Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Restoring the Burnt Child: A Primer

William Kloefkorn

University of Nebraska Press ($22)

by James Walkowiak

Following his acclaimed memoir This Death by Drowning, William Kloefkorn's Restoring the Burnt Child continues grappling with how 1940s middle America shaped its boys into men. A spirit of gamesmanship permeates the entire book, infusing the story with nostalgia and muted terror. The narrative, recounting Kloefkorn's pre-teen years, opens with a game of match-throwing that nearly burns down his house. Influenced by the rhetoric of the Second World War, Kloefkorn describes the incident as a tactical battlefield maneuver: "It required speed and concentration and purpose—and the God-given ability to strike a match at full throttle and drop it burning down the shirt of the fleeing victim."

The remainder of the book pivots back and forth from the playful to the disquieting—from snapshots of boyhood mischief to dreadful incantations of a bible-pounding minister who preaches "fireandbrimstone." Wherever Kloefkorn travels—barbershops, drugstores, movie houses—he soaks up language, building a lexical cache. He draws foremost from language inflected by the violence and prejudice of war as it filters down to him through ordinary conversation. Overhearing men at a local barbershop, for example, the boy digests the era's racist slurs: he hunts down barn swallows, calling them "Germans and Japs."

A few pages into the memoir, the speaker disrupts the narrative to celebrate the aural pleasure elicited by certain words. As a boy, he loves discovering "richochet," "trajectory," and "flak"—wartime words he admires in spite of the terror they orchestrate between other men. For Kloefkorn, the music of words takes precedence over meaning: "It has taken me a long time to realize the extent to which the story, any story, relies upon a melody." This aesthetic—an aspiration for music—will appeal to readers who know and admire Kloefkorn's poetry, but his privileging of music over meaning produces a problematic narrative. Passages refract similar-sounding voices. A circular time scheme reiterates fragments and shuffles dates and places from one paragraph to another. The narrative lacks a chronological frame of reference from which the reader can assemble all the disparate strands the author gives us.

Kloefkorn, however, intends to conflate events as he retells them; he defends his amorphous time scheme, saying, "Chronology has at best a habit of collapsing, of becoming quickly smaller, like the leaky bellows of the old red-and-black accordion as my grandfather squeezed it." When the narrative compresses linear time successfully, one remembered moment bears imprints of multiple life experiences. We see boys driving dump trucks, shooting birds, climbing boulders, listening to temperance women, and saving cash for radios, all happening simultaneously. This scheme allows Kloefkorn to showcase his lilting cadence and absurdist humor, though he does so at the expense of well-defined characters or the trajectory of an emotional arc. Still, on its own terms, Restoring the Burnt Child testifies to the music of youth which many men spend a lifetime seeking to regain.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents