The Delicate Art of Eric Kraft
The cumulative effect of Kraft’s work is of a sober humor that refuses easy answers however much self-indulgence may appear on the surface. The latter becomes the lie of art by which we come to know the truth. This is crafty work indeed and certain to endure when more pretentious and more touted writers are forgotten.
by Bob Williams
Mentioned in an interview (1995) as 50, Eric Kraft must have been born around 1945. Although his web site is ingenious and abundantly informative, this matter of his age is not covered. He was born in Babylon, New York. For the purposes of Peter Leroy’s world, this has become Babbington. A locally prominent name, Bolton, may have become similarly transformed into Bolotomy. Some geography is more devious. Chacallit, the home of Lorna Huber may be Caroga. It is, at any rate, about fifty miles northwest of Albany, is on a tributary of the Mohawk River and is near a lake. All of these conditions match the references in Herb & Lorna, the first published book in The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy.
Eric Kraft’s last name is a problem. It is necessary to think up other words to say well crafted so that one doesn’t appear to be making a pun. But craft is important in any consideration of his work. It isn’t just the individual novel: it’s the lovingly intricate way in which one book will catch echoes of his other books and refine images and validate as fact what first appeared as hypothesis and flights of imagination. Another example of his craft is the manufacture of imaginary books from which he can make appropriate quotations. This narrative strategy, amusing in itself, gives a validation – however spurious – to the point under consideration, a splendid example of fun combined with utility. In “Life on the Bolotomy” (Little Follies) Kraft has an epigraph from a fictitious book, Boating on the Bolotomy, that systematically deflates the river and its natives. A typical Kraftian re-creation from this book is:
In Babbington you will find one or two yards where passable craft are built, but you will find no relics of a once-proud boatbuilding industry, since the boatbuilding industry here has never been proud. Boatbuilding in Babbington has since time immemorial been a haphazard affair. If one needed a boat, one built one, and most of the boats used for clamming could have been built by almost anyone.
The most refined and the densest book is Leaving Small’s Hotel but, although it is the book that any reader would enjoy reading, it is one that in some ways especially depends on the earlier books and this may be the cause of Kraft’s lack of audience dominance. A reader may perceive difficulty in taking a plunge into a body of such closely interconnected works. There is the air of them too “a no-nonsense comedy” – a bit too subtle for our noise-tolerant, mock solemn culture where only a long face and a drum of doom will suffice to tickle the blunted senses. Kraft himself has put the matter succinctly. When I asked if he had been harassed by critical study, he answered that he had been ignored by the hitcrits.
But for we happy few there is Kraft. He is devious and digressive but he has his point or more correctly his many points firmly in view. In the following examination I have quoted extensively from many of the books. Reviewers of Kraft’s books are almost unanimous in telling the reader how good they are but few of them trouble to prove it.
Kraft is a very original writer, a fact that is not especially apparent in the surface lightness of his fiction. I find many points of resemblance between him and Michael Chabon. Both of them make a lusty use of pop culture and both have a robust sense of humor and both of them have entertaining web sites. But there is no influence of Chabon on Kraft. It is equally unlikely that Anne Tyler has influenced Kraft but the facility with which both have devised believable but imaginary commercial enterprises is remarkable. The major literary influence is Marcel Proust, quoted often and even with a fictitious quote of what Proust would have said or should have said if he had been confronted with the world of Peter Leroy. The attraction of Proust for many writers is interesting and perhaps the great example is Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. But Powell is a careless stylist. There is none of that in Kraft whose style is lean, supple and fully expressive. Of Proust, Kraft writes:
One thing that reading A la recherche taught me was the literary value of patience, a virtue that rests on trusting one’s readers. Proust felt that at least some of his readers, his best readers, would wait through volumes to catch the balls he had tossed into the air at the start.
Herb & Lorna appeared in 1988. It is the first published book although the first story of the Peter Leroy series was written six years earlier. Thus the concept of the world according to Peter Leroy already existed but there was no special stress on it in Herb & Lorna. And the next book, Reservations Recommended, was even more loosely attached to Peter’s world. But in later books the hero of Reservations Recommended becomes more firmly fixed to it. It is significantly as if in a very virtuoso manner it was possible to absorb anything to the Peter mythos. What a Piece of Work I Am also features a distinct character in a prominent role but here Kraft uses Peter to tie the work firmly in place. Reservations Recommended is a bravura performance. What a Piece of Work I Am does not succeed as well and, apart from flaws of improbability, it also commits the major offense of frequently failing to interest.
