For novelist Thaddeus Rutkowski, 2012 has been a very good year. His third novel, Haywire, a tragicomic bildungsroman, was published to rave reviews by Starcherone Books, an independent publisher of innovative fiction. He was awarded a $7,000 fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, one of just 18 selected by a statewide panel from many hundreds of applicants; his flash fiction “The Mountain Man” was published in The New York Times and just after that, his essay about anxiety, “Toasted” (about an obsessive fear that, after leaving for work, he’d left the toaster oven on and set fire to his apartment), was also published in the Times. Both were teased on the front page of the Times’ online edition, beckoning millions of readers to take a look at Rutkowski’s writing. “Toasted” was subsequently republished print edition of The International Herald Tribune and soon after that, Rutkowski was invited to talk about his anxiety on an NPR show. “A doctor who runs an anxiety clinic was on the show,” he says, “and I guess I was a potential patient.”
Such irony and self-deprecating humor is evident everywhere in Haywire, creating an alluring mask for a narrator named Thaddeus Rutkowski, who, like the author himself, grew up in rural central Pennsylvania, the son of a Polish American artist father and a Chinese immigrant mother. Rutkowski is forthright about the autobiographical aspects of his fiction, but he clarifies, “I select and distill events to the degree that I'm not writing a memoir or an autobiography--too many facts are left out. Plus, the narrator's point of view limits the factual content of Haywire. We only know only what he knows, and he is not omniscient.”
Far from knowing all, Haywire’s narrator is a postmodern naïf, albeit one who loves both guns and blades and who has a penchant for settings fires and playing with explosives. He makes his biracial way through a harrowing family life with a brilliant but violent alcoholic father, who “wanted to start a revolution with my art. But instead, I’m a chauffeur and a nursemaid,” and a pragmatic atheist mother, the chief wage earner, who carries on the daily work of the household oblivious or indifferent to both her husband’s abuses and her three children’s needs or desires. Home is no refuge , but the outside world is worse, as the narrator and his siblings are also victims of various torments from their peers at school. (Late in the book, when the narrator’s brother threatens suicide, the mother begs him, “Please don’t kill yourself while you’re so far away. I’ll have to buy a plane ticket to clean up the mess. Why don’t you wait until you’re here before you do it? I’ll be able to clean up more easily.”)
“I make up and combine elements, say the qualities of different people I know, in service to the story,” says Rutkowski, who’s earned a devoted following of readers and listeners as a quintessential “indie” writer. “I may give a character dialogue that I've heard in a different setting, for example…Still, my process has a lot to do with remembering things, and putting together flashes of incident that come to me.”
Haywire displays a clear coming of age narrative arc but its narrator’s quest for self (“In my case, the self wasn’t Asian or Caucasian, but sometimes felt like one or the other”), and his discovery of connection and sexual fulfillment in scenarios of bondage, domination and surrender, is anything but ordinary. The 49 flash fictions that make up the novel are titled but do not have traditional chapter numbers. While the stories can be read individually, when read sequentially they build to an almost agonizing crescendo, then discharge into a lovely and entirely unexpected denouement. Spoiler alert: a happy ending! The stories range from hilarious to heartbreaking, some devastating as IEDs, others funnier, quirkier and edgier than anything else in contemporary publishing. In a novel full of surprises, of reversals and thwarted expectations, it’s impossible to figure out what’s coming next, which is precisely what Rutkowski strives for.
No surprise, though, that Rutkowski, a minimalist who eschews exposition and explanation, who forces the reader to “fill in the blanks,” would name as his influences the postmodernists Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America, A Confederate General From Big Sur) and Donald Barthelme (Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; Overnight to Many Distant Cities) “Brautigan had a lot of sadness, along with his whimsy. Don B. was hilarious.” With them, he shares a finely honed absurdist perspective but, through the humility, curiosity, wonder, insecurities and obsessions of his narrators, Rutkowski digs deeper into the dysfunctional messes of contemporary family life, and his work is, hence, more human, less cerebral. It stays with you.
