Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

 

 (photo of Barry Kitterman by Charles Booth; by permission of Austin Peay State University, Public Relations & Marketing)

From the San Joaquin by Barry Kitterman SMU Press. 251 pp. ISBN 978-0-87074-569-0

 

Author of the prize-winning novel Baker’s Boy (SMU, 2008),  Barry Kitterman has created a stunning collection of linked stories in this second volume of fiction, compared quite favorably to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.   Overall, it gives us a gripping sense for small town Ivanhoe, California, located in the San Joaquin Valley.   Infrastructure wise, it’s like the typical small burg.  There’s the Jolly Cone, high school, a number of Protestant churches, the SavMor.   There’s the larger town, Visalia, a short distance away.  But this is more than a work picturing Small Town, USA.  The people of Ivanhoe are universalized by the author; they are like people anywhere—with all their hopes, aspirations, lusts, desires, and dreams.  As the town unfolds dramatically before us, as the characters grow from story to story, Kitterman charms us with his rich insights into his characters’ complex humanity and his keen sense for story and plot.  

Two examples come especially to mind—Isaac Franklin and his childhood friend, Johnny Foster.   The stories of these two characters, threading their way throughout  the collection, not only cement the work together, creating an overall novelistic effect, but their stories also help to establish the work’s overall tone, a compelling mix of the dark and comic.

We meet Isaac in the first story of the volume, “The Man Who Raised Rabbits.”  Here, Cy Franklin, in his seventies, retired, a raiser of rabbits, has taken in his grandson, the two-year-old Isaac, abandoned by his mother.  Feeling too old to raise a child of that age, Cy is about to turn Isaac over to the state to raise, though he ultimately rejects this option as we discover in “Boys from Poor Families,” where the adolescent Isaac, protagonist, is in the thick of trouble with the Foster brothers.  Still later, in “Mediators,” Isaac is approaching middle-age as a failed husband and father, his life prospects noticeably shaky.  This remarkable story, which GHLL published several years back, serves as a striking example of Kitterman’s ability to zero in on the inner workings of character and conflict—in this case, the sometimes volatile nature of the marital relationship.  “Mediators,”  a Carveresque kind of story, with its ordinary, real-to-life, mundane surface,  grabs us with its unsettling sense of imminent destruction stirring underneath. 

It’s a story worth looking at closely for its tightly constructed, combustive plot.  As the story opens, Isaac is on the sofa trying to sleep in his jeans and flannel shirt, with a child’s quilt spread over his legs.  Two children appear at his door, wanting money for the Henry Martin School, which has recently experienced a “disturbance,” a fight of some kind, and the children have been asked to form a club: The Mediators.  (All this becomes quite ironic later, given Isaac’s own domestic disturbance.)  Isaac, feeling rushed by a mother in a waiting car, writes out a check without noting the balance in his checkbook.  It’s a mistake.  He and Lynette and their five-year-old daughter, Marcie, live in a subsidized apartment, with Lynette a college student, and Isaac working nights at a gas and convenience store.   There is an obvious ongoing tenseness in this household, with Isaac blaming some of it on his brainy daughter, who, though timid and shy elsewhere, is a “tyrant,” in his opinion, at home.   It’s oddly comic that Isaac feels intimidated by this small child, and he is prone to criticizing her, but Lynette is quick to warn him because she wants to build her daughter’s confidence.  With financial hardship a daily reality, and with resentment boiling, this family is slated for disaster, and when it finally occurs, it engulfs them like a flash fire.

It happens like this.  The three return from Marcie’s recital, which Isaac clearly did not want to attend, and where things did not go well for Marcie since she forgot some dance steps.  Isaac, hoping to comfort her—demonstrating some fatherly concern—reads to her, loses track of time, and heads off late for his night job.  There’s an accident on the road that makes him even later, and when he finally shows up, the night manager fires him and tells him to clear out.  Isaac comes home early, depressed and defeated.  His sudden arrival alarms Lynette, who appears in her robe armed with a pair of scissors for protection.  Seeing it’s Isaac, and reading his look, Lynette doesn’t need the details; she knows what happened.  Isaac heads outside for a smoke.  Lynette, inside, goes over the checkbook, and notices a missing check.  She steps outside.  She wants specifics.  He doesn’t give them to her, or can’t—perhaps he’s forgotten.  When she insists that he tell her, he loses it.  He retorts: “You must have written it.  Or maybe your genius fucking daughter wrote one.”   Lynette goes for Isaac with the scissors.  Responding, he unintentionally knocks her to her knees.  She goes for his groin, and when he shifts away, she hits him on the hip so that he tumbles down the stairs onto the concrete slab.

A violent upheaval—and quite sudden.   How account for it?

The story is real, believable, because what we really see here, what is uncorked, is all that pent-up anger.  Brewing, brewing.  For Isaac, it’s that humiliation he has felt in the midst of two females, the one a mere child, the other his wife, but not a supporting partner,  one who merely carps at him for not having supper ready as he’d promised.  When Isaac lashes out with “your genius fucking daughter,” this Lynette cannot tolerate.  She wants to stab the man who would slam her daughter in this way, though she later claims that she had only meant to poke him, not stab him.   One great strength of this story is that we can sympathize, in some way, with each of Kitterman’s characters.  In a short, highly charged confrontation, Kitterman is able to crystallize everything that is undercutting this family, making it unstable.  At the end, Isaac is left outside, abandoned by a woman for a second time as she closes the curtains. 