Even allowing for the priority of some of the material in Little Follies and the relatively free-floating character of Herb & Lorna and Reservations Recommended, neither these nor the subsequent books give a chronological account of Peter Leroy. Kraft will freely regress in time even within the same book and, although the accounts are all consistent with each other, Peter as author makes no pretense that the accounts are consistent with the truth.
It is in other words duplicity subject to a double set of skillfully juggled provisions. Kraft allows Peter Leroy to be the ostensible narrator. Neither Kraft nor Leroy has much regard for truth although they can be scrupulous in sorting out some of the differences between the real and the imagined. The result is a delicious mix that invites the collaboration of the reader. One consequence of the author playing the game honestly, even if the game pieces are counterfeit, is the neat and apparently self-defeating conclusion to Leaving Small’s Hotel. Peter and his wife Albertine leave not only the hotel but also Babbington, the scene of almost all the action of Kraft&’s books. Kraft and his wife Madeline now live in Manhattan, the destination of Peter and Albertine. Inflating a Dog, sequel to Leaving Small’s Hotel, is reminiscence – heavily modified – of an earlier period in Peter’s life. Although it appears on this basis that subsequent works will pursue the past or alternative characters from that past and that we will never see Peter and Albertine in Manhattan, Kraft has a novel planned to cover just such a situation.
Kraft inserts a multitude of lively pictorial matter into most of his books. These insertions are not solely for diversion. They also emphasize in a lively way that the text is text much in the manner of Joyce’s typographical experiments in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. One may carry the simile further and say that Joyce is to Stephen as Kraft is to Peter. Like Joyce he has a good technical understanding of the world of modern physics and, again like Joyce, it would help us to know the books that he has read and the music and art that has been important to him. (One admitted influence is Nat King Cole for “perfection without apparent strain.”) Another influence although Kraft does not mention him in text or epigraphs – of which there are many including one that ridicules epigraphs – is Gide’s The Counterfeiters, a reasonable semblable with its insistence on text as text and its probing of the fact of fiction. In a neat paraphrase of Socrates’ famous statement – used more than once – Kraft insists that the unimagined life is not worth living.
It does no injury to Kraft’s masterpieces to take up each of them in the order in which they were published. The first work on this basis is Herb & Lorna (1988, 328 pages). As the number of pages indicates this is a substantial work and, like Kraft’s longer works, it is skillfully built. He gives us a full picture of the antecedents of both principals and soberly describes the shenanigans of an admittedly quirky group of characters. Kraft displays quickly his absorption with knickknacks and gewgaws. Lorna makes exquisite erotic carvings and Herb sells them. Neither knows of the other’s activity and both conceal it. It is an earlier, more innocent time and both are ashamed of the making and selling of “coarse goods.” On the matter of knickknacks and gewgaws Kraft gives a characteristic reply:
It’s fun to write about gimcracks and gewgaws and treat them as if they deserved serious consideration. (I was as a boy a reader of all the ridiculous ads in the back pages of Popular Mechanics and similar magazines, the sort of ad that promised not only that I could learn taxidermy in my spare time, but that I could make a lamp out of a squirrel.) I think that much of what is merchandised as American culture is little more than gimcracks and gewgaws of one kind or another, from pop music to SUVs to jingoism. It’s a culture of junk for the most part.
This first novel uses up plot material with lavish generosity. There is material here for more than one book. The time covered by the novel extends from early colonial times to the death of Peter’s maternal grandparents and maps the changes in popular culture from prudish reticence to the more outspoken attitude of the present. The pace is rapid. In the first ninety pages Herb and Lorna have met, the basic plot device (mutual concealment of their respective roles in the manufacture of coarse goods) is established and Herb has served in the First World War. Along the way are typical Kraftian gems:
“All birds resembled pigeons,” he writes of a depressed person, “all food tasted like lima beans.”
Lorna’s father Richard mistakes Herb for some one else and Kraft describes the process with a wonderful accumulation of details.
The idea began to form in his mind that Herb Piper was the son of a fellow named Henry, called Hank, a terrible drinker, notorious for it, who had fallen facedown in a pool at the Whatsit’s edge one moonless night about four years ago and drowned in three inches of water. “A terrible thing, terrible,” Richard reflected. He recalled that it had happened during a drought, making it one of the bitter ironies of life.”
Herb, returned from the war, does not immediately seek out Lorna. Both of them, in fact, make the same misstep in aligning themselves with different lovers. This proves unsatisfactory and Kraft finds a wonderful way of expressing this in Lorna’s case:
“To be fair, her expectations may have been too high. Lorna was a nineteen-year-old virgin who in the last two years had spent approximately twenty-six hundred hours scrutinizing sexual performances of great diversity and sophistication and replicating them, in ivory, with painstaking exactitude. Though she didn’t know what she liked, she knew much about the art.”
