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SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

The Point Is to Persist

[Falling Sideways
by Thomas E. Kennedy]

A Review by Duff Brenna

Bloomsbury worldwide (2011)

Cover of Falling Sideways, by Thomas E. Kennedy

Thomas E. Kennedy’s latest novel is volume two in a series called The Copenhagen Quartet. Each volume is independent of its predecessor, no weaving of characters through one story after another a la Updike and his “Rabbit Sequence.” The novels that comprise Kennedy’s cycle are set in separate seasons. The first, entitled In the Company of Angels, is set in summer and has been hailed as Kennedy’s “masterpiece” and rightly so. It is a timely novel that gives us the inside story on torture and what it is like to be a survivor. The book came out last year to the kind of star-studded reviews that gave many of us high expectations for volume two, Falling Sideways, which describes the fates of a dozen distinctly-drawn characters that live and work in Copenhagen.

Falling Sideways is a semi-satirical, comical, sober, droll, sometimes rollicking, sometimes bitterly somber story of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, wives, husbands, lovers—Americans, Danes—and their conflicting visions of what life is about—anything? The young adults in this novel want nothing to do with the world their parents have built for them, a world blindly binding them to a gorging materialism, a preoccupation with sex (bizarre, kinky, “normal”), and an egocentric callousness that generally doesn’t acknowledge the needs of others, especially if they’re not family. Familiar territory for those of us watching our political system unravel a gasping, drowning middle class in favor of those who have financial wherewithal, who have clout. Kennedy is telling the same story, only in microcosm. The unraveling is set within a corporation called “the Tank,” where the workers have all been reduced to numbers, the human component scarcely recognized by their CEO superior. But it should be mentioned that the book also has large dollops of caring and sympathy and kindness. It has heartlessness, but it has heart as well. Humanity at its worse; humanity at its best. The real world. The world we experience in all its limitless measures if we live long enough and don’t recuse ourselves to the sidelines. A huge temptation for many in these down-all-the-days we live in.

A section of the Philip Larkin epigraph at the beginning of Falling Sideways says: …we should be careful/ Of each other, we should be kind/ While there is still time. That verse quotation becomes a theme woven into the fabric of the entire novel. Sections of it describe how we are often pitiless and hurtful to each other and how we misjudge one another and how we use those misjudgments to further our own agendas. We dream dreams that tilt toward nightmares because we willfully disregard tolerance and compassion in favor of getting whatever it is we think we want. The price we pay is self-loathing, anvils of guilt and a continuously fragmenting grasp on relationships filled with centers that “cannot hold.”

One of the main protagonists, Harald Jaeger, a common man, decent enough, but also a “skirt chaser,” loses his wife, Vita, and his children partly because of his wandering ways. Harald can’t help it; he loves beauty in all forms. He loves beautiful women best of all. After the collapse of his marriage he goes to a psychologist who is not very sympathetic:

I feel so fucking guilty.
So feel guilty for a moment, then move on. The guilt helps no one. Learn from it.
But I did a terrible thing. To marry a woman I didn’t love was…
The mistake of a confused man. Move on.
But the babies…
As a very wise man once said, Harald: Shit happens. Move on.

But he can’t move on. His little girls are rooted in him now. They are necessary to the very life of his soul, and they haunt him like dream fragments, “the unreal real.” A life that he thought was temporary because he married a woman he didn’t love, now clings to him incontestably, simply because he loves his babies and misses them, at times tragically; well, tragic to him, anyway. His lawyer tells him he should let them go. They are four and six, which is young enough to forget him and make a life with a new “Daddy.” And he, Harald, will cease to be encumbered by his attachment to his children and through them a life-long connection to his ex-wife. He realizes that had he not left his wife, “he might have…no, he would have died slowly and with greater, all-consuming pain.” There might be times when the reader will want to say: Oh, Harald knock off the maudlin stuff, the self-pity, and get on with living, but of course, he won’t listen to the reader, nor the hard dose of reality from his lawyer.

