The BOOKPRESS September 1998

Puzzling it Out

Suzanne Kamata

Drive Dive Dance & Fight
Thomas E. Kennedy.
BkMk Press, 1997.
152 pages, paper, $14.95.

For years now, expatriate American writer Thomas E. Kennedy has been publishing short fiction in literary journals across the United States and Europe. Drive, Dive, Dance, & Fight is his second short story collection in a body of work that includes stylish speculative fiction, critical studies of Andre Dubus and Robert Coover, and The American Short Story Today. He has also edited collections of Danish fiction and new Irish writing while serving as overseas editor for the esteemed Cimarron Review. In spite of these accomplishments, Kennedy's work is not as well known as it should be.

An alternative title for this, his most recent book, might be Men on the Verge of a Mid-life Crisis. Many of these stories are about men who find themselves in wrecked or fading relationships, wondering about the choices they have made earlier in life.

The title character in "Bonner's Women," the lead-off story, "has just entered what he thinks of as late youth." His early youth is behind him, memorialized in knickknacks in his childhood home. His mother, however, has forgotten everything, including the death of her favorite son, Martin.

The ghost of another Irish expatriate writer haunts this story. The weight of accumulated memories and the Christmas holidays bring to mind "The Dead.'' At the end of the story, Bonner sits by the window watching the snow fall while his wife sleeps, just as Gabriel does in Joyce's masterpiece.

Kennedy's characters often pay homage to their heroes, literary and otherwise. Or at least they try.

In "Kansas City,'' Johnny Fry flies into San Francisco from Copenhagen on a mission: "To buy a book of poems by Ferlinghetti. To meet Ferlinghetti. Ask him questions about all those years ago when Fry lived his life by the creed of poets. See if Ferlinghetti's thoughts of a gone time could help him understand what had happened to his own life."

Fry, a product of the idealistic anything-goes sixties, has found himself in middle-age, living in a gray area. His marriage has failed. As an expatriate in Denmark, he is between countries, between relationships. He ultimately succeeds in meeting his idol, but the encounter, as all such encounters inevitably are, proves disappointing.

B, the low level Ministry of Foreign Affairs official in "The Severed Garden," has no chance of meeting his hero, Jim Morrison, because he's already dead. Still, B continues to look to Morrison (J in this story) for spiritual guidance. According to B, Morrison "seized his youth, went down in flame, knew or sensed in advance the consequences of survival." For B, those consequences are alienation from a family that he doesn't understand and disillusionment with so-called civilization and the rules of diplomacy: "The political dreamers of the sixties did not know what they were talking about. Only people like J knew - personal liberation, transcendence of perception, the augmentation of the instant, now. Mao was a fraud." Like Johnny Fry, B has a mission to connect, somehow, with his idol, but a cold stone bust of J does not yield the answers he'd hoped for.

Kennedy presents us with people struggling to make sense of their lives and, sometimes, the lives of others. In "The Burning Room,'' a counselor attempts to win the trust of a torture victim and to understand his dilemma: In explaining his preoccupation with another man's life, he says, "Humankind is a mystery; even if a man spends his entire life trying to solve that mystery and fails, he will not have wasted his time."

These could be the words of the writer, as he explores the life of a divorced pathologist in "A Clean Knife" or that of a woman suffering from a bizarre fear in "Dust.'' There are no clear-cut answers, no easy ways out, but there is often beauty and sometimes triumph.

The title story is about Twomey, a man down on his luck, who seeks to overcome his fears. He makes a list of the things he'd always wanted to accomplish drive, dive, dance, and fight, and sets out to achieve his goals. Funny, sad, scary, and deeply moving, this is also a story of hope.

Thomas E. Kennedy knows about a lot of things - martinis, Danish witches, death rot, dust - and it is these details that make his stories so vivid and, at times, delightfully quirky. He is well aware of the absurdities of modern American life, his perspective enhanced, perhaps, by his distance as an expatriate. He is also deeply sensitive to the struggles of ordinary lives.

The final story, "Landing Zone X-ray," concerns a middle-aged man remembering the arrest of his friend who had been A.W.O.L. and hiding out in his apartment during the war in Vietnam. Although the war was a turbulent time in this man's life and in the history of the United States, he feels no regret: "This is my story, the story of my time.. . All the dead men and all the women will turn their hollow gazes toward us then, and I do not think we will wish that we had done more or less or something else." Here is a man at peace, no longer searching tor answers, but accepting of his life. These eight stories resound with hard-earned wisdom and deserve to be widely read. Far away in Denmark, Kennedy has been producing some of the best American fiction of our age.

Suzanne Kamata lives in Japan, where she edits and publishes the English-language literary magazine Yomimono. She also recently edited the anthology The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan.

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