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James Bourey reviews Safe Colors: A Novel in Short FictionsBy Thaddeus Rutkowski

This novel by Thaddeus Rutkowski has been out for several months now, and I’m a little late to the feast that he has cooked up. But sometimes the best meals are the ones we wait for, enjoying the anticipation.

Reading poems by Rutkowski has been a pleasure for me for many years. His ability to reach the reader with a deceptive simplicity is always surprising. Sometimes I feel like he’s one of my cousins, the one that starts a conversation after being a long time away, and we both forget all that time in between visits. And Mr. Rutkowski’s short stories are also conversational until, suddenly, they head off on a tangent, sending the reader on a little trip, a trip induced, perhaps, by ingestion of some unusual mushroom.

And in this novel, we are again treated to Rutkowski’s original constructions, made from “Short Fictions” as building blocks to create a complete, memoir-like story full of interesting characters and a protagonist who sounds suspiciously like the poet we met in his collections Border Crossings and Tricks of Light. That’s not a bad thing. Each chapter in this novel could stand alone as a fine short story. But, somehow, the author leaves just enough threads hanging, threads that are loosely woven into the following chapter. This weaving process is subtle and very effective. 

Most readers will ask if the main characters are fully fictional or if they have emerged entirely from the author’s biography. Frankly, I didn’t care. Thaddeus, in the novel, is introduced as an unusual boy born into an unusual family. We watch him grow, experimenting his way through childhood and teenage years, and eventually into a fragile adulthood. His father is an artist, a dreamer with a drinking problem. His mother, daughter of very religious Chinese parents, is a lab technician who carries the day-to-day burdens of family life in small town Appalachian Pennsylvania.  And his younger brother and sister move in and out of his awareness, each struggling with their own fears and efforts to grow up. Later we see Thaddeus doing his best to make a living in New York City, having moved from “nowhere to somewhere” pedaling his bicycle around, meeting people, and having sometimes surreal encounters. Finally, we see him as a married man with a daughter. He’s coping, and he seems happy, but some of his fears are still hanging around, waiting to emerge and sabotage his life. 

When reading this novel I tried to recall an author who has been as successful as Mr. Rutkowski with this technique of using short story-like chapters to build a novel. Many authors transition from the short form to the novel but my memory could only dredge up two whose novel chapters could stand alone as short stories – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Mr. Rutkowski is in good company. In fact, I’d say that he has broken new ground in the way he has adapted this technique, making a modern, complex, very human novel that is completely satisfying.

James Bourey is a poet and writer and occasional reviewer.

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