Kennedy’s characters are smart, full of want, significantly flawed, scared, yet often hopeful. Readers can’t help but be touched by the clarity
and generosity that are the hallmarks of Kennedy’s
very literary and very human stories.
—Linda Swanson-Davies, Co-editor, Glimmer Train
Reviews: Cast Upon the Day
Excerpts From Reviews:
Cast Upon the Day
Meet the main characters running round here, 11 of them, each at his busting point: Jack Lynch, Bill Gurb, Jazz Jastovic, Charlie Feuk, Mickey Jung, Thomas Brighton, Fin Finley … With irony and humor, their minds and lives are laid bare for us to follow as one goes mad from the music in his head, another tears his house down onto his own head, another takes off from the IRS with a bagful of C notes … Enter these pages and join this wild melee. You might meet someone you know. You might even catch a glimpse of yourself.
—From cover of Cast Upon the Day
It is this theme [the soft gleam of the comical] running through Kennedy’s latest collection of short stories that does for our time something akin to what Flaubert did for his.
—Robert Gover, author of One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding
The eleven stories in Kennedy’s Cast Upon the Day are tales of love lost and found again, the goodness in forgiveness, how a life can be saved by a subtle gesture of caring, how death and grief can bring people closer, how in the midst of death and longing we find reasons for our own losses, our own failures, but also reasons to go on. At times devastating, poignant, uncompromising, and unfailingly insightful and wise about things human, sometimes leading us to truths we might rather not see — truth in all its splendor!
—Duff Brenna, author of The Book of Mamie, The Willow Man, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body, and The Holy Book of the Beard
Cast Upon the Day
“The Soft Gleam of the Comical”
»» An Essay-Review by Robert Gover, author of One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding
In an article published in The New Yorker Magazine (October 9, 2006), Milan Kundera defines a quality possessed by true literary artists. He uses the example of Frederic in Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” coming home from an evening with his beloved Madame Arnoux to stand in front of his mirror, for a full minute, admiring himself. “In that precise unit of time,” writes Kundera, “there is the whole enormity of the scene. (Frederic) lingers, he gazes, finds himself handsome. For a whole minute. Without budging. He is in love, but he is not thinking about the woman he loves, so dazzled is he by his own self. He gazes at the mirror. But he does not see himself looking into the mirror (as Flaubert sees him). He is enclosed in his lyric self and is unaware that the soft gleam of the comical has settled over him and his love.”
Kundera’s point is that the true literary artist, even when dealing with details which may be straight out of his own life, does not write autobiography but is separated from himself and able to “see that self from a distance, astonished to find that he is not the person he thought he was.” Realizing this, “he will know that nobody is the person he thinks he is, that this misapprehension is universal, elementary, and that it casts on people … the soft gleam of the comical.”
That phrase “the soft gleam of the comical” is what distinguishes each of the short stories in Kennedy’s most recent collection, Cast Upon the Day. Although Kennedy’s characters are middle-class, middle-aged males with lives that might be based on bits and pieces of his own, he never fails to show us the misapprehension that lifts his characters from autobiography to art. In this time when there is a virtual prohibition against creating characters racially or ethnically different than the author, Kennedy quietly crosses that invisible line into the art of fiction. And this enables him to show us simultaneously his characters’ self-absorption and the character as Kennedy intends we perceive him. These simultaneous perceptions — the character’s of himself and the author’s of the character thus absorbed — lift Kennedy’s short stories above the ordinary, and deliver rich comedy and irony.
Kennedy has developed this skill to an amazingly high degree, this ability to alternate between his character’s external situation (the others around him, what they are saying and doing) and his character’s internal interpretations, memories, musings, fantasies, fears, and a third angle: the one the author shares with his readers. This technique enables him to explore those ineffable moments that evade articulation but that we recognize as part of our shared reality. Which, in turn, reminds us that some things are beyond the capacity of language to capture, that there are subtleties only cornered by an artful interplay of viewpoints.
In the first of this collection, “Years in Kaldar,” Jack Lynch and his wife Evelyn are on the cusp of a nasty fight in the opening. In response to her insults, Jack
nodded, smirked to himself, kept his mouth shut, aware from experience that she would run down in fifteen or twenty minutes if only he could keep from fueling her wrath. Actually, it was not bad spiritual exercise. And it was interesting to be privy to such negative observations about oneself. She criticized his appearance, his occupation, his family, his character, personality, and general behavior. He listened to the things she said, thought about them. The only danger was if he accidentally listened to her voice itself, instead of just the words; the sound of the voice, the loud, hard, constant substance, the grainy smoked-menthol texture of it could infiltrate his peace, rouse him into her game. Then he would be on his feet, shouting lies, distortions, vulgarities, or worse, concealed truths, things from which he had meant to protect her, things her mother had said behind her back, or veiled slights forwarded by the boss from his wife, or his own observations of how she had conducted herself at some party or function. When these rages took hold of him, he didn’t know himself. He paced, grinned malevolently, struck for blood, pain. If she began to cry, he bore down harder. Sometimes he stood watching her, thinking that if she came close enough, he might do something, lash out with his knuckles, the back of his hand, lunge for her, could feel his eyes wide open, fascinated by his own meanness.
