Haywire: A Novel
(Starcherone Books, 2010)
I guess I’m old school, but when I turn to Thaddeus Rutkowski’s new novel Haywire (having read and reviewed his last two books and known the author for a couple of decades), about the last thing I care about is whether, as the blurbs on the book proclaim, it has “muscular prose” or “music, light, and wonder.” Being old school, when reading an American realist novel, I look for robust characters, an engaging plot, and a measure of ambition in truthfully depicting a side of our national life. According to these criteria, Rutkowski proved eminently satisfactory.
The book’s male hero grows up in a small town with a father who sexually abuses his sister, forces him and his brother to do impossible, meaningless tasks (like memorize a hundred lines of a Polish poem), and does everything he can to undercut his kids’ self worth. As an instance of the latter, the father complains that he has not been able to develop as a painter because he has to keep a job to feed his family. When the hero tells him to quit, dad notes, “I can’t quit…I have a rifle on layaway. I have to give it to you so you can stop acting like a fairy.” Although he does occasionally work, generally the father parasites off his wife’s earnings, unable to keep a job himself due to his drunken irascibility and instability.
Most of the book follows the hero from these unpromising circumstances in his search for a relationship and a career. His predilection for bondage and addiction to marijuana interfere with his ready access to either. The novel has no easy answers or, better said, there may be answers in the book about how to cope with, and overcome, a dark childhood, but it’s up to the reader to find them. How’s that? Following the postmodern tradition that extends from Pynchon to Nersesian, in this novel, there is no interiority. For instance, the father, for unexplained reasons, makes a new rule: the children can only watch TV one hour a week. Later, for unexplained reasons, the hero/narrator decides to secretly build a hoist so he can hang himself upside down as part of a bizarre sexual ritual. Is there connection between the father’s arbitrary rules and the hero’s self-bondage? Why does the father promulgate a particular house law? What motivates the hero to do a given act? Unexplained.
I’m not saying the average (and averagely lazy) reader will sit down and try to puzzle out the connections between the book’s episodes: I suggest that the pleasure and integrity of Haywire stems from the fact that, without pat answers molding his or her perceptions, the reader glimpses the gradual, piecemeal integration of the hero’s broken personality. There is no moment of truth, but a series of incidental, tiny, accumulating truths in the process of rebuilding.
As the story progresses, the hero tries to become a writer, something of a hackneyed theme nowadays, but Rutkowski suggests we can hardly expect every youth with a troubled childhood to find redemption. So, while the author knows his way around words, his hero never quite gets the hang of them. When told his writing is stilted, the hapless narrator thinks it’s a compliment because, he muses, “balancing on stilts required some skill.” Thus, in the manner of some hilarious works by Sorrentino, the later parts of Haywire present a humorous counterpoint in which the writer of the book displays eloquence while the writer in the book fumbles inarticulately to create a literary morass.