Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
by Thaddeus Rutkowski
Blue Streak Press
2019, $18.00, 304 pages, ISBN: 978-0-578-53169-4
Thaddeus Rutkowski’s novel lives up to its name – the endearing narrator describes a life that is out of control, odd. But how can it be anything but haywire, given its inauspicious start? Yet, provisionally, the novel seems to end on a triumphant note. Told in the first-person, Haywire is divided into three parts. In the first, we see the narrator’s often chaotic childhood with an abusive, autocratic father and a meek, submissive mother, a younger brother and sister.
From the third sentence of the very first story, “In Cars,” we’re aware that something’s not quite right about the father. “His silence was a sign that he could become loud at any moment, so we didn’t say anything.” The father, a would-be artist and alcoholic who might take a little too much interest in younger people, including his own daughter, blames his fecklessness and failure on his children. Always somebody else’s fault. “Capitalists are thieves, and most people are marks,” he tells his son. “You should join the Communists. That’s what I’d do if you weren’t holding me back.” Theirs is a biracial family (Caucasian and Asian) in rural Pennsylvania, where anything different is considered suspicious.
Later, in “Vacation Time,” the family drives down to Florida to see the father’s mother. He tries to hit her up for money. The narrator hears his father and grandmother arguing:
“I just need a few thousand dollars,” my father said, “to get my printing
“Why don’t you get a job,” my grandmother asked, “and make the money
The father abruptly makes his family leave. “‘My mother insults me,’ he said. ‘She thinks I should join the rat race.’”
At this point, the reader is expecting a horrible coming-of-age tale full of adversity and injustice, but Rutkowski switches things up in the second part. In her cover endorsement, Alison Lurie characterizes Rutkowski’s writing as “his low-key continually surprising fiction.” Just when you think you know where he’s going, he changes direction. Indeed, “deadpan” aptly describes Rutkowski’s humor. And make no mistake, there’s a lot of humor in Haywire.
The second, shortest section covers his time as a student. If in rural Pennsylvania he was considered “weird” by his classmates, the same continues in college. The story “Brotherhood” begins: “When he met me, my roommate said, ‘I heard your name and thought you’d look like a football player. But you look more like the cook in Bonanza, that guy named Hop Sing.’” His sense of identity at stake here, he writes a term paper on his divided self, but in another example of Rutkowski’s deadpan humor, the professor gives him a bad grade, accusing him of confusing the meanings of the words he uses. But even in the first part, back in rural Pennsylvania, in the story, “Louie Boots,” he writes, “My appearance was foreign, un-American. But I didn’t feel foreign. I felt like a teenaged tobacco smoker from the sticks.”
The second part includes the hilarious story, “Fighting the Law,” about a poetry event gone wrong in graduate school that results in the narrator and a couple of his friends spending a night in jail. Stories about sex and drug use and an impulsive trip to Mexico round out the collegiate experience, and it all seems like fun if, indeed, a tad haywire.
But it’s the final section, as the narrator comes into adulthood, where the real fun begins. As far back as the third story, “Pet Sounds,” we are clued into the narrator’s unconventional eroticism. There, he’s a kid watching television. “I saw a man spanking a woman on the screen, but because they were speaking a foreign language, I didn’t know why he was doing it.” The narrator, it turns out, is really turned on by bondage, and a good number of these stories – “Sir Jack,” “Ayatollah,” “Rapping, Reddening, and ‘Rithmetic,” and “Sex Addicts Anonymous” among them – explore that obsession, with confessional humor. At this point, the coming-of-age story has already morphed into something akin to a story reminiscent of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a comic novel about young people with shitty jobs who are more concerned with drugs and sex than professional fulfillment.
One of the absolute funniest stories in Haywire is in this section. “Recovery Is for Quitters” is a hilarious story about stopping smoking marijuana. He considers the things that being loaded makes more enjoyable – movies, meals, friends, vacations, etc. “I could, however, perform painful tasks while sober. I could work at my day job, concentrate on detail, stare at my screen without blinking … update my résumé, send it out and hope for a better-paying but still boring job…..” So yeah…why quit now?
By the end, though, the narrator has married, had a child and – what? Turned a corner? It’s hard to tell. Things can always go haywire, more the rule than the exception. Throughout Haywire there are allusions to “a girl with a red mark on her face,” and in a clever resolution to the image, that’s who the narrator winds up marrying. (“Happily ever after”? Let’s hope so….)
Dreams are a potent theme throughout this novel. Many of the stories in the first section end with the narrator dreaming or imagining situations. “Learning Curve” ends, “At night, when I was in bed, I imagined I was trapped behind a wall.” Which about sums up his youth. Whole stories, “Inner Space,” “In the Dark,” the final story, “Night Journeys,” are likewise dreams. The novel ends in the dream with the narrator scaling a mountain on a steep ladder, the kind of symbolic, non-specific dream we all have. He looks around for a place to rest but nothing looks stable or big enough. “So I keep climbing.”
As Lurie also writes, once you’ve read this novel, “the world will look different to you.” It will look haywire!
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.