As this story progresses, we learn that Jack is cheating on Evelyn with a girlfriend, inadvertently following in his father’s footsteps while wanting to make sure his children do not do the same. By the end, when Jack loses control, we cannot entirely fault him, Evelyn, the girlfriend, the children or anyone else. It is, in a sense, a situational cauldron. We cannot say that Jack or Evelyn could have handled the situation differently. Given the essential nature of each, each did what had to be done.
In “Cast Upon the Day,” Kennedy begins with another fairly mundane situation: Flood is one of three managers at a conference with their CEO. Flood’s mind is on his son, a junior in high school. Kennedy gradually shows us a parallel between Flood’s attitude toward his CEO and his son’s attitude toward Flood. He is a yes man anxious for the meeting to end so he can attend to more pleasant matters. His son, he discovers, has been dealing with him the same way. But Kennedy is careful to show us that this is no simple “attitude toward authority” thing. The situation Flood finds himself in on his job has surprising kinship with the situation he has lovingly created for his son.
Today, many believe film has eclipsed prose narrative as the dominant storytelling medium. In this collection of short stories, Kennedy reminds us that written stories can take us where film cannot: deep into the psyche of a lead character in ways that sharply delineate that character, giving us nuances that cannot be communicated by the most skilled actor.
In “Gurb’s Plunge,” Professor Bill Gurb, a widower whose wife recently died, is vacationing on a Greek Island where his family enjoyed happiness in past years.
At the table across, a young blond girl whose figure, in the Fifties, would have been considered stylish sits alone nibbling dry toast. She seems to be looking in his direction. He bows to his melon before looking up again to find her gaze elsewhere.
Professor Gurb is having none of it, this hint of a vacation romance.
The children are grown now with families of their own, and he is two notches short of sixty. The years that remain to him he plans to use developing serenity. Passion no longer interests him. Good riddance.
Although Kennedy telegraphs this spring-autumn affair a-building, there is no way to predict the kicker, as the young blond girl becomes a potent character in her own right. On the surface “Gurb’s Plunge” is a mundane love story, but it’s in the story’s subsurface that Kennedy’s talent shines.
The subsurface in “A Cheerful Death” begins with paranoia. Jastovic is not answering his phone or responding to his doorbell because he’s evading the IRS which he knows, or thinks he knows, is out to get him. It’s his beliefs that have him trapped.
He knows this is unwise, unpatriotic, illegal, practically sacrilegious, but he has his reasons. And as surely as he knows the Revenue Man (or Woman) at the door will be indifferent to those reasons, he also knows that they are morally unimpeachable. The thing is if he opens the door now, he will cease to be happy. And it is his duty to be happy. It is his sacred responsibility to live and be happy because what he knows full well, and the Revenue Man (or Woman) only has a partial and unsatisfactory grasp of, is that while it is true Jastovic has cheated (yes, he must confess, cheated is the correct word) on his last three returns, it is also true that he had enjoyed rare and virtually irrefutable offshore business opportunities to do so, and equally true that he is fifty-nine years old and has already lived at least two-thirds of his life and very likely a good deal more, and it would be an insufferable affront to the indefatigably friendly cells and fluids that have so kindly united and developed and propelled him through the years to force them into the unhealthy atmosphere of a prison cell for the relatively little time remaining them in the unity they have so kindly achieved in the form of the body that is him, Richard Jastovic — to his friends known as Jazz, to his CEO and Executive Board as Yestovic.
No matter how far he travels or what delightful encounters he has, there is no way Jazz can escape this trap of his own design, and by the end the worst he can imagine threatens.
Kennedy’s characters are more than examples of the classical “fatal flaw,” however, for it is his unique and highly developed use of viewpoint that shows us the soft gleam of the comical in each. Thus revealed, each epitomizes an aspect of the 21st Century male’s situation in post-industrialized society. It is this theme running through Kennedy’s latest collection of short stories that does for our time something akin to what Flaubert did for his.
Cast Upon the Day
»» A review by Duff Brenna, author of The Book of Mamie, The Willow Man, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body, and The Holy Book of the Beard
Thomas E. Kennedy’s Cast Upon the Day is a book detailing the multiple layers of love. There are several stories regarding moral ambiguity and the never-ending betrayals of Self and those we care most deeply about — wives, children, lovers. There is often an obsessive need to find redemption for acts of disloyalty. Memories of deceitful behavior become a whispering chorus accompanying casual tragedies, for which the character (usually a man) blames himself. At times Kennedy’s stories sear the guilty heart and remind us of the myriad ways we can go either towards a larger life, or, lemming-like, plunge into failure and self-flagellation.
