Two Ways of Looking at a Novel — A review by Elizabeth Moore

Thaddeus Rutkowski
Starcherone Books ($18)

by Elizabeth Moore

Haywire, Thaddeus Rutkowski’s autobiographical third novel, delivers the dark and humorous moments of the life of a Polish-Chinese-American boy growing up in 1970s Appalachia; it is an insistent, nearly aggressive, reminder that the combinations of mixed race individuals and the struggles they encounter are limitless. Add an abusive, unemployed, idealistic, and alcoholic father to the equation and we have our protagonist—let’s call him Thaddeus, as he seems a clear stand-in for the author—who ingests abuse, bigotry, and isolation throughout his life.

Told in the first person, Rutkowski’s short, declarative sentences offer an unemotional view. The ease with which Thaddeus tells his story creates the dark tone that this novel subtly achieves. Thaddeus reveals the events of both his childhood and adult life in the thick of things, without the tone of having already processed and judged them. Reaching deep into truths about racism and how abusive childhoods bleed into adult life, Rutkowski presents the reader with a highly specific and often terrifying landscape that is universally accessible.

The specificity of coming from a Polish father and Chinese mother, as Thaddeus does, does not narrow the scope of this work but instead expands it. Rutkowski attempts to show that people of mixed race often fit in nowhere and spend their entire lives searching for identity:

I wanted to join an Asian fraternity. I wanted to visit a house during Rush Week and meet the brothers. I wanted twenty Asian guys to come to my door unannounced and say, “We’ve chosen you.” I wanted the young men to reveal the secrets of their society, the rituals that would link us for life. I wanted to pledge my brotherhood by reciting verses from Li Po and Tu Fu. I didn’t find anything like an Asian fraternity. I did, however, find a math club that had many Asian members.

This displays one of the highlights of Rutkowski’s novel: his skill at presenting stereotypes and ignorance with humor, as in this instance as well: “When he met me, my roommate said, ‘I heard your name and thought you’d look like a football player. But you look more like the cook on Bonanza.’”

Part of Rutkowski’s allure as an author is his ability to relate horrific information through a nearly unaffected voice:

My father made a series of paintings of my sister. I didn’t see him working on them; I saw only the finished products. The canvases stood on the floor in my father’s workroom, next to a window filled with bottles we’d dug from the dump. In one painting only the back of my sister’s head was visible—her hair was smooth and black. She was looking out a wood-framed window at a landscape. In another scene the back of her nude body is shown. Two careful brushstrokes defined her buttocks. She was standing in front of the same window, looking out . . . He didn’t ask me to comment on the paintings.

Individually the forty-nine short chapters read fast and dream-like, like abstract prose poems, seemingly without plot or direction (or even character names for that matter). Each chapter shows Thaddeus as older than in the last, yet Haywire achieves a unique structure where chronology is more intuitive than actual. Names and ages and exact locations take a backseat to the tone and immediacy of the situations described by the narrator. Somehow Rutkowski does not confuse or mislead the reader with his strange chronology and gives all the information needed to follow this unconventional plotline.

The novel can be divided into three parts: Thaddeus’s abusive and confusing childhood, his college years, and his adult life, full of unemployment, pot smoking, and sex addiction. In the forty-seventh chapter (“What we had in Common”), Thaddeus meets his future wife, and in the last chapter (“Night Journeys”), Rutkowski leads the reader through a series of waking dreams:

On my way up the mountain, I find the slope is not only steep, it’s vertical. There’s a steel ladder I can hold on to, but even when I’m holding on, I’m afraid of falling. I look for a place to rest, a flat area where I can get off the ladder. But I don’t see any ledges wide enough to stand on. Moving sideways would lead to empty air. So I keep climbing.

Spanning almost four decades, Thaddeus’s story becomes clear once the book is finished: It is a long road to feeling right in one’s own skin, especially when that skin doesn’t know anything else exactly like it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © RainTaxi, Inc. 2011