VIOLENT OUTBURSTS: Fictions
Novelists who write flash seem to make different flash than poets who write flash. There's the tug of plot, as opposed to merely sustaining an image. There's the problem of characters engaged in dramatic conflict inside of a lyric form. Novelist Thaddeus Rutkowski's chief accomplishment in writing the flash collection Violent Outbursts is how he writes against his nature to create a saga of his own essence. While each story stands by itself, these linked flashes are meant to be read as a whole. Think, 100 panels of the artist as a young man.
Rutkowski, whose soft-spoken voice nonetheless rides an electric rail, doesn't begin in the middle. He begins in the beginning because the beginning is just a middle without disguises. In "Pigeon Landing," one of the most ordinary of birds lands on the very uncommonly shaped head of a 6-year-old Rutkowski: "The pigeon landed squarely because my head was square, or more like a cube. There was a flat area on top just big enough for a medium-sized bird to land on, without falling off."
Rutkowski is open to alternatives. He provides scenes which make it clear that we are looking at experiences that could have been caused by anything, no matter how serious or ridiculous. And yet, in his chaotic flash, nothing is an accident. No matter how unexpected or unpredictable, everything has an explanation too often located in our blind spot:
"Or maybe it was just how the pigeon saw my head. The pigeon might have had square pupils in its eyes... The bird didn't need a runway, warning lights or radar; it just needed to find a 6-year-old with a square head, suitable for a soft approach."
One of the nice patterns in these stories is how they constantly shift between indoors and outdoors. Alone in a house isn't quite the same as alone in the world, and the back and forth between comfort and discomfort is both soothing and restless. At times the outside comes inside, as in "Philco," about his family's television set which only picked up two channels. The little chip on young Thaddeus' shoulder was that even if he watched both channels all day he'd miss a third of the programming, such as Batman. One night, a lightning bolt "entered the antenna wire, shot through the box and sizzled in a huge spark between the bottom of the set and its table. I was on the sofa, watching a show. … I just stared at the small ball of light until it burned itself out."
There is so much of the unexplained topsy-turvy in life that Rutkowski the character can be very engaged, but very passive at the same time, like young Marcel Proust. In "Pet-Food Dishes," three children eat from three bowls at the table while three dogs fight over three bowls on the floor. The scene is parallel in its binary opposition. He writes: "We would just sit calmly at the table while the pets fought for their food on the floor."
Speaking of floors, and floor plans, and architecture, Rutkowski—whose handful of mates in the 1977 Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (fiction) class included the luminaries Mary Robison, Frederick Barthelme, and Moira Crone—isn't shy about taking a few smacks at the idea of needing "scaffolding" in a story. What to make of a story of continuous loops? The motion is all one needs to be happy. But having an older, learned consciousness means you "couldn't get really crazy." Rutkowski in "On the Stairs," shows his preference for the haunt over the house. Elsewhere, in "Our Basic Outhouse," he confides, square head notwithstanding: "I felt like I was different, having this architectural element in my back yard. None of the kids who lived in town had outhouses."
Rutkowski writes more like a dreamer than the master distiller of words he truly is. On the one hand, everything happens for a reason. On the other hand, the reasons are preposterous. "All I could do was mope, and wallow in dark moods. ... I didn't even win a high-school science fair prize because I was too depressed to participate. I couldn't create a poster showing cause and effect, margin of error, and standard deviation, because I was too busy being a deviant."
I love these moments in Violent Outbursts when what is perceived as lacking, such as judgment, is actually the blessing. His lack of judgment is what saves him, even if it results in losing some stupid prize. Rutkowski also has a gift for using humor in a way that doesn't speedbump the narrative. He isn't trying to be funny as a way to avoid a more honest compulsion. In "Eleven-Dollar Ride," he writes: "I take a private bus from my home to my office. A one-way trip costs $10, payable to the driver. I have only a $5 bill and a $6 bill, so I give them in payment. The bus driver doesn't have $1 in change..." and so on, in a piece whose ending will reach its hands into your eyes and yank out every stored up sadness.
Perfectionists may find a few pieces in Violent Outbursts to grump about. A number of these have been previously published as singular pieces which might explain Rutkowski's fetish for having specific on-ramps and off-ramps to get in and out of each flash. And it's true, Rutkowski is at his best in the middle parts where his voice is striding along. Although his distinct phrasing has been around a while now, Rutkowski doesn't make the mistake of someone like Billy Collins who often caricatures his own "voice."
To paraphrase my brother-in-law Mark, I loved this book even when I didn't like it.
Barrett Warner, JMWW, Dec. 16, 2015. https://jmwwblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/16/review-violent-outbursts-by-thaddeus-
HAYWIRE: A NOVEL
These flash stories are mostly gems. Each but a few pages long, they are further broken into tiny bits, each a moment of observation or action narrated by a biracial young man (father is Polish-American, mother is Chinese-American) whose coming-of-age is divided into three parts. While many of these 49 stories have been previously published, when collected and presented chronologically, they maintain a consistent voice and arc that holds true through to a conclusion. Part one treats the narrator's childhood, dominated by his dad, a stern and misanthropic but loving role model, wrangling with an eye doctor after waiting a long time for an appointment, killing squirrels for dinner, driving a bookmobile. The narrator's college years, covered in part two, are comically lively and include drug mishaps, a trip to Mexico that's laughably far from hedonistic, and the loss of his virginity. Part three, his adult years, feels more scattershot. Unlike a lot of flash fiction, which tends to be built around a conceit or written toward a punch line, Rutkowski's best moments crackle unimpeded by self-consciousness.
Publishers Weekly, Oct. 11, 2010, publishersweekly.com/978-0-9842133-1-3
TETCHED: A NOVEL IN FRACTALS
Thaddeus Rutkowski's experimental second novel, Tetched: A Novel in Fractals, provoked a telling remark from a writer friend suffering from creative blockage. After reading a few of the novel'sfractals chapters composed of several paragraph-sized vignettes" he said in a puzzled, awed tone, "This is just like my journal but it works as a book." True, Tetched reads like journal entries written in the thick of things (not, as in most journal-style books, which are written obviously after the fact, with the luxury of having processed and judged the reported events). But don't let Tetched's fits-and-starts fragments fool you. Rutkowski's novel has the depth and complexity required to engage the reader utterly in a seamless, forward-moving narrative.
Fractals are, after all, repeating geometric forms that have complex and often changing shapes, such as clouds. Or dysfunctional families. Rutkowski successfully navigates his narrator's strange childhood by using 38 literary fractals, each of which is evocatively titled ("Woman With Breast," "Peculiar Needs") and could stand alone as a flash fiction or a one-act play. His paragraphs are written like film script scenes, with implied fade-in and fade-out, which are in turn composed of sentences that are tiny, no-frills portraits "Her former boyfriend stared at the marks and said,'My God!'".
The novel's quirky title is key to both its structure and subjects. This spare, edgy bildungsroman opens with a dictionary definition of the adjective it takes as its title: "somewhat unbalanced mentally; touched." With an alcoholic, ex-military, failed-artist, stay-at-home father prone to anger and occasional demands for push-ups so that his oldest son won't turn into a "sissy," and a Confucian Chinese breadwinner mother given to sudden, inexplicable commands like tasting one's own urine ("This is Eastern urology!") the narrator who is not even named until the 33rd chapter has a lot of trouble fitting into the world. His gym teacher calls him Mouse; his father advises him to marry an Asian woman or "wring your hands and become a fairy"; his little sister says she always thought she'd grow up to marry a man who looked like him, until she realized that no man does. If the narrator is "touched," it's because nobody save for the boy he plays "primary care physician" with or the neighbor kid who uses a failed shop class project to administer shock treatment touches him at all as a child.
Nonetheless, as we all eventually do, the narrator finds himself grown up: in college, hitching across the country, then living in the city and trying to be a writer. He seeks physical and emotional connection through the most desperate, forceful means: sadomasochism. In darkly comic prose reminiscent of Lorrie Moore and reporting so full of factual detail it's almost literary by default "I was sure that this person and I could build something together. We could interface in a torturous environment", Rutkowski's narrator tries to "get ropey" with several women and discovers how "tetched" he really is. Alone more than "hitched," he realizes absence is as devastating a loss as forfeiture.
Yet there are moments of hilarity and beauty throughout the book, bright glimmers of the underside of bleak despair. At an artists' colony, a composer who "liked to vacuum objects with his mouth" advises the narrator, "Learn to play a bubble blower, or a rubber hose." Finally, after years alone, a woman who can match wits with him locks her arms around his neck and says, "Now you're stuck with me." When he tells her, "Please don't give me any static," she answers, "Cling! I'll give you static cling." In the end, their child lights up so much from her father's joking that she grins and covers her eyes every time he asks her, "What's happening?"
Rutkowski, who shares his narrator's biracial heritage, has taught at the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA, the Hudson Valley Writer's Center and Pace University. His first novel, Roughhouse, was a finalist for an Asian American Literary Award. The message of Tetched, he recently told interviewer Mickey Z., "is obvious, though it isn't simple. I'm saying, among other things, that behavior patterns don't go away quickly, so you best think hard before you go setting patterns."
Susan Piperato, Chronogram: Arts, Culture, Spirit (Kingston, N.Y.), December 2005
ROUGHHOUSE: A NOVEL IN SNAPSHOTS
In clipped, minimalist sentences whose bareness functions as a foil to the shocking information each contains, Rutkowski's narrator offers up his life in autobiographic, confessional detail. His father a half-mad, violent Eastern European artist waves around a deer rifle and talks about becoming a sniper, between cigarettes, beers, bouts of abusiveness and unpredictable mercy. His Chinese mother is subservient, and much-suffering; she buffers herself from the dysfunctional family by quoting Buddhist wisdom, out of context and badly translated. The narrator's sister runs away from home at 14 to escape her father's incestuous sex play. Enduring the ethnic taunts of neighborhood kids who engage in games of torture and sadism, the narrator turns his rage and neurotic guilt inward: He pours hot melted wax on his skin and puts paper bags over his head and sets them on fire.
The novel's second half, in which the narrator escapes from his family, goes to college and moves to New York City, plunges him into drugs and kinky sex. Rutkowski, poet and story writer, laces his in-your-face punk realism with touches of the surreal and subversive black humor. Sex is emotional karate, social intercourse is toxic, and conversation consists mostly of people talking past one another. His sulfuric tale of family breakdown and fetishism chronicles the confusion and opacity of traumatic childhood even as it criticizes the American society that tolerates such inhumanity.
3,000 first printing (May).
Rutkowski, a regular performer on New York's reading circuit, won the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe's Friday poetry slam one time.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1999