In Herb there is much of the Eric Kraft that delighted as a boy in Popular Mechanics. One of the characters, May Castle, says of one of the projects with which Herb occupied his leisure:
It didn’t do anything that anyone in her right mind would want a gadget to do, but it did it remarkably well.
Kraft’s true gifts appear towards the close of the book in the farcical misunderstandings that arise in the relations between the family in their new home and Mrs. Stoltz, the former owner, who at Lorna’s connivance and persuasion comes to live with them. Mrs. Stoltz is convinced that Lorna is insane and Lorna is convinced that Mrs. Stoltz is entering the valley of senility. Branching out from this situation is that of the bachelor neighbor Dudley Beaker who similarly makes massive failures in the art of understanding. Kraft handles both developments over many pages with nothing urged but the basic absurdity of the situations. Comedy rises from these pages in a sustained crescendo of virtuosity.
Kraft’s second published novel, Reservations Recommended (1990, 277 pages), is a very different book. It is, to begin with, the most loosely attached to the Peter Leroy world. It is also a very dark book with a protagonist (what, says Kraft, Peter fears he might have been had he not met Albertine) who is supercilious and calculating. His heart is a cold one and this affects the regard of those about him. He has another self, the self that pseudonymously reviews restaurants for a prestigious Boston publication. (This change of scene from Babbington to Boston is another significant difference.) This self makes Matthew Barber, the hero, amiable by comparison. B.W. Beath is reckless and lawless at heart and the catastrophe of the novel is brought about when Matthew heeds his promptings. The format of the book alternates events, almost always centered about dining, with reviews of the particular restaurant. The skill with which Beath incorporates Matthew’s experiences is astonishing. Beath uses his reviews to pay back scores or bolster his wounded ego in ways that are masterpieces of comic invention. Matthew Barber makes a brief appearance in Leaving Small’s Hotel where he validates the content of Reservations Recommended. He appears, in fact, as a minor character in one or two other books and what is needed is a comprehensive person, place and thing guide to The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy. Mark Dorset, Kraft’s scholarly alter ego, has a scattering of such a guide on Kraft’s marvelous web site but it is far from comprehensive.
Kraft refuses to let Matthew (and B.W. Beath) languish and Matthew is (along with Peter in his Manhattan life) to return in Passionate Spectator, a work now in progress. There is also another novel in the early stages without a set title at this time and The Phantom Island, a vehicle for Larry Peters who is mentioned below. To Kraft’s amusement the last work is shown as finished by Amazon
In Little Follies (1992, 437 pages) Kraft brings us exuberantly back to Babbington. The range of copyright dates (1982 through 1985) indicates that at least four of the stories in this collection precede Herb & Lorna. There are nine stories in Little Follies and they give us a guided tour of Peter Leroy’s life from his early memories as a toddler to his experiences in Babbington Central Upper Elementary School. To the reader of Peter Leroy (The Personal History, Adventures, etc.) many of the characters will be familiar. Dudley Beaker is prominent in the first story. He begins as a writer of strangely skewed ads for the Babbington Clam Council and then as a writer of confidence game letters. Kraft gives the ads and the letters in reproduced originals. Fittingly, Kraft receives credit as the book designer.
I asked Kraft about the metaphorical implications of an act by Peter in At Home with the Glynns. I detected that Peter’s improvement of student drawings was a metaphor for what Peter does as a writer and what Kraft does as his creator. Kraft’s reply surprised and delighted me. He pointed out that his work was full of such metaphors and listed eight of them from Little Follies alone. The first that he mentioned was Peter’s attempt as a toddler to get all of a bunch of kittens into his wagon.
Kraft, through Peter, expresses his appreciation for literature of all kinds and its essential unity. (Albertine is Peter’s wife.)
I have now a fond affection for the idea that all the characters in books live in the same place, the Big-Book place, and I’ve painted in so much of it over the years that I have a picture of a well-populated town, where, with Albertine on my arm, I sometimes walk along a shady street on a summer morning and pause to watch the talking squirrels gather nuts in Emma Bovary’s front yard while Tom Sawyer paints her fence.
Some of what Kraft writes is a grin in words.
“You mustn’t let little things bother you so much,” she [Peter’s mother] said. “Why, when you’re grown up you probably won’t remember any of this.”
