbolically he becomes the baby in the painting coming into the light.

He reviews an experience that occurred when he was thirteen and in love with rock-and-roll and how when Wilber Harrison sang “Kansas City,” Fry knew that he would one day go there, go to Twelfth Street and Vine. Ancient as the memory is, it has still brought him to this particular point in his life, and finally what comes through in his remembrance of the past is a realization that all that he was in days gone by has made him what he is in the present, that memories are, as Kant said, of the mind itself, the creator of a unique world that only the individual soul can see.

In “The Severed Garden,” the next to last story, the secret life and the power of the imagination reach a crescendo of poignancy when a man makes a final bid to lift himself into a realm of pure living that has always eluded him.

The main character, B, is sitting with his wife and two sons in their comfortable home. B is listening to a song sung by a dead man (Jim Morrison), while his wife reads a novel about women in the stone age. The younger son wears earphones and watches MTV. The older son sits with his back to the others, picking out mournful chords on the piano. The composite image is of four family members cut off from one another, severed.

As in the other stories, isolation, loneliness, the searching but lost and censoring self reappear. B muses on Morrison’s fate, his early death, and he thinks:

. . . spared the wattles and the hemorrhoids, gum disease, plastic teeth, rashes, the tedium of long-term economic problems. He seized his youth, went down in flame, knew or sensed in advance the consequences of survival.

B decides that it is possible to live too long and to not really be alive in any meaningful sense. He realizes that within his own home he is as isolated as when he is outside of it, where everyone he meets, from his neighbor and friends to his co-workers, is a stranger wearing a mask. B decides that the only remedy for his alienation is to be found in taking some kind of action, to do something, rather that just constantly thinking about doing something.

B drives to Pere Lachaise cemetery, goes inside, walks to where the bust of Jim Morrison sits as in “a pigsty, defaced with graffiti, names of visitors chipped in the stone, littered with empty bottles, vigil candles, roaches, papers, crumpled cigarette packages.” B lifts the bust from its pedestal and takes it home.

Symbolically he has stolen another man’s life, a man who, unlike B, did not fear death so much that he never really lived. B puts the bust in the basement and dances naked in front of it. The dance becomes an ecstatic religious ritual:

A thousand eyes from the temple watch him unblinking, a balding, aging, fleshy man dancing alone in the candlelight of this suburban house in the fashionable northside of the city of K. The music screams in his brain as he flails and dances, turns like an airplane tipped sidewise, a pinwheel, the mandella, writhes like a snake, jumps lizard-like over his chair, spins, buckles, leaps up again.

B exhausts himself and then locks the bust in a closet and realizes that he has “acted” but action has not annihilated his alienation nor given him the gift of life that Morrison had. B has only “stone eyes blind, stone ears deaf.” The story ends with B watching the snow blowing across the severed garden outside the window.

Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight shows us how easily we become quarantined and how naturally we turn to icons of all sorts—the imagination, art, stone busts, false memories, paintings, dust monsters, a living woman, a dead man—and create from them a means of circumventing our isolation, while at the same time keeping our secret lives secret, our sins buried deep within, where no one can use them against us. But what is hidden from others cannot be hidden from the self. The hidden life rules, it censors, it stunts, it destroys, it inflicts endless pain and continually tests our resolve to go on living day after day, year after year, living in exile, unable to communicate to anyone the secrets of our overburdened hearts.

Such a consistent exploration of inner isolation may reflect Kennedy’s own “exile” in a foreign country. He has been living with an ocean between himself and his New York roots for over two decades and one cannot help but sense that a lonely and acutely sensitive man is reaching out from exile, trying, intellectually at least, or spiritually if you will, to validate his life by touching the lives of his many readers in America.

If there is any truth to such a conjecture, I would have to say that Kennedy has succeeded, perhaps even more than he ever dreamed he might. Those of us who know his work never cease beating the drum for him. We know what more and more lovers of his brilliant stories have discovered—Kennedy is magic, an artist in every sense of the word, a true artist of the beautiful.

 

Duff Brenna has published a collection of poetry entitled Waking In Wisconsin (Borealis Press, 1984) and three novels: The Book of Mamie (University of Iowa Press, 1990); The Holy Book of the Beard (Nan Talese/Doubleday, 1996); Too Cool (Nan Talese/ Doubleday, 1998). He is a professor of literature and writing at California State University, San Marcos and he writes book reviews for the San Diego Union-Tribune. (1999)


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