Lance Ward’s autobiographical graphic novel Kmart Shoes focuses on the author’s early years, a time of intense personal upheaval marked by divorce, the arrival of his mother’s abusive boyfriend, and a seemingly endless parade of bad breaks that could have potentially left him both emotionally and physically crippled. Fooling around with power tools and climbing to the top of a grain silo lead to broken bones, while experimenting with cocaine leads to addiction and, eventually, a botched attempt at robbery. Through it all, Ward struggles to make sense of the world, a struggle rendered all the more difficult by the fact that most of his family is emotionally distant or has abandoned him completely. Yet for all of the bad breaks Ward suffers, the tone of this graphic novel remains upbeat, for Ward-as-narrator (as opposed to Ward-as-character) has lived through all of the difficulties of his youth and arrived in middle-age relatively unscathed. In this respect, Kmart Shoes shoes is a story of survival akin to Von Allan’s The Road to God Knows, but it is also a story of rage turned sideways to produce humor. Throughout, Ward comes off as an affable storyteller who’s risen above life’s bad breaks to offer hope to those still living through them. A memorable debut.
Martin & Judith Shepard—both 77-year-olds and co-publishers of The Permanent Press (founded in 1978 and considered by many to be America’s premier independent literary press), are happy to announce that, among the nine novels being released between October 2012 and June, 2013 five are by fellow septuagenarians and two by octogenarians.
“Who would have expected this?” asked Martin Shepard. “Quality fiction often makes for unusual company. Last year eight of our 16 books were mysteries, one of which, Leonard Rosen’s All Cry Chaos, was a finalist for the Edgar Award, Chautauqua Book Prize, Anthony Award, Macavity Award, and for ForeWord’s Literary Fiction Prize. But none were written by seniors. And now, more than half our recent fiction comes from much older writers. These seven seniors can still write the pants off most younger novelists. All have had distinguished careers and still have plenty of gas left in the tank. Judy and I are so pleased that they entrusted their newest writing to us.”
- October: K.C. Frederick, 76, Looking for Przybylski
- November: Anne Bernays, 81, The Man on the Third Floor
- December: Suzanne McNear, 77, Knock, Knock
- February: William Eisner, 78, The Stone Lion
- April: Daniel Klein, 73, Nothing Serious
- May: Christopher Davis, 84, The Conduct of Saints
- June: Marc Davis, 77, Bottom Line
Accounting for this trend, Bill Eisner, 78, whose novel The Stone Lion comes out in February, notes, “A writer’s life is his working capital: the people he has known, the situations he has encountered, the places he has seen, the experiences he has had. Older folks simply have more to draw from. Much of my own writing was inspired by the lives of the people I have known, but once a person is transposed to fiction and given the roundness and completeness that fiction demands, he or she is so changed as to be unrecognizable even to the person who inspired the character. When you are older, you have seen and done enough to provide sufficient material for a lifetime of writing.”
Supporting Eisner’s assertion, Marc Davis, 77, whose novel Bottom Line will be available in June, adds, “I’ve got loads of stories from my days as a newspaper reporter, here [in Chicago] and on the Texas-Mexican border. I also have tales of the commodity futures business, in which I made some bucks buying coffee options in the wake of the Big Brazilian Freeze of 1976, tales of my career as an art teacher, and painter, with a fistful of prizes, and then my work in advertising, winning two Tempo Awards and one Echo, for my direct mail campaigns for the art of Norman Rockwell, and others, on collectors plates. And lots of others, including a story about my Dad, a Chicago newspaper man during the Front Page era, who ‘shot’ Dillinger exclusively, with a camera.”
All of this, Davis notes, “disproves again Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that there are no second acts in American lives. Apparently, there are second, third and fourth acts, and curtain calls, with encores.”
Yet the writer’s life is no walk in the park, according to Christopher Davis, 84, whose The Conduct of Saints is due in May: “The work is difficult, both the reading and the writing. People will say they love to write. Even good writers say so, but I think they are talking about desire and expectation. They mean they love good art and, because they have sometimes made it happen and because they love their creation, they hope (it is a desperate and pessimistic hope) to do it again. Since this creative work involves instinct and thought in a contest that is resolved by means of the manipulation of words (instead of paint or clay or sound), and since the language we use as a medium in the art is derived from the language we use in our ordinary lives and gives a false appearance of being the same thing, writing is one of the hardest jobs men and women do.”
Seconding this opinion, KC Frederick, 76, whose Looking for Przybylski is due in October, adds, “It’s always been a miracle, looking back at my earliest notes for a fiction, that already latent in those obscure scratchings was a complex entity that would someday breathe and move. To make it happen, though, meant using every tool in the tool box as well as every instrument in my little orchestra. When the fiction’s done a sense of ending goes along with the feeling of achievement: this thing is finished, it doesn’t have to be done again, let’s try something new. But then there’s the blank page. Next time around you have to start as a baby, learning to speak all over. Each novel can be a lifetime—doesn’t that complicate how writers calculate their ages?”