In “Call Me Larry” Kraft achieves the utmost in convolutions of complexity. His creation recreates a fictional character with a revealingly similar name – Larry Peters, boy detective and adventurer. In Leaving Small’s Hotel we will learn that Peter Leroy has been deriving an income from writing some of the books in the Larry Peters series. The series as presented here is a hilarious mix of adventure hokum with hints of adultery, fornication and incest.
There are writers who flourish best in long fictional forms and find the restraints of briefer flights uncomfortable. I sense some of this constraint in Little Follies. The plot turns are often almost too predictable. Some of Peter’s attempts to redress the injuries of the past border on the self-indulgent. But these are flaws rather than faults. It remains a readable, enjoyable book and indispensable to the Kraft addict.
Where Do You Stop? (1992, 181 pages) continues the school days adventures of Peter. (Little Follies ends with the phrase “To be continued.” This book and At Home with the Glynns also have this phrase. I asked Kraft why this was not used consistently for other books and the principal reason is that his publisher didn’t like it and, on reflection, he decided that he didn’t much care for it either.) Kraft, a serious writer of light books, will have variations in the gravity of his works. Reservations Recommended is weighty, Little Follies is not but both are serious in the sense that beneath the fun and playfulness is an author concerned with a multitude of questions that can only have serious answers. Where Do You Stop? is as light as Little Follies to which it is closely related by the nature of the subject, Peter’s school experiences, but there is greater freedom in the range of the Peter’s thoughts and feelings – he is, after all, a teenager. Perhaps the transformation of the racially prejudiced father is wishful thinking but the frothy substance of this novelty minimizes the effect of improbability.
What a Piece of Work I Am (1994, 275 pages) is anything but frothy. It concerns Peter’s adolescent craving for the older sister of his friend Raskol Lodkochnikov and the story is more hers than Peter’s. She is the victim of snobbery and her own naivete. The latter exposes her to the sexual depredations of her first employer, a heel that she elevates to the standard of the ideal mate. But he is a petty thief, far from intelligent and in the end brutal. She escapes from him and finds herself allied to another man of dubious qualities. Much of the story she tells to Peter and it involves in a complicated manner the story of his infatuation with her, all her amatory misadventures and the part she played in helping Peter’s paternal grandmother die contentedly. Her part consisted in deception. She helps the grandfather to convince the dying woman that she is on board ship to Rarotonga, the dream of their lives. Imperceptibly Kraft lets us know that these revelations are part of Ariane Lodkochnikov’s act as a performance artist and that Peter and she are on stage. The unreality and improbability of this situation is at first unsettling but the novel’s merit minimizes the defect.
At Home with the Glynns (1995, 179 pages) is a sparkler. The Glynn twins are slightly older than Peter and sexually uninhibited. (We have already met the Glynn twins in Herb & Lorna where they establish a threesome relationship with Mark Dorset, another major figure in The Personal History, Adventures, etc.) They select Peter to be their bedfellow. Their father, an artist, also selects him to be his student, his confidant and friend. Peter is justly disturbed by the conflict between the enjoyment of the daughters and the loyalty he owes the father but decides in favor of the former. In the course of his work for the father he has a fantasy that the students whose drawings he is secretly reworking concern a dark haired beauty and he attempts to reconstruct her from hints that he imagines that he sees in the drawings. His result is very like the doctored illustration that appears in “Call Me Larry” (Little Follies).
The Glynn parents are escaped from the Nazis and scarred by the experience. Rosetta, however damaged, has this to say:
“We like attention, you know, people, and we know how ridiculous we are. It’s one of the ways you can spot us, You catch us laughing, and you know we’re human.” She leaned toward me through the smoke. “It’s a dead giveaway,” she said.
And later Peter provides a statement of intention that must surely be also that of Peter’s creator:
I’m grateful to my younger self for that understanding. I sometimes turn to it as evidence of my sanity, since the boy who understood it has become a man who slips in and out of the lives of people he encounters as easily as he slips in and out of his favorite old black wool jacket, the one that Albertine keeps offering to discard. I find everyone irresistible in this respect: I want to live everyone’s life for a moment of mine, provided that I can put it back on the rack when I’ve decided that it isn’t what I want to wear forever. That includes your life, Reader. I want to poke around in your house, eat your food, sleep in your bed, weed your garden, repeat your anecdotes to your friends after dinner, and after dinner, sitting in your favorite chair, snug in your favorite jacket, pick up one of my books and read it as you would. I’m grateful to my younger self for pointing out to me that this is not an illness, but a game, the harmless pastime of a literary chameleon.
