Thad Rutkowski’s Haywire

Reading Thad Rutkowski is like reading the lab journal written by the rat running the maze. His observations are just as emotionally sparse as those of the scientist conducting the experiment. You are presented with a circumstance (the experiment and the hypothesis being tested) and then you are given a series of actions and reactions. You draw your own conclusions.

I have read Roughhouse and Tetched: A Novel in Fractals. Haywire continues the chronicle begun in Roughhouse. Like its predecessors, Haywire begins in childhood and concludes in adulthood. Haywire also continues the literary construct introduced in Tetched — The idea of “novel.” The complete title for Haywire is Haywire: A Novel. Now, well into the Post Modern and literary Deconstruction Ages of genre ambiguity, I found it curious that Thad chose to anchor his last two books to a genre. I don’t know that the identification added to or took away from my reading experience but I found it curious nonetheless.

Lisa Simmons provides an insightful review of Haywire at The Nervous Breakdown. It includes a quick summation of the novel’s overall plot: Experiences of a biracial boy growing up in rural Pennsylvania. She also cites her disappointment with the lack of closure at the end of the parts of the book.

And yet the fact that he did is one of the chief disappointments in the book. Significant events go unresolved by the end of Part 1, which actually crowns that section with its consistent sentimentality and understatement yet leaves the reader somewhat nostalgic for that time, place and those characters even if our protagonist is not.

The book is organized into three parts, which I interpreted as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. His previous books followed the same pattern. They begin with straightforward – some times “deadpan” — observations of the darker processes of male development. Thad’s stories are Boys Life stories that include the disturbing experiences of boys becoming men. Once men, the boys discover the canon is insufficient.

In “Stages,” which I want to believe inspired to name of the novel, the narrator is a boy pressured by his father to launch a homemade rocket.

Reluctantly, I pushed a button to open a circuit between the car battery and the rocket engine. A hot copper thread ignited the solid fuel and the homemade projectile left the ground with a hiss. Almost immediately, the missile went haywire. It started to corkscrew through the air. A couple of hundred feet up, it began to pinwheel.

Part One of the book is a collection of memories in which the narrator is “taken” to locations for activities determined by his father. The narrator’s father is a “force” in his life, forcing action and adaptation.  He is half the canon of manhood that the narrator must contend with.

The narrator’s peers form the other half: Boys who live in unison with the canon and boys who have found ways to cope. In “Brotherhood,” Thad uses the tension between the narrator’s college roommate and the narrator to infer a dialogue about the canon and its rules on “man territory” and “man relationships.”

“Brotherhood” also provides a prolonged uncharacteristic discussion of race. I could be wrong but from what I remember of Thad’s stories, race has never been given more than a line or two and usually just to punctuate a point. In this story, a chunk of the passages are dedicated to his “Asianness” relating to his “Caucasianness.”

When I read Thad’s work, the voice I hear in my head is sometimes Steven Wright’s somewhat monotone delivery and sometimes the voice of a young child asking why the sky is blue and then answering himself sort of matter-of-factly.

I disagree with Lisa regarding closure. I think Part One ends when the narrator’s father does. In “Shots and Flames,” it is telling when the narrator’s disgruntled father shouts from his hospital bed, “I want to talk to the boy who lives down the street… He understands me.” The narrator, his father’s eldest son is in the room until he is taken outside by a doctor and told his father is terminal.

There is a lot of family dynamic there in that scene. It is unwritten and must be inferred but it is there. As a father of sons and as a son to a father, I can feel it there.

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