Thaddeus Rutkowski, Guess and Check — Review

Thaddeus Rutkowski, Guess and Check (Arlington,VA: Gival Press, 2017)

Although I daresay he didn’t originate this style, there is a form of writing where reality and dream are mixed in a special way, which has become associated with Murakami, but which has been given new twists by American authors, most notably in the way it has been given a novel direction and dynamic by Thad Rutkowski in his new collection of short stories, Guess and Check.

First let me describe this technique as it appears in the Japanese writer. In books such as Kafka on the Beach and The Windup Bird Chronicles, the protagonist is on a search, by day acting in a quasi-detective manner to unearth clues and by night, carrying out a parallel quest through dreams. In Dance, Dance, Dance, for instance, the hero is searching for a woman he once had a brief liaison with at the mysterious Dolphin Hotel. He didn’t even get her full name. He looks for her by visiting their haunts but also by, in a kind of alternate reality, going in dreams to a nonexistent section of the hotel and talking to a man with a sheep head.

thaddeus rutkowski guess and check

In current U.S. literature, there is something of a direct translation of this in books such as Joshua Mohr’s acclaimed Some Things that Meant the World to Me. The hero is trying to make amends for his off-the-rails life by, for instance, aiding an upstairs neighbor who is dealing with an abusive husband, one who drags her couch out into the middle of the street and burns it. Aside from these real-world action, he also enters a second reality, by going through a secret trap door in the bottom of a dumpster, where he can enter his childhood.

Mohr in this novel is fairly close to the Murakami style, but Rutkowski gives this style a radical makeover. The book tells a relatively matter-of-fact, albeit mordantly funny, story to the hero’s youth, adolescence and adulthood for the first 200 or so pages, but then, in the final chapters, abruptly introduces a dream quest.

As to the opening semi-autobiographical sections, elements may be familiar to readers of early Rutkowski works such as Roughhouse or Tetched. A boy raised by a Chinese mother, who is a lab technician, and an American father, who is a freewheeling and free drinking artist, grows up in a small town in Pennsylvania where the boy suffers some discrimination at school and sees odd behavior from his parents. In college, he is shy and subversively observant. He moves to New York City, where, after varied jobs, dates and adventures, he settles down to married, child-raising life.

However, even in this section of Guess, there is a significant stylistic shift from the author’s earlier books, which were more forthcoming with details. Take this passage. After the hero’s father visits a new family who moved in, he returns home.

He went out, and when he came back he had a girl with him. She was about my sister’s age, maybe eight years old. … He brought the girl and my sister to his “studio,” a side room filled with insects in boxes. When my brother and I tried to follow, he said, “You’ll have to amuse yourselves,” and shut the door.

Later I asked my sister what they were doing.

“There were pieces of colored paper on the floor,” she said. He told us to roll around on them …. And he took pictures of us with this instant camera.”

There are inklings here, just inklings that can’t be pinned down, or some type of child abuse. Such partial descriptions of sexual or violent events happen quite often. Let’s be clear. This is not evidence of squeamishness on the author’s part, but rather a clear strategy of foreclosure, which creates an uncharacteristic (for our tell-all times) voice. It suggests a determined, almost militant reticence.

What about the lead character’s own actions? Here’s a scene with the father.

My father decided to teach me how to ties flies for fishing. … He clamped the point of a fishhook between the metal jaws of a vise so the eye and shank of the hook were exposed. … [Later] When my father wasn’t around, I put the tip of one of my fingers into the vise and turned the handle. The jaws had ridges and I could feel the metal digging into my skin.

There is no comment beyond this, no explanation of why the hero takes this action. So readers have a very curtailed sense of two things: 1) the meaning of events the hero observes, and 2) the meaning of what the hero himself does.

It’s possible, though this is never stressed, that there is a political background to this. Note, the following passage about school:

“I had to watch the evening news as extra credit for my social studies class. But I couldn’t get involved in it. … There was a war in Vietnam… The United States won every battle.”

In other words, what is going on in the war is as scrupulously airbrushed as are ramifications of what is going on around the hero and in his head. But there is another possibility behind this usage. Perhaps the narrator is trying to move away from his father’s verbal effusiveness, in which the man uses bragging and self-affirming words as a cover for inaction. The father boasts, “I’ve had enough of capitalism. It’s just a stage in history. … I’m going to bring socialism. … That’s my job.” Another time, the father comes hurrying in the house because he’s been followed by “a guy from the bar. He didn’t like what I said about the war.” While the bold-talking father cowers in the bedroom, his wife goes out to talk to the stranger and shoo him away.

It could well be the protagonist is sickened by such grandiosity of language and feels he will be better served by a self-effacing persona who utters words of narrow compass.

And, to add another dimension, it might be thought this use of words, this extraordinary reticence, structurally provokes the concluding dream sequences.

Whereas, to return to Murakami, in the Japanese writer, it seems to me the inclusion of dream and fantasy elements alongside, indeed, nearly indistinguishable from more realistic elements, derives from an attempt to capture the sense of a media-saturated environment where people spend much time watching movies, listening to music or otherwise dwelling in a fictional universe; Rutkowski, by contrast — and this is a measure of his originality — uses the dream descriptions to provide a deepening of the unarticulated complaint against grandiosity that underlies the first part of the story.

The dreams in the last section, constantly, in very poignant terms, trace back to the family. In one, “At my part-time teaching job, one of my students told me he has traveled [a couple hundred miles] to see my mother. … Another student tells me she has also seen my mother.” In another dream about teaching:

I look for a wire connection for the classroom computer. I get down on my hands and knees on the floor. While there, I suddenly see my sister beside me…. “It’s an emergency,” she says. “Our mother had disappeared.”

If, as in the Freudian view, every dream conceals a wish, then these dreams suggest that the narrator wants to return to his parents to settle accounts with them, his siblings and the small town environment. And it’s almost as if the desire to work things through is tied up with writing itself. The careful, purposeful reticence is a conscious rebuke to the fractured, either menacingly vague or overblown, language of the past. Yet, creating a more measured way of talking and writing does not, ultimately, repair the past, which stays as it always was. So, it’s as if the narrator were saying, “My childhood has not been answered.” A good excuse, perhaps the only viable one, to become a writer.

Thaddeus Rutkowski, Guess and Check (Arlington,VA: Gival Press, 2017),
reviewed by Jim Feast


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2 thoughts on “Thaddeus Rutkowski, Guess and Check — Review

  1. Jim Feast’s reviews have a discursive, intellectual quality to them that I find refreshingly provocative in these times of thumbs up-thumbs down banality. And I have long been an admirer of Rutkowski’s quirky and unsettling prose. Well done by both.

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