In “Gurb’s Plunge,” we find Gurb on Cyprus searching for respite from the loss of his wife of thirty-five years. She is dead and he is old and trying to reconcile himself to aging and the terrible fact that you can’t go home again, that nothing will ever be the same as it was. The married-with-children phase is behind him, while ahead are decisions to be made about a future that is sadly uncertain. Gurb talks himself into acting the man by climbing a tower and doing a bungee jump. So frightened he thinks he might lose control of his bodily functions, Gurb nevertheless leaps into the air, thereby metaphorically leaping into a life that will be more risky than he imagines. A woman half his age has watched him jump, and he finds her turning up again and again. Perhaps she is stalking him. He tries to avoid her. He tells himself that passion no longer interests him. But try as he might not to fall under her spell, Gurb finds himself having drinks with her and realizes that they have an affinity of mind that goes beyond mere physical attraction. Or seems to. Kennedy doesn’t let the sentimental side of the story take over. He leaves the reader pulling for Gurb, while also knowing the gathering romance can’t possibly last. Or can it?
There is a lot of cheating going on in some of these stories. Women cheating on men and vice versa, but also the Self-cheating-Self. Often there is a better life within reach, but the character, burdened with the baggage of his past indiscretions, won’t make the ultimate or final effort to claim it. He will continue to do what Hawthorne said of Melville: continue to wander to and fro in these deserts.
In “Years in Kalder,” Jack cheats on his wife. Somehow she knows. She lashes out at him, her pain and hatred palpable. She is one of the insulted and injured, one of those women whose husbands have said, in effect, you’re not enough. When Jack tells himself later that he doesn’t want the life he has, he means that he doesn’t want to repeat the cycle of estrangement he witnessed with his own parents, who were driven by passions pulling them in opposite directions. Jack, in his need to feel fully alive, is compelled toward an abyss that he fears, but continues to court.
In “A Cheerful Death,” the IRS hunts an income tax cheater. He leaves the east coast for Las Vegas and high living, spending his ill-gotten gains. Kennedy gives us a humorous, ironic, on-the-run story of a man determined to be cheerful in a world full of fractured, uncaring people. The cheater is determined to cheat the demoralizing effect of simply being alive in a world where the products of nature, whether human or otherwise, couldn’t be more indifferent to him and his troubles, couldn’t care less if he laughs or cries, whether he feels pain, or whether he lives or dies. Cheerfully he bears it all and cheerfully he thumbs his nose at the way of the universe and actually finds a way to get the unmoved vastness of the void to pay attention. It’s a funny story if you like dark humor.
In “South American Getaway,” a song looping through a man’s head is, to him, filled with a mysterious message: Getaway! But from what to what, he wonders. It’s a fine lament over how aging will physically defeat us and leave us with a few uncertain memories of our uncertain but often glamorized youth.
The title story, “Cast Upon the Day,” is set in a corporate meeting room, managers sitting around the table listening to some executive blathering on and on. Mr. Flood recalls his much-beloved son who has lived with Flood since he and his wife broke up. Flood thinks he and his son have a special relationship, an intimate, sympathetic understanding. A bond that makes them sensitive to each other, the way that fathers and sons should be. “But … how very many times … [has Flood known] something that he actually doesn’t know?” Which in Flood’s case is a son leading a secret life that undermines and disrespects everything Flood stands for.
“The Pleasure of Man and Woman Together on Earth” asks the question: Is love an illusion that grows of loneliness and desire, or does it truly exist? In “Fellow Travelers,” the main character wants desperately to remain a part of his ex-wife’s life even though he is married to someone else. These are stories of love lost and found again, the goodness in forgiveness, how a life can be saved by a subtle gesture of caring, how death and grief can bring people closer, how in the midst of death and longing we find reasons for our own losses, our own failures, but also reasons to go on. Everywhere we find empty heads suddenly awakened as to how they’ve ruined their own lives, and though it is their fault it is also the way of the world — the bacteria of failure are waiting to make an assault on anyone who lets passion rule over reason, as most of us do.
Devastating at times, poignant, uncompromising, Kennedy’s stories are unfailingly insightful and wise about things human. There is a hard-won wisdom, the product of experience within the cauldron of life. These are stories with the potential to change the way one looks at the sometimes self-destructive behavior found in everyday lives, the vagaries and vacillations that lead us to truths we would rather not see. Truth with a lower case t is always the end product. Varitatis splendor.