I just finished reading Steve Katz’s latest book. Kissssss: A Miscellany (Fiction Collective 2, December 2007).
This is a very inventive book with stories spanning from poetic narratives to a manifesto to a full blown novelette, all grounded in the ordinary but inside that ordinary one or more extraordinary weird details or tendencies spin the characters off into a different world that reads like a spoof on the crazy world we live in.
There are kisses in every story in this book and they mean something different in each spot. In “The Derivation of the Kiss,” the first person narrator tells the story in lines and it’s about the narrator’s desire, as well as the author’s desire. Katz begins, “It was nineteen sixty-nine, in Iowa City.” The narrator has a thing for a clerk in a bookstore; he calls her Helen. He’s a writer. They go out to a club, but it turns into a nightmare with bikers attacking people, humiliating them and going off on the narrator and his fedora hat. One of the biker’s kisses him. Any minute a rape could occur. Lots of action in five pages. And Helen’s hiding behind a musician on stage when the narrator gets out and then the story ends with the writer’s desire:
What I have told here is the origin of the kiss, on page
Five hundred and thirty-two of Swanny’s Ways,
My novel, winner 1995 American Award in fiction
Which you can check out, if reading is your predilection.
If you’re curious did I ever kiss Helen, I can’t remember.
I could have once, maybe later, maybe in December.
Funny and a quick read. My favorite two stories in this collection are the last two and they are both great stories.
“Parrots in Captivity” is written in the first person, and I have a predilection for the first person. I like the range it allows, the width and breath of consciousness. How much wider can one get? The narrator here, Andrew, used to be an artist but now, he’s involved in some kind of straight job and he has an appointment with the President of the United States. The other characters are his girlfriend and his African Grey parrot whose name is also Andrew and who openly critiques Andrew: “I never thought I could do this, Andrew,” he mumbles, beak full of what-polly-wants. “But I was perched there in a quandary, saying to myself, Andrew, you good for nothing parrot guy, what the hell are you doing with your life? It’s crisis time. So just like that I went for it. And you know what? I can do it. I’ve got the right stuff. Andrew, my man, I’m a goddamned helicopter of redemption.”
It’s writing like this that makes Katz’s work so hilarious, and yet serious at the same time, offering a social critique. The language of ego psychology and Trump’s Apprentice. You can make it. You can do it. Here the artist who takes up another career, with money at the center.
The narrator Andrew (not a parrot but maybe a parrot) has a girlfriend named Ilayana, a performance artist who sticks her hand into CD slots “and a green mustard glow worms through the veins of her wrist.” She writes poems for her HIV, anti-war sequences: “I made this for the NEA. It’s in a form I invented called the Rumcroft.” Katz is making fun of politicians and also the stylized off-center artists for whom a political/human crisis is an opportunity for a successful artistic project. And I’m wondering: how can art critique or counter the politics of war and destruction when the image and the line is so quickly meaningless?
Narrator-Andrew is on his way to meet with the President. We aren’t sure why, but the Parrot-Andrew says,. “You tell the president not to blast Iraq so much with his technologically advanced boom-booms. He kills too many parrots.”
“Those are people, Andrew.”
“God is a parrot. You tell that to the president.”
The narrator-Andrew passes by the homeless, with signs playing into the mythology of the politican-war-mongers. Give me a dollar. “I am dying of aids… I am the enemy of all the enemies of my country. . . “I will kill for my country. . . I have no hope. I have no money.” At one point Andrew seems like a condescending used-to-be-an-artist liberal with friends in commodities and junk bonds. We don’t know why he is talking to the President, but he is. And Bush is posing, his secretary is posing; everyone is pretending they are in the movies. Katz goes on (and we think maybe Andrew is thinking this, too): “We must love him for his John Wayne swaggerette as he strains to make us think he’s a real Texas cowboy and not the mediocre Yale punk we know him for. It’s hard to make out just where evil resides. He has help, of course from the vice one, Cheney, smirking over his various oil fortunes, but making more; and the Goebbels of the bunch, Rumsfeld, small and self-important; and John Ashcroft, the poor, bloated fundamentalist.” This is Katz talking and/or Andrew has a social conscience. Back at home he finds Ilyana in bed with Andrew the Parrot, but nothing too serious. She’s actually rehearsing for an NEA performance. When the parrot questions Andrew-narrator about his interview with the President, Andrew says he “asked him whether he thought that in order to defeat the beast, we had to become the beast?” And the President says over and over, no matter what the question, like a stupid parrot: “God is on our side, and our weapons have pinpoint accuracy.” The parrot keeps asking, “Did he say anything about the parrot’s dilemma?” “He says it will take as long as it takes, and to stop whining.”
In the end, Andrew sits in front of the television. We all sit in front of the television, waiting to see what happens. “I have, I know, an illusion of separation from the misery out there by this thin green veil of money. This is money I have earned. We have seen how volatile the green veil is. How quickly we can be exposed, and onto the street. An omen of conflagration, and it’s gone, all security. I live there in a world of bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts. Andrew lives with me. Ilyana is here sometimes. Outside of where I live the life blisters, the life of others. Inside, the pressures are slight, and have little significance. But what is outside, and what is inside all is taken into the heart, weighed and measured there, and it does weigh, and this is what is meant when the heart is heavy.”
And the parrot repeats: “The heart is heavy. The heart is heavy. Grawk.”And “so what” I think. We of heavy hearts sit. And the war machine goes on. Katz’s story is witty, ironic, ridiculous and devastating.
In the last story in the collection, “Nowadays and Hereafter, there has been a natural disaster, a storm, and we are on the shore with Tignee, a net maker. He has just lost his wife and his son and his baby in the storm. He is migrating away from the ocean. The story is told in the third person, but the voice is very close to the subjectivity of Tignee. And the reader is very close to the loss Tignee has just experienced. The story begins from the heart rather than from the witty mind as in many of the other stories. Tignee is grieving, a wanderer in a world of strangers who all seem as if they could be his family. A boy runs by with his arms outstretched. Was he his son? It doesn’t matter anymore. Tignee comes to a place where the children live in the trees. Little by little we come to know, and so does Tignee that he is living with ghosts. Some of the people are fleeing from the sea and others are fleeing from the “power of hatred and war.” Tignee comes to know so much. “Life is the most temporary acccident.” He and the ghosts build a new world from the bones of others. There is a mythic quality to this story.. The war machine is eating people and ghosts. Finally Tignee organizes a group of ghosts and they make a big net a trap for the war mongers, and then they head back, returning to the sea.
This last story is a beautiful tale, a fine conclusion to Steve Katz’s Kissssss. Kisssssss off war mongers. We are going back to the sea, from dust to dust, from bones to seed, to start over again.