by Thaddeus Rutkowski
Blue Streak Press
Reissue: August 2019
Novel 298 pages
The idea of stitching forty-nine flash fiction stories into a novel may seem contrived and, at the same time, challenging. We would expect a disjointed and hard to follow narrative with all kinds of plot problems. There may be problems in this novel but plot and flow are not an issue. In fact, the problems here might only be in how the elements of the story push against the preconceived notions and sensibilities of the reader.
“Haywire” is a Thaddeus Rutkowski marvel and each short chapter is a wild ride that carries us through the life of a Polish-American/Chinese man. Mr. Rutkowski also fits that ethnic background. The opening chapter/story is an introduction to the narrator’s family. Polish/American dad is an artist, mom is Chinese and the primary breadwinner. A younger brother and sister complete this dysfunctional group. The dysfunctions lie mostly with the father, a controlling figure who is often abusive. He’s also intellectually unusual, something of an anarchist, paranoid and alcoholic. The mother tries to offset the dad’s behavior with a calm, stoic attitude and warnings to avoid the father when the chance for abuse is high.
We enter the vivid inner life of the narrator very quickly. We hear his dreams and fantasies. We follow his growth, his unconventional education, his struggles with relationships both inside and outside of his family. There is nothing held back. We learn of his experiences with racism, his discovery of bondage fetishism at a very young age and his attraction to fire and explosions. Does this all sound odd? Yes, it does, and therein lies the charm of this novel. Our narrator is so open, so unapologetic, so sincere that we are charmed by him. He is quiet and gentle, even as he indulges in his bondage fetish. He is caring, even as he claims to have no idea about how caring works. For me, this character is exactly the kind of person I’d like to have as a friend; always interesting, occasionally distant and yet open to intimate discussion.
Mr. Rutkowski is also a poet. This story is reflective of that in his control of a condensed language that moves the story forward. Descriptions use just enough essential detail, never too much, to draw a scene. Dialogue is tight and pointed. And humor is everywhere. There are laugh-out-loud moments full of irony and satire. Yet there is often an understated pathos that never slips into self-pity. This is an emotionally complex novel.
One other element that I found interesting (and somewhat disturbing) are the dream sequence chapters. Most of the novel is slightly surreal. But the dream sequences are masterful in their surrealistic construction and ability to be both disconnected and intimately tied to the body of the story. It takes a skilled author to pull this off and Rutkowski is a very gifted storyteller.
By the end of the novel the narrator is a husband and father. He’s doing his best to be good in those roles and we get the sense that he’s succeeding. The final chapter, however, is a dream sequence that is both humorous and a bit mysterious. As a reader I was satisfied with the ending and, at the same time, regretful that it came so soon. And that too is a testament to the nature of this fine, unusual and completely terrific novel.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook “Silence, Interrupted” was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for the Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.