This review first appeared in the Albany Times Union (August 11, 2001)
Hilarious, loving characters in ‘Honeymooners’
Chuck Kinder’s first novel since “The Silver Ghost,” in 1978, “Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale” ($24; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 358 pages), is a hilarious, yet unflinching, eyes-against-the-windshield journey through years of booze, drugs, sex, friendships, lies and betrayals in the lives of a pair of promising young writers.
The freewheeling 1970s that Kinder recreates, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area, belong within the literary tradition of the moveable feast Hemingway created out of Paris in the ’20s. Kinder’s writers, Ralph Crawford and Jim Stark, live “like bold outlaw authors on the lam from that gloomy tedium called ordinary life.” Kinder both celebrates and sends up their bravura and recklessness.
We don’t see Ralph and Jim hunched over typewriters struggling with their craft. We see them swaggering, macho and extreme, picking up women at bars, drinking heavily, smoking pot and letting their experiences provide material for their fictions. Ralph gets investigated for taking unemployment benefits while working as an adjunct professor. Jim does drug deals with a shadowy character named Shorty.
Though their misadventures and the narrator’s habit of telling the story from different character’s points of view, including minor characters, can make the transition from one chapter to the next feel disjointed, that is easily forgiven considering the breadth of territory Kinder covers and his facility with language.
Details like the subtle recreation of Jim’s West Virginia accent by using the word “shore” for “sure” enliven the writing. You trust that you are in the hands of great storyteller. Kinder makes us care for these flawed, conflicted and complex writers.
Ralph wants to put his house in order, but he worries his wife will run off with some kind of low-life biker and he distrusts his children, whom he never mentions by name. He refers to them as his “thieving children.”
Jim wants to be a dad, and he even puts himself through a funny, though agonizing, series of events in which he tries, fails, but eventually succeeds in producing a specimen so his sperm count can be tested. But Jim’s impetus to fatherhood is so he can teach his son “important stuff. How to hot-wire a car. The ancient art of sucker punching. How to case a joint. How to be cool. You know, important stuff.”
These dual desires – literary fame and a happy home life – thrust Ralph and Jim into complicated marriages, sordid affairs, drunken binges and lies to each other, their wives, their girlfriends and themselves, which reveal the darkness of the soul, the suffering and pain that is often behind great comedy.
Kinder takes us through all the unhappy, uncomfortable arguments, whether its Ralph and his wife, Alice Ann, fighting about money or his indiscretions, or Jim and his first wife, Judy, agreeing to let her have an affair in the open. Despite their bravado, Ralph and Jim are haunted men. Ralph can’t escape his dead father’s alcoholism, and Jim sees reflections of his own face as a “death mask” and a “ghostly dead ringer of himself.”
It’s a painful irony that their quests for literary immortality remind them of their own mortality. But this dark humor permeates the novel, reminding us that the world of the “outlaw author” is gone and has been replaced by a difficult publishing climate, in which MFA programs are becoming more professional as publishers are becoming fewer.
On another level, that sense of loss is amplified by the clues Kinder gives us that his Ralph stands for his real-life friend, the late poet and master short story writer Raymond Carver. Descriptions of Ralph’s short stories eerily mirror real fictions written by Carver. But these details are more than just a postmodern game.
By evoking Carver and blurring fact and fiction, Kinder highlights the world in which Ralph and Jim live. The two writers exist with dreams, stories and lies that seem to constantly change with their circumstances. Then there’s the story behind the novel.
Kinder worked on “Honeymooners” for years, and it became an uncontrollable beast, exceeding two thousand pages. At that time, Michael Chabon, a former student, used Kinder as a model for the pot-smoking writing professor Grady Tripp in his novel “Wonderboys,” which became a movie of the same title with Michael Douglas as Grady.
But not knowing this history, the novel can still be enjoyed for Kinder’s hard, loving look at his characters, the demons that possess them, their capacity to endure and their hopeful belief in new beginnings.
More than a series of tall tales, Kinder shows us a window into the heart of the struggling artist.