Rutkowski, who has two undergraduate degrees from Cornell and a master’s from Johns Hopkins, lives with his wife and young daughter in Manhattan, where he works full-time as a copyeditor for a business publication. He also teaches fiction workshops at such venues as the West Side YMCA and literature at the City University of New York. During his decades in New York, before harvesting this year’s bounty of mainstream recognition, Rutkowski had his work published widely in such journals as CutBank, Pleiades, Faultline and Hayden’s Ferry Review, and honored with half a dozen Pushcart nominations. He’s earned fellowships to Yaddo and MacDowell and has traveled for invited readings to such cities as Paris, Berlin, Budapest, London and Hong Kong.
For Rutkowski, with his life-long passion for theater, such live reading is nearly as important as his writing and he will often try out material on audiences before he commits it to the page. For him, live reading “is a way to make an immediate emotional connection with an audience; that’s the important and exciting thing.” He feels a synergy between his writing and live readings: “If something works live, it might also work on the page, and vice versa.”
In fact, Rutkowski first developed a following and a name by reading at open mics, most often at the ABC No Rio gallery on the Lower East Side, and at slam poetry competitions. He twice won the Poetry Versus Comedy slam at the Bowery Poetry Club and once each the Nuyorican Poets Café Friday slam and the Syracuse poetry slam. He reads locally at Mount Airy’s Big Blue Marble Bookstore. You can visit his web site www.thaddeusrutkowski.com for his schedule of readings.
As for his writing practice, he squeezes in some writing time in the mornings before his daughter goes to school, and he belongs to an ‘urban colony’ of writers, a loft space near his apartment, with desks in cubicles where no talking is allowed. “A perfect place to work,” says Rutkowski, who makes his way there a couple of times a week. But he’s also depended on extended-stay writers’ colonies such as Ragdale and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts—“more than 20 times over the years” – for uninterrupted time to focus on his novels.
The structure of all three of Rutkowski’s novels displays not just the finite bits of time he has to work on them, but also a highly effective way of presenting emotionally difficult material. Roughhouse (Kaya Press, 1999) is described as ‘a novel in snapshots;’ Tetched (Behler, 2005) as a novel in fractals, and Haywire, a novel of 49 linked flash fictions. As with Faulkner’s famed explorations of Yoknapatawpha County and Louise Erdrich’s North Dakota Native American reservations, Rutkowski rarely strays from the his geographical turf—rural Pennsylvania and New York City. Too, all three novels obsess over similar material, a family on the edge; children, outsiders all, struggling to survive. But each book approaches setting and subject matter in deeper, more emotionally accessible ways, and with keener sharper insights.
Molly Peacock’s blurb for Roughhouse could speak for all three: “Rutkowski gives us a novel in bites and slices: sharp, shocking, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Here is gall with gusto, a voice of reckoning, and writing to be reckoned with.”
All three of Rutkowski’s novels can be purchased online at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, from his web site or from those of his publishers.
Here is a passage from Haywire; the story “Recovery Is for Quitters,” during which the narrator participates in a group therapy session in hopes of getting out from under his pot addiction:
After the meeting, I started doing my take-home assignment. I recorded my feelings before, during and after getting high. I was allowed to identify only four feelings: fear, love, anger, and pain. Every other feeling had to fall under one of those headings. Jumpiness was fear, for example, amusement love, impatience anger, and ennui pain. Since the four basics began with the letters F, L, A, and P, recording them was ‘flapping.’ Whenever I felt a pang, I made a hash mark in a notebook.
I flapped some fear. I was afraid of being late for work, of not finishing my assignments in the time given, of insulting my office mates with indifference, and of being terminated for my lack of interest.
I flapped pain. The hurt was centered in my head—a pain that came from eyestrain. Maybe I was reading too much text. I probably needed to see an ophthalmologist. I probably needed new corrective lenses.
I flapped anger. I was ticked at having wasted hours on activities that weren’t important to me. I wasn’t a team player. I wasn’t a corporate go-getter. I was a bonger. I wanted to light up, lay back and stay poor.
At the next meeting, it was shockingly clear that in the preceding week, I’d flapped no love.
“You’ve got to flap some love,” the group leader said.
“How?” I asked.“Think of the money you’ll save by not buying pot and not paying for a course to quit” I calculated the amount—about $7,000 a year. I loved that figure. I could a lot with that dough. I could travel, or move to an apartment with central heat. Or I could use the money to buy cheaper drugs. Acid was selling for $5 a hit in my circle.”