Sunday, January 18, 2015

Knuckleheads by Jeff Kass

by Jeff Kass
Dzanc Books, 2011
soft cover, 250 pages, $9.99

At risk of offending New Critics from the 1930s, it is easy to venture that Jeff Kass intended Knuckleheads for the average guy. There may be an outside chance that this collection of short fiction may reach the women who love these average guys, but the percentages might be low. To glean as much as possible from Kass's pages, one must enjoy the detailed depiction of sinew surrounding a scapula or clavicle tearing and popping, repeatedly. The reader should identify with excess sweat, teeth grinding frustration, desire with nowhere to go, half-nelson and noogie stupidity, not to mention a genuine desire to find acceptance. Above all else, it is this latter emotion that most pervades Kass's collection.

Whether it is the middle and high school subterranean boys of "Basements," or the middle aged yearners of "Mylar Man," "Drowning Superman" and "The Naked Guy Is Dead," Kass depicts males who hover on the periphery, yearning for acceptance. The awkward teen boys of "Basements," collectively scouring their neighborhood for adventure through pool hopping, poker, turntables, make out sessions, always have an eye on whether or not they fit. In a genuine way, Kass's characters and narrators, especially, are both inside and outside simultaneously. It is an angst often ascribed to teen boys, as if some miracle of community belonging happens after the age of 20. It doesn't, and to Kass's credit, he depicts middle aged characters still pedaling through a cul-de-sac of insecurity and desire, youthful anxieties more accepted than resolved.

In "Mylar Man," Kass's late-30s protagonist yearns for his brother's wife. The brother in question is an unemployed, marginally schizoid man who collects balloon rubbish. His internet blogging, environmental crusading world is a sad depiction of youthful idealism gone horribly wrong. The narrator has loved Mylar Man's–the "Old Goat," as he calls him–wife since high school. Kass manages to link that youthful yearning with the incomplete dissatisfactions many middle aged men face, simultaneously making a mockery of and paean to such desires. The consummation leads nowhere but back to those sweaty weight lifting benches of middle school basements.

"Drowning Superman" and "The Naked Guy Is Dead" each depict the alienation and anxieties of marriage in such a way as to capture a kid trapped in a middle aged man's disappointment. The stories, however, do not disappoint. In "Drowning Superman," Kass's protagonist drags around beach blankets, books and a rubber coated Superman statuette on a Martha's Vineyard vacation. The statuette provides the only pleasant shared time between Jay and Calista. They would throw it into the pool and watch their son Jesse dive for it. There is more than a little bit of the baseball card and comic book collecting boy in Jay bubbling up to the surface. When he has to dive deep to find this toy, lost in a Vineyard pond, the parallels between father and son surface. So, too, in "The Naked Guy Is Dead"; only, in that story, it is the protagonist's own innocence and hope sinking to the bottom of an impenetrable pond. Husband and wife have only one tragedy and one innocent memory left to provide them they buoyancy they need.

No matter what the age of boy or man Kass depicts, stylistically this fiction is still tethered to his natural home: slam poetry. There is a breathless quality in all these depictions of buried desires and ranch houses and wrestling matches where even winning is not enough. There is a restlessness and angst which few men openly depict. The familiar scenes of locker rooms, golf courses, blacktop four squares games at recess and sneaking out at night will continue to resonate into this new century. Whether it is a gearhead in the back of English class or a befuddled, middle aged man trying to figure out how he arrived at this stage in life, Kass's Knuckleheads is a book which will prove to be as difficult to put down as the remote. Why? Much like the elusive Fred Exley, Kass captures something inherently grungy, bumbling and altogether honest about what it means to be an American male.

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