In this connection Kraft’s reply to my question about some of his hidden jokes (I had noticed a subtle Proustian reference, one of several) is very characteristic:
[T]hat prompts me to say something about my audience. My primary audience is wonderfully literate, reads widely, has a great sense of humor, [and] has a very sensitive bullshit detector . . . The correspondence that I get from readers is remarkable. I’m no longer surprised to find that people who write to me “get it.” They often enter right into it and give me back as good as I’ve given, in the same sense of serious fun.
Frederick Koeppel in his review of Inflating a Dog refers disparagingly to Leaving Small’s Hotel (1998, 346 pages). He says that it is “uncharacteristically schematic.” I have not the slightest idea what this means. Leaving Small’s Hotel is my recommendation to the reader who wants to read only one book by Kraft. It is rich, inventive and funny with that customary serious edge to be found in everything of Kraft. Some parts of it – the reappearance of Matthew Barber of Reservations Recommended and elsewhere, for example – will lack full impact for the reader that reads only this book but this does not constitute a major impediment. To indicate fully the richness of this book it will be necessary to give an extended idea of its plot.
Albertine and Peter are the owners and proprietors of the hotel on Small’s Island. The hotel has reached such a state of decrepitude that every guest represents a loss and the chance to fill the rooms is a disaster in the making. Peter reluctantly has decided that they must sell and they hope to get at least a reasonable share of what they paid and spent on this money- and life-consuming monster. Throughout the novel, troop prospective buyers, all of them somewhat odd and a few of them certifiable. There are several guests, the most important of which is an older man named Lou. Peter senses that Lou is a grouch but he gives no evidence of this until very late in the novel when he shows an unexpectedly sensitive and moody side of his personality. Otherwise Lou is supportive and generous towards Peter and Albertine and he brings guests to the hotel that find it to be a haven of relaxation. The source of this relaxation is that the ruin needs work badly and each of the guests according to his or her talents pitches in and works for the fun of it. Threaded through this situation are the readings that Peter gives each night from his latest novel, the late night radio programs of a bitter ventriloquist dummy and his nearly voiceless owner and the commercial novel that Peter tries to write about a hardboiled assassin, graduate of the discontinued Larry Peters series that Peter Leroy has been writing. In the funny interludes of this absurd novel Peter, conscious that he is worth more dead than alive because of the insurance money, sends his fictional self to employ the assassin. He wants a death that will look like an accident. He loses interest in this silly novel when Albertine decides that the insurance premium is an unnecessary expense and lets the policy lapse. The working out of their problems and the crisscrossing of themes is a miracle of literary play of the highest sort.
Porky White, one of the major characters throughout the Peter Leroy series, discusses the name that he has chosen for his cafe. It specializes in the local delicacy, clams. Peter asks:
“Who’s Kap’n Klam?” “Nobody. That’s the beauty of it. He’s not a fake because he’s not real.”
This is not a bad description of the author’s own way of thinking. Along the same lines one of the guests, who has found escape on the island, expresses her dissatisfaction with the rest of the world in a very vivid way:
She began, as I recall, by waving her glass approximately in the direction of Babbington and saying, “Beyond this lovely little island lies the land of shit triumphant,”
And, indeed, she makes so very good a case that it seems likely that her bitter words resonate with the thoughts of her creator.
The eighth book in this series shows no sign of flagging. Inflating a Dog (2002, 242 pages) has the dimensions of the greater number of Kraft’s novels. Like them it treats reality as malleable. It brings back Dudley Beaker but more as an influence than as a character, for Dudley is dead. Peter is convinced that Bert, his surly and unimaginative father, cannot be his true father and he entertains with abundant enthusiasm that he is Dudley’s bastard son. It is interesting in this regard that Peter finds Dudley’s superficial “glamour” attractive. In practical terms he had as little use for Dudley while alive as he has now for his father. In ways both touching and bizarre his friend Patti Fiorenza aids him in his quest. She is the essence of all that is sexually desirable and as such and perhaps because it is partly deserved she is regarded as accessible and of bad reputation. Patti becomes a good friend of Ella, Peter’s mother, and, with the help of Patti and Peter, Ella buys and outfits a clam barge to make of it a floating cafe. It is a light story edged with deepest regret, regret over the superiority of the fiction over the fact and the sad fatal illness that claimed Ella.
In a recent review of Inflating a Dog I referred to Kraft as a major writer of minor books but I was satisfied then with a glib generality. The cumulative effect of Kraft’s work is of a sober humor that refuses easy answers however much self-indulgence may appear on the surface. The latter becomes the lie of art by which we come to know the truth. This is crafty work indeed and certain to endure when more pretentious and more touted writers are forgotten.
Visit Kraft’s website at: www.erickraft.com/peterleroy
Read our interview with Kraft here.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: