GONE TOMORROW, PF. Kluge’s latest gift to readers begins with an introduction written by Mark May, who is a young English professor at a small midwestern liberal arts college. In its initial pages, Mark proceeds to tell us about the late George Canaris, recent victim of a hit-and-run. Canaris had just retired from a thirty-year career teaching writing, a job he landed because of one of his two novels was included in a list of the one hundred greatest novels of all time. Mark, recently arrived on campus, is way out of Canaris’s league and barely knew him. But Mark has been named in the great writer’s will as his literary executor. Shouldn’t be too hard as Canaris only published three books altogether decades ago, but here’s the rub: Canaris had once been given a very large advance for a new novel, The Beast, that he purportedly had been slaving over, and his long-suffering editor under pressure from the publisher wants to know where the hell it is. Does it even exist? Did it ever?
The conceit Kluge uses to begin the novel is unorthodox. It’s not easy to have a reader accept that there exists a go-between setting things up before allowing you to read the actual book. My heretofore favorite example of the master-of-ceremonies character is the “translator” who opens Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden. I love this. (Confession: I am presently writing a fictional memoir introduced by a professor who found the memoirist’s papers along with a couple of other goodies in a zinc-lined box. Please god, between Kluge’s book and the publication of my own, do not let another writer attempt this.)
I’m around ten pages into the book when I am no longer laughing to myself but rather aloud. Mark is bitching about a new edition of Shakespeare that offers a guide to teachers to encourage their students to think, graciously relieving the professor of this duty which is, of course, why we have professors in the first place: “Was King Lear a little too proud? If so, was it a father’s pride or a king’s? Is there anyone in your family like King Lear?” I immediately felt a need to respond, “No, but my older sister likes to watch old guys get their eyes gouged out.”
All relaxed by Mark, the reader sits back to enjoy George Canaris’s discourse on his life which began in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia in 1938, and how he ended up astonishinglyat the little Ohio campus where he will remain till he dies. (P.F. Kluge has been writer in residence at Kenyon College forever, not that we should presume that this book demonstrates what it’s really like at Kenyon since it’s a novel.) He serves up great flashbacks to his family’s history and flight from Europe, his time in LA; the death of the love of his life. The academic life would seem an ideal situation for Canaris: secluded campus without distractions to his writing; just a few classes to expound on writing; summers off to sightsee with prostitutes as an attraction whose services he pays for while he gets over the lost love until he finds a couple of women he likes a lot and whose travel expenses he pays for; a few talented students; a zillion mediocre ones who don’t particularly tax him, none driven by the passion and psychotic drive necessary to bring about publication and maybe even money beyond the joke known as an “advance.” (The public perception of an advance is of an amount that only goes to writers like Canaris.)
But with his cushion, Canaris is perhaps wasting his promise (here today, Gone Tomorrow) because The Beast does not raise its head. Beyond Girlfriend A, and later Girlfriend B, and a few friends who are more boring than television game show panelists elderly professors with their small-town gossipy takes on various administrators and a couple of townies, that’s his life. Meanwhile, an anonymous former student leaves Canaris a threatening note and a hundred pages later someone appears parked on his street late at night with the headlights left on and throws something. Why Kluge wanted to have this particular gun in the drawer, I couldn’t figure out. Canaris carries on, leaves the reader clues as to where The Beast might be, interacts with characters who may or may not know the mystery behind the book, and then as we learned in Mark’s introduction, he’s killed.
So all of the above answers the question: What’s this book about? Which a reviewer is required to answer since a review is a consumer report, unlike literary criticism. But what a book is about has never interested me. Gone Tomorrow, like all really good books, isn’t about anything. Who said it should be? It is a revelation a window into human nature what you get when a terrific writer peels back life as we know it and shows us we’re all blind as bats.
I met P.F. Kluge, also known as Fred, in DC at the 30th (35th ?) Peace Corps anniversary party. I sat next to him at a lunch hosted by John Coyne for former Volunteers who came to be writers. I would have flirted with Fred but my husband was on the other side of me and John was directly across. There were two people at table who said they weren’t writers. We didn’t know who they were. Maybe they weren’t even former Peace Corps Volunteers. It was getting a little surreal (just the way Kluge’s new book can get), except for the waitress who was a bit testy. She didn’t like us. Someone ordered a glass of seltzer and she said, “Seltzer. What might that be?” So I hooked a thumb at Fred and said to her, “Ya know, this guy wrote Eddie and the Cruisers and it was made into a movie.” With that, she fell all over us and gave us whatever we wanted without griping. Lucky us to have had Fred there. Lucky everyone to have his fabulous body of work and now a new novel to devour. No, nibble at. No, devour.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) has written eight novels including the Poppy Rice Mysteries, an acclaimed memoir, Girls of Tender Age, and perhaps the first Peace Corps novel, Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman. Her new book, Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery, written in collaboration with her son Jere Smith, came out in time for the 2008 World Series. She is working on a Civil War novel.