Towards the end of Daniel Simpson’s A Rough Guide to the Dark Side, the author writes of his earliest attempts to come to grips with the manic, maddening events described over the course of the preceding 200-some odd pages: “Writing proved much harder than expected. Like where do you start? When to stop? What to cut? How much of it could put you six feet under? My character drove me on towards the edge. If I didn’t rewrite it soon, I’d push me over.” What follows is a descent into madness and paranoia that only underscores Simpson’s prowess as a writer. As crazy and disjointed as the last chapter of this memoir may seem, those leading up to its tormented, spiraling conclusion offer a crystal clear, if nightmarish, account of the author’s misguided effort to stage a music festival in Serbia.
In a voice reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, Simpson critiques everything from contemporary journalism to international politics as he recounts his woeful tale. A reporter for The New York Times when his narrative begins, the author is not content to participate in the echo-chamber of political reportage, so he decides, alone with a mysterious partner (referred to only as “G”) to stage a music festival on an island in the Danube. His efforts, however, are plagued by difficulties from the outset. With no money, Simpson can’t attract big-name performers, and without big-name performers, he can’t attract the advertisers and investors who might foot the bill for his festival. Along these lines, a visit to Elie Wiesel for the sole purpose of begging for cash is among the more bizarre — and entertaining — incidents in a book that’s riddled with bizarre, entertaining, and horrifying moments.
In many ways, A Rough Guide to the Dark Side is also a delayed coming-of-age book. Throughout the proceedings, Simpson openly discusses his fears of squandering the potential of his youth, as well as his increasingly desperate attempts to numb his existential angst with a variety of drugs. Indeed, it’s this layer of the narrative that lends depth to the book and turns what might otherwise simply be the tale of a major entertainment industry debacle into an odd kind of bildungsroman: (relatively) innocent and naive boy goes to the war-torn Balkans and emerges a few steps closer to being a man.
Reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary in terms of style and Peter Hook’s The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club in terms of subject matter, A Rough Guide to the Dark Side stands on its own as a compelling critique of the media, international politics, and, ultimately, the author himself. An insightful and thoroughly enjoyable read.
I’ve known of Ken Kalfus for a long time. A fellow Philadelphian (or is that phellow Philadelphian?), he shows up at a lot of the readings I attend at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and he’s friendly with a couple of writers I know. Kathye Fetsko Petrie introduced me to him at a Jonathan Safran Foer reading, and Josh Emmons once invited me to join them for tennis. The reason I declined — aside from lacking any tennis skills whatsoever — also accounts for why my one and only meeting with Kalfus was so awkward: I’d never read any of his books. Until now.
I was browsing the shelves at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, when I spotted Three Stories, a tiny book from Madras Press. I couldn’t resist making the purchase largely because reading the book would give me something to say to the author the next time I ran into him, but also because proceeds from book sales go to support the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is where I’ll probably run into the guy. How could I not buy it?
The book, it turns out, is spectacular and makes me realize that I’ve been missing out on some great writing by not looking into the fiction of Kalfus sooner. The first story of the collection, “The Moment They Were Waiting For,” offers a meditation on free will. In it, the denizens of a city are cursed with the knowledge of the exact dates on which they will die — and regardless of the measures they take, their fate is inescapable. In the second tale, “Professor Arecibo,” an academic with a bad reputation overhears a telephone conversation about himself and struggles to deal with the resulting emotional fallout. In the third, “The Un-,” a young writer named Josh Glory yearns for publication and the recognition he imagines will come with it.
For my money, this last story alone is worth the $7.00 I paid for the 68-page collection. As a writer myself, I fully identified with all of the anxieties that make Josh Glory tick. “You could go crazy as you ascended the ladder of literary disappointment,” Kalfus writes. “You could be disappointed that you hadn’t written anything. You could be disappointed that what you’d written hadn’t been published. You could be disappointed that you’d been published but hadn’t sold many books.” The list goes on and on, and every writer in every stage of his or her career will identify with at least some element of the story. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “The Un-” should be required reading for anyone considering a “career” in creative writing.
The collection as a whole has an engaging, subtly Kafkaesque tone that amuses even as it offers a dark vision of humanity. We are all struggling with a multitude of things that can drive us crazy, each story in the collection seems to say, and the only way to deal with the maddening crush is to keep on living one day at a time.
Needless to say, I highly recommend this book, and I’ll be seeking out other books by Ken Kalfus in the very near future. With any luck, I won’t get tongue-tied the next time I run into him.