One day when he goes to pick up the girls for an outing, the ex won’t let him in. She says she knows he bathed the girls the last time they were with him. He says of course he bathed them. They needed bathing because they got muddy at the park. Vita says, “They do not need to have you undressing them and…you disgust me.” Of course he hasn’t done anything wrong, nor would he ever, but once accused of such behavior there is only impotent denial and rage to fall back on. She slams the door. He rings the bell and knocks and yells. She can’t do this to him! How dare she accuse him of…of something so heinous! Her father answers the door. The two men argue. Then:

…the door slammed on his little finger. He yelled out with pain. The door opened a crack, and Frank muttered, “Sorry,” then slammed it again and the finger was caught once more. Jaeger bellowed, and the door opened a crack so he could pull his finger free. “Sorry,” Frank muttered again and shut the door.

Cursing mightily, Harald holds his broken finger while tears of shame roll from his eyes. The scene is both darkly funny and painfully touching, as are many of the scenes throughout the novel.

Kennedy’s imagery is laden with sex and lots of thinking about sex, but none of it gratuitous. Nothing particularly titillating or self-indulgent, more of an exploration or, better yet, a meditation on sex. One can see the author trying to make sense of what is, next to eating and drinking, the single most powerful compulsion humans have, at least while their imagination is still able to conjure what their hormones demanded when they were young and able. The sex scenes do what sex scenes in literary novels should do: they advance the plot, they deepen our understanding of the characters, letting us into their secret lives, adding to our knowledge of them, their quirks, their obsessions, their conscience or lack of conscience, the way such experiences do in the world outside an author’s insights, his encounters, his intuition.

In an early chapter we meet a seventeen-year-old named Adam Kampman (perhaps borrowed from Adam Kadman, a Gnostic primordial First Man, created as a symbol of sexual desire?). Adam is hormone driven, a virgin who, like most boys his age, cannot get sex out of his mind. Sex obsesses his dreams and every waking moment, even in church, God forbid! He envies the dead rotting in boxes in the earth unable to feel the afflictions of lust. “He envied them. Free forever. Forever.” Strolling along the street he sees a couple walking lazily, arms slung across each other’s shoulders. And:

The woman’s palm drifted down to the man’s ass and squeezed it. Adam slowed his pace to watch, felt himself get stiff, thought, Oh no! and…speeded up to get past them, away.

Oh no! punctuates the Adam Kampman chapters. The rage of his loins engulfs him like a curse, a giggling Eros. Tabloids at the newsstand beckon. Girly magazines discarded on a park bench glitter as he walks by. He circles back and grabs them. He opens one called The Devil’s Scrapbook. A naked woman stares into his eyes. The eyes say: I know who you are. I know what you want. I know you and all your secrets.

At home in bed, he finally gives in and pleasures himself and ends up disgusted:

That’s all it was. Those few moments. Then the gloom. Disgust. Here in his bed. In this room. This cage. As his time alone, his little eternity, evaporated.

At one point poor Adam even wonders if he’s gay because he imagines there is a snake under his bed, a phallic symbol. “What did it mean?” Kennedy’s fast-paced scenes with Adam send us forward at the speed of the boy’s mind trying to escape from a labyrinth of erotic fantasies, the body’s rudimentary needs. The body as flesh running on chemistry, angels on one shoulder, demons on the other, both sides prompting, while Adam keeps helplessly repeating the phrase—Oh no!

One morning his depression is so deep, he can’t get out of bed. His mother knocks on the door and says, “What’s wrong, honey? Can I come in?” “No! Don’t!” he tells her. “I’ve got a stomachache. I couldn’t sleep all night.” “Shall I call the doctor?” Of course he doesn’t want a doctor. He wants—release! Kennedy eventually finds ways to mitigate the devilish torture, but the stamp of authenticity bringing to life this throbbing, hormonal teen is familiar and unmistakable. Many male readers will nod knowingly, and perhaps with sympathy smile and say, “I wouldn’t go back to those days, not for anything!”

From the first pages of Falling Sideways to the end, one hears echoes of Tolstoy telling us at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are similar; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Kennedy’s multi-layered plotting, Tolstoy’s quote might be rewritten to say something like: “All functional families are similar; each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own destructive way.” All of them bedeviled by husbands or wives, lovers or bosses, children or mothers or fathers who have their own agendas and find themselves almost always at cross purposes, all of them in a hurry, all of them feeling the crushing swiftness of time passing. The character Brigitte Sommer sums up the general feeling in three short sentences: “Where was the time? Soon I’ll be 40, 41. So where was the time that was?”

In the course of the book time also haunts a man named Frederick Breathwaite, a character every bit as compelling as Adam and Harald and Brigitte. All of Kennedy’s characters seem to leap off the page so fully realized it’s as if he’s writing a composite memoir of his own life, rather than fiction. Breathwaite works for a company that wants new blood. Older men like Breathwaite need to retire, need to get out of the way. His new boss, Martin Kampman, the CEO hatchet man and Adam’s father, gives Breathwaite notice. Breathwaite is so devastated that he eventually decides to commit suicide. He loads a rifle and thinks of Hemingway. He thinks of all the blood gushing out of his head and his wife having to see it. He can’t do that to her, so he unloads the rifle and goes out on the balcony to jump off, make it look like he slipped and fell. “Let the city clean the bloody pavement. He’d already paid for more than that in taxes.” But then he imagines:

An ether rises from the mess. The essence of you, but not the you you know as you. That you was a mere shell and a surface. Disposable wrapper. You knew nothing of the infinity you bore in the capsule of your body, for you wasted your life on superficial trivialities. Gone gone gone the chance you had. …Be gone faint heart. Pale fire. Lukewarm you. Spewed from your own mouth. Judge, jury, defendant, and executioner in a single step over the wall and down Whoosh!

It’s a moment of truth. And Breathwaite knows now what Joseph Conrad knew—that we all are defined by moments of truth. To be or not to be is immensely larger than the mere question of suicide. It takes in and sums up all we ever were and who we are now and who we will be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Breathwaite leaves us breathless as Kennedy minutely describes the inner workings, the convolutions of a mind planning its own extinction. It is an enlightening trip, Freudian in the best sense of the word—exploratory, analytical, in tune with the times, in tune with the man and the millions who have grown too old and lost their jobs in the midst of a Great Recession that feels like a personal failure, a lack of character. Men who need some reason to fight off the apathy closing in on them. Men trying to hold on to life’s brighter promise. Men clinging desperately to faith, hope, optimism.

A few pages earlier, Breathwaite had foretold both the questions and their answers that he would soon be pondering with his rifle in hand and the unforgiving concrete walkway below him. Should he just end it all? Or take pleasure in what is left?

Let your fountain be blessed, take delight in the wife of your youth, let her breasts fill you with pleasure, be entranced always with her…
What is this life?

What asketh man to have?

Now with his love,

Now in his cold grave,

Alone, without company.
For a moment, a split of a moment, Breathwaite thought he was going to weep. But nothing happened… This was life. This was a reason to live. This was an excuse for living.

All the way through Falling Sideways there is a continual uncertainty about what is and what isn’t “proper” behavior. A subtle questioning emanates from characters that have no answers to why they do what they do. Kennedy’s style might be called investigative or groping—probing into a collection of minds whose main connection is that they act (for the most part) impulsively. Very few of their actions seem rationally motivated. Feeling conquers all. They are captured creatures of passions they barely recognize as such, passions they apparently can’t control, not even when they know that what they are doing will rebound negatively and bring them and/or others loads of suffering, loads of guilt. Breathwaite sums up much of the confusion and doubt and wonder the other characters are feeling when he thinks:

We have all come from lovers. For what purpose? To become lovers. Mate. Like mayflies. Ephemerals. Infinite motion. What’s it called? Chain of… No, chain reaction. Cause and effect and cause. What came first, the penis or the egg? Of what fucking use are we?

The implication, of course, is that we are no use at all. Life is ultimately unknowable, a mind-numbing, dazzling dance that has its beginning, its ending. Whoosh!

But what the hell: the booze is good, the cigar is tasty, true love itself is worth living for, isn’t it? Yes, and there is great jazz to listen to, the gourmet pleasure of delicious food, a million wonderful books to read, grand movies, grand art, the starry sky, and the wind and autumn leaves skittering. Luscious, enchanting nature is everywhere and days upon days worth getting out of bed for—so why not persist? Indeed, it all ends soon enough anyway. Sooner than you want. Sooner than you think. So, maybe the best you can do is adhere to Kafka’s famous dictum and “…follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly!”

—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Fall 2011)


SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury