By Kelman Out of Pessoa
(Les Figues, 2011)
Doug Nufer’s new novel By Kelman Out of Pessoa is another of his contributions to the “literature of constraint.” Certainly, all writing has constraints, but this genre involves an author piling on heavier, if self-imposed, restrictions to challenge his mettle. As examples, look at Nufer’s Negativeland, in which every sentence is negative or, even more spectacularly, Never Again (Black Square Editions), in which he never used the same word twice.
By Kelman is less daunting, constraint-wise, but more devious. Taking hints from Scottish novelist James Kelman—who in one story had his characters devise a system to win at the track—and from Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa—who went a bit batty with pseudonym personas, having characters he invented write and publish verse under their own names—Nufer has created a unique novel. In 2003, he went to the Emerald Downs racetrack near Seattle and, using Kelman’s system, bet for three characters he invented, using their wins and losses to structure the novel. There is also some Flann O’Brien and Gilbert Sorrentino in the book’s lineage; just as in the novels of those two avant-garde fictioneers, Nufer’s characters realize they are literary creations.
The challenge for any “constraint” writer is not merely to work competently within the limitations but to create a readable and pleasurable fiction. For Nufer, who I’ve known for 10 years, the ability to do this here is made easier by both his knowledge and love of the “sport of kings,” which allows him to weave the color and drama of the races into the plot, and his characters—and this could be said of all his novels—who are low key, spiritually starved, and economically marginalized. In parallel to the author, the characters labor with terrific handicaps.
As the middle-aged losers, a “trio of misfits,” embark on this horse-betting odyssey, which was marketed to them as a combination money-getting/life-renewing project, they try to reassemble themselves. There’s Henderson Will, who has been fired from his job due to a weird amnesia, which made him not only lose memories but also his grasp of phonemes; Kelly Lane, a “woman with a past”; and Cal Nipper, a “cheapskate of an early-retirement algebra teacher, whose life beyond the track hangs on little more than the ups and downs of the Atlanta Braves.” Lane and Nipper become engaged in a foredoomed, stop-and-start, overly self-conscious love affair, which is fueled more by media-influenced dreams than real contact. After a night with Lane, Nipper thinks, “It just doesn’t get any better than this. Who says you can’t have it all? Then he remembered where those lines came from, from commercials for beers that were plain rotten … As he turned from his mirror, he saw that he was trapped in an adolescent fantasy of not just acquisition [of a woman] but of conquest.”
This crisp, sinuous, humorous prose makes most of the novel a joy to read. The forceful writing, along with the bizarre trajectory of the characters through their betting ups and downs, makes this a formidably enjoyable, super-sui generis book.
Though they will delight wordsmiths, the passages that may not please every reader are those in which the author goes into the inner, syntax-challenged monologues of Henderson Will. In this passage, Will is settling on betting a sure thing: “Not lucking fuck or fucking luck or any chortle dance sort of chance, but something predictable to predict trouble, like a core fast forecast of a fine tuned typhoon.” With such shifts of prose style, as well as in the surprises and switches in the narrative, the author is constantly pulling the rug out from under the reader’s expectations. If you can handle that, then you will appreciate the treasures that Rug Goofer, I mean, Doug Nufer, has to offer in By Kelman Out of Pessoa.