The Isaac narrative, as a whole, developed over several stories, becomes one thread which gives considerable substance to this work.   A second thread centers on Johnny Foster, truly a profound work of character creation.   Unlike Isaac, Johnny is part of a nuclear family, yet his is also a story of loss and estrangement, with his family utterly shattered.  What happens to Johnny  in “Boys from Poor Families” is central to the eschatology of Calvinism.  Throughout this collection, there is a strong current of fundamental Protestantism, which Kitterman represents as both blessing and bane.  With Johnny’s world circumscribed by an isolated farm and a fundamentalist church, his adult influences include his strict father and the preacher, Brother Slade.  His father administers severe corporal punishment for acts of disobedience.   Brother Slade, though usually a man with a gentle, persuasive message, has recently caught wind of boys in trouble at home—boys in need of spiritual correction.  (An adventurous boy, Johnny had been playing with literal fire, involving his two brothers and Isaac Franklin.)  It is incumbent on him, Brother Slade believes, to warn these boys of the last days, and all that this means.   As Brother Slade speaks of the rapture and of those left behind, Johnny, more than the other boys present, gets caught up, hungry for more, utterly fascinated by the fires of hell—and the  beast of hell.   It’s a darkly comic scene.  Brother Slade, with some hesitation, fills him in.  But the fact is, “nothing the preacher said was as horrible as what Johnny could imagine on his own.”   Though Brother Slade is able to calm the other boys down and reassure them, “Johnny alone seemed less than reassured.”

As with “Mediators,” Kitterman works the complex chemistry of Johnny’s and his family’s undoing.   It might appear that there is some dark fatalistic force at work here, but what happens comes out of a mix of character and circumstance; if Johnny is in any sense determined, philosophically speaking, he is at least part of the cause and effect equation.  His environment certainly plays a significant part, but so does his own highly charged, youthful imagination, now fueled by an obsession with the fires of hell, the rapture, and the beast.

Here’s what occurs.   It’s not as rapid fire as in “Mediators,” yet certainly there’s a grim, lock-step kind of certainty to it all.  Johnny gets in trouble at school, is forced to stay late, misbehaves in detention, misses both buses home, gets a ride from his teacher, won’t tell her where he lives, gets out of the car without a word some distance from home, heads home in the dark alone, utterly fearful, meets up with a dark, sinister stranger, gets home finally. 

No one is there.  Why not?  The answer is clear: The rapture.  Yes, just as Brother Slade had described it.  Johnny, upstairs, hears footsteps on the stairs, advancing—the beast of hell.   Imminent.   Johnny goes for his father’s gun.  He shoots the beast.  It’s only his brother.

It’s a tragedy which cannot be reversed.   In lesser authorial hands, the lines might be more narrowly drawn; but Kitterman isn’t reductive, or heavy-handed about it.   With Kitterman we feel the force of this religious doctrine’s stern, resolute message just as much as we feel the force of love, sex, and anger, and all the other human emotions at play in this work.  We know the tragic happening in this story has to do with Johnny and the power of his imagination to reshape the end-times message which he received and hungrily solicited from Brother Slade.  The story is not limited to a cautionary tale; it’s a dramatic rendering of the psychology of Johnny’s character—highly imaginative, adventurous , fearful—mixed with particular unfortunate circumstances, the two together creating an explosive chemical brew.

In later stories, we find out that after killing his brother, Johnny spent some time in a group home.  Then, in Montana, he takes a series of jobs: working for a fencing contractor, at a lumber mill, and as custodian at a grade school.    He finds no solace in Montana.   In the closing story of the collection, “If I’d Known You Were Going to Stay This Long,” Johnny returns home, his short-lived marriage in Montana gone sour, to see his father now dying of cancer.  Both Johnny and his father, Ernie Foster, make subtle reparations, in a poignant kind of give and take—his father as stiff as ever, but allowing Johnny somehow to be a son before he dies.   Johnny bonds with his father, sees his father in himself.

Because of their remarkable dramatic handling, the Johnny Foster thread, together with the Isaac, contribute a lot to making this a memorable collection.   But other characters certainly stand out.   And perhaps it’s partly because, like Isaac and Johnny, they are often isolated, drifting souls.  And yet they sometimes do find ways out of their isolation—and in bizarre ways.   Octavio Ruiz, a man recently separated from his wife, is on the outs, with very little to sustain him.  He is accosted, of all places, on his roofing job by two young men trying to witness to him—again, Kitterman’s dark comic sense at work.  Ruiz ends up pushing the two young men off the roof to raise their consciousness—to make them feel the pain he feels:  “It was the jobs he couldn’t get, the baby that never came.  There was pain now, sleeping alone in a room over the laundromat, wanting Vera and wondering if she sometimes wanted him.  He needed to share that pain.”  But this is extreme.  Connection with others can be life-affirming, joyful.  There’s a rich coming together in “A Place in the Opera,” when the protagonist, who has always loved operas, puts aside personal matters of love and loss and decides to give his all to singing, to his part in the chorus.   He makes the choice for connection, for community.

The stories in this collection are, on the whole, set in Ivanhoe, but as we’ve seen they go beyond Ivanhoe as well.  Kitterman is able to delve into the lives of many different kinds of people in this work—from rabbit keeper to high school principal to fencing contractor, and a score of others.  In doing so he creates a rich human fabric of characters that are both individualized and universal in their appeal.

 

Jack Smith