Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained
By August Kleinzahler. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $12.
Kleinzahler, who was raised inSopranos-like New Jersey and resides as a poet in San Francisco, has put out this collection of personal and critical essays to find his place in a culture that’s hesitant to embrace poetry. As a result of this impassive resistance, some of the essays find Kleinzahler playing the part of peevish intellectual snob. In a pan of homespun hero Garrison Keillor, Kleinzahler asks, “Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all[?]”
So the work is snooty, yes, but not without purpose. The upside of Kleinzahler’s embittered attitude is that it allows him to take some real risks with his prose. Despite an obstinate idea of the importance of “high class,” he surprises with an endearing tribute to a divey bar and an evocative, humorous account of a day aboard a San Diego bus. Kleinzahler is aware of the ivory towers that poets live in, and by discovering the integrity in his “low characters” he is able to see through the walls around him. The effect is a sincere disarming of the tortured-soul myth of the poet in America.
In his final essay, an elegiac and stunningly moving piece about his older brother, a troublemaking gambler who took his own life at age 27, Kleinzahler takes a risk foreign to most memoirists: writing about someone other than themselves. Reflecting on his feelings about the suicide, Kleinzahler deftly dodges pathos by claiming, “I never begrudged him what he did. He was in a lot of pain…. If you ask me, it took guts. Most people simply hold on to life and rot.” It’s a sentiment that’s not sentimental, which adds a welcome dimension to this unruly iconoclast who initially comes off as pretentious.—Scott Stealey