Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review: P.F. Kluge – Gone Tomorrow

gone-tomorrowIn the fall of 2005, Robert and I had an Intro to Fiction Writing seminar with P.F. Kluge. Since I was having Girl Problems, I wrote an awful story about an awful depressed caricature of myself, one of about a dozen such stories that the class produced. Rob’s was about a guy who tries to steal someone’s heart – literally! None of it was great literature, and most of it could be described succinctly as poor.

My point is, this is the rare Charge Shot!!! book review you’re going to read where the reviewer actually knows the author personally.

Were I a more vindictive soul, this write-up would be an eviscerating account of every typo and misplaced comma in the book along with detailed descriptions of passages which I marked as AWK in bright red pen. Kluge would be happy enough to take his gentleman’s B and shamble back to the dorm for some appropriately light Monday night drinking.

I must admit, however grudgingly, that Kluge’s book merits a better treatment than did my sub-par excuse for a short story. How much better remains to be seen.

Gone Tomorrow is about the last year of a man’s life, but what it’s really about is writing. Protagonist George Canaris is the longtime writer-in-residence at a small, nameless liberal arts college in Nowhere, Ohio, but before that he was an up-and-coming author of some renown. Canaris has been working on his next book since before he took his position at the college more than thirty years previously, and it his war with this manuscript that commands most of Tomorrow’s attention.

Kluge’s books are normally populated by writers and academics, though the setting is not always the Small-Liberal-Arts-College-In-Ohio which serves as the backdrop for a disproportionate number of them. What’s present here that’s not in Biggest Elvis or Final Exam is a preoccupation with writing itself – with the ebbs and flows of the creative process, the worries and pressures and expectations with which any writer must deal.

Herein lies my biggest gripe with Gone Tomorrow, namely that Kluge is incapable of distancing himself from his narrative. Every time Kluge-as-Canaris gripes about the use of flashbacks or tries to explain to his students the difference between writing what you know and drawing from what you know to write something interesting, one can sense Kluge-as-Kluge turning to his audience and winking broadly at them above the rim of his scotch tumbler.

This is rarely anything worse than distracting, but it does break that all-important sense of immersion that we sometimes discuss here – too often, you can see the wheels turning in Kluge’s head instead of Canaris’, which is to the story’s detriment.

That said, Kluge is a seasoned and capable writer in the midst of a very productive late-career resurgence, and Gone Tomorrow is nothing if not engaging. The bulk of the story shifts temporally between Then (detailing Canaris’ arrival at the college, his struggles with his manuscript and his romantic encounters) and Now (detailing Canaris’ last year at a college which has abandoned him in favor of new blood) with alacrity, weaving together to create two stories that complement each other nicely. The pace Kluge sets is brisk and sustained, and the book fairly breezes by.

Also excellent is Kluge’s ability to create a sense of place, not just of the Small-Liberal-Arts-College-In-Ohio but of Germany and New York and the other places the story visits on its way to closure. Some authors feel the need to describe every brick, spire, tree and colonnade, but Kluge can do the same thing with a few paragraphs and a well-placed simile. This, along with his characters’ natural, uncontrived dialogue, is one of his greatest strengths as a writer.

Questions and loose ends do fall by the wayside – the book opens with Canaris’ untimely death at the hands of a rogue motorist, and the early and middle parts of the story hint at a menacing presence shadowing Canaris during his last year. This thread is dropped toward the end of the book, though, and by the time we get back to Canaris’ death at the end it is not only unclear who killed Canaris, but it is unclear that the killer’s identity is of any real consequence to the story. A frame narrative links Gone Tomorrow to the Small-Liberal-Arts-College-In-Ohio featured in 2005’s Final Exam and divulges the ultimate fate of Canaris’ life’s work, but otherwise is not at the same level as the rest of the book.

Gone Tomorrow succeeds in spite of its flaws, which are few and minor despite the amount of time this write-up spends on them. If you’ve read Kluge before, this is a strong entry in his canon. If not, it’s a good place to start, and you’ll find plenty to appreciate.

In short, as a certain fiction writing seminar taught me not to say, “I liked it.”