Thad Rutkowski’s Ponderous Pops

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In her introduction to The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, Tara Masih defines flash fiction using Stuart Dybek’s description of rain from his short story, “Nighthawks”: “Each drop encases its own separate note, the way each drop engulfs its own blue pearl of light.”

She explains:

A successful flash enchants us, each small story successfully rendered engulfing for a brief moment — in a “flash,” as many of the writers within suggest — in its own brand of light, or truth. And the effects linger on, sometimes for decades.

She goes on to describe the improbability of providing a definitive definition of flash fiction or what she refers to as the “short short story.” She cites writers of experimental flash who write “slice of life” sketches instead of having traditional narrative elements like plot, setting, and character. She concludes:

A flash is simply a story in miniature, a work of art carved on a grain of rice — something of import to the artist or writer that is confined and reduced, either by design or outcome, into a small square space using the structural devices of prose line and paragraph form with the purpose of creating an intense, emotional impact.

The flashes in Thad Rutkowski’s Violent Outbursts do not create “intense, emotional impacts” despite what the title might suggest. They are more the “ponderous pops” you might associate with the quietude of waiting for your subway train or sitting through traffic rather than the violent adrenaline-fueled outbursts that come from severe emotional agitation. “What I’m Carrying” is a good example of this as the narrator agonizes over the fruit he’s accidentally left in his briefcase or the checklist he ticks off in his head in “Departure Checklist.”

Rutkowski’s flashes are less slices of life than they are scraps of cognition and imagination. “The Looking Glass” describes a woman getting dressed in front of a mirror as the sunlight and resulting shadows “eat away” at her like “acid to bite off the unessential and superficial…” “Oak Tree and Cypress” describes the trials of growing old together. Two distinctly different people with distinctly different ways who find it harder to change as the years go by but who are “content to stand where we are, letting the xylem and phloem quietly do their work.”

He uses the same narrative tone throughout his collection though it spans his entire life up to this point — childhood, early adolescence, adolescence, adulthood, and late adulthood. It is concise and gentle. It is the tone you might use to explain something complex or peculiar to a child. For example, in “Blood Cousins” that narrator plays with the possible meanings and ramifications of “100% blood relation.” As I read more, I began to imagine his narrator as a half-Polish half-Chinese Ralph Philips, the old Warner Brothers cartoon character who imagined all sorts of adventures while performing pedestrian acts like an elementary school Walter Mitty. This is particularly evident in “UFOs” where the narrator as a young boy imagines he is being abducted by aliens while on a family road trip.

In “White Cats,” Rutkowski’s narrator adopts Jack Kerouac’s stream of conscious writing to tell the story of a modern day Beatnik. “Cats” was a hep term Beats used to call each other in the jazz clubs and cafes. There is a lot of this sort of wordplay in Violent Outbursts. In “Bees’ Needs,” the narrator describes the toilet habits of bees in the winter. “Beez-Neez” sounds like “Biz-Niz” which sounds like “business” as in “taking care of business” which is the modern post-industrial way for saying you “have to see a man about a horse” (i.e. go to the bathroom). “Caught in the Worst Way” plays with the pain — both physical and social — the narrator experiences when he catches his scrotum in his fly.

Kirkus describes the wordplay as an “Oulipo-esque obsession with language and wordplay. Puns abound…” I had to look up “Oulipo” — “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” The “any way they enjoy” is misleading. Oulipo is a very structured form of writing though you get to choose the rules. Collected all together without the benefit of knowing Rutkowski’s other books, Violent Outbursts may seem like an Oulipo-esque exercise in pun and wordplay but considered with his previous books, it is the welcomed return of a familiar voice.  

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