Review Of K.L.
Cook’s Last Call
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/17/06
Some years ago when I used to attend readings around the Twin Cities there was a noted ‘storyteller’ name Loren Niemi who used to give readings all the time. The quotation marks around his profession is because Niemi was not a writer, per se, as much as an old fashioned storyteller, who crafted spoken word tales like the old sages of the tribal era did. And he was a talented craftsman, never failing to, in any of the three or so dozen times I saw him perform about town, have the audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. Literally, people would rear up at the edges of their seats, in anticipation of the coup de grace, the payoff, the climax of the tale. It would come, Niemi would deliver it brilliantly, and then….he would go on….and on….and on, never failing to lose and bore the audience that he had so skillfully captured. The audience would slump back in their seats, lose interest, and many would start conversing to themselves until Niemi, some minutes later, finished his tales with a thud. He had violated one of the truest aphorisms of storytelling: never have your climax occur less than ninety percent of the way into a narrative. How someone who had honed their skills to such a point that they were infallible in an ability to capture an audience, yet then be so utterly oblivious to the corollaries of how to hold the audience, never ceased to baffle me. I spoke with many in the arts community who knew of and had seen Niemi perform and they all agreed with me that his abilities and utter cluelessness in storytelling were a total mystery.
These memories of Niemi’s brief triumphs, but ultimate failures, were with me the whole time I was reading a book of short stories by K.L. Cook called Last Call. That’s because Cook has considerable skills as a storyteller (albeit on paper), yet just as frustrating a tendency to utterly massacre the possibilities of excellence, and perhaps even greatness, as Niemi had. Yet, Cook’s problems are more multivalent than Niemi’s were, as he does not only often go on too long in a tale, but some of the tales are ultimately pointless, the characterizations weak, he has a penchant for the melodramatic, and of simply stating something concisely and brilliantly, only to have it embedded in a larger piece of writing that is utterly superfluous.
Let me deal with the pointlessness aspect of some of the tales. This occurs because the book tries to be a novel in short stories, but Cook is bereft of understanding how to properly structure such a work. There are twelve putative ‘stories’, broken into four sections. The problem is that many of the stories simply cannot stand alone, and therefore become de facto chapters, or filler between the other tales. Yet, as chapters they don’t work either, because Cook does not give the pieces enough grounding with connections to earlier nor later chapters, or ‘stories’. Recently, I read a book of nine interlocking stories that worked marvelously as stand alone tales and as a novel in short stories, called Ernie’s Ark, by Monica Wood [LINK]. There are moments in Cook’s book that are every bit as well written as Wood’s work, but Cook fundamentally doesn’t understand the role structure can play in making or breaking an otherwise interesting tale, as he sometimes errs the way Niemi did, by climaxing his tales too early. Yet, he is not some talentless PC Elitist hack, but his tales all conform to the worst of MFA workshop formulae. Not coincidentally, the book’s dust jacket declaims Cook as a creative writing teacher at a small college in Arizona. To use the parlance of that oeuvre; Cook has potential, but he’s yet to find his voice. The skills he demonstrates in this book are almost totally subsumed by a slavish conformity to banal structure.
Let me now go section by section, and story by story:
Section 1: Nature’s Way
Easter Weekend: This is the first tale of this section, which is set in 1958, and introduces us to a family of the Texas panhandle. There is a father, mother, two daughters- Gloria and Laura, and three sons- Manny, Rich and Gene. Basically, this tale acts as a setup to the book as a whole, rather than a stand alone tale. We have some mysterious goings on that portrays the clan as having secrets- one of which results in the oldest daughter Gloria leaving the house, and another ending in violence toward the mother, possibly entailing the family’s dog, as well as an end that is at once unsatisfying, and larded with clichés. The tale is likewise filled with the banal, such as ‘painful silence’ and ‘darknesses’. Yet, there are some nice touches that show the Cook can sketch and individuate characters well, even if the mechanics of narrative are not mastered. There is not enough revealed to engage the reader in the larger story, yet too much of the commonplace and unneeded lesser details. The former point especially hurts the story if meant to stand alone, for it does not. It is wholly dependent upon what will come next. After reading this ‘chapter’ I was wondering whether the ‘sections’ were really the stories, and this just a subsection.
Nature’s Way: In this tale there is tension between the parents over one of their dogs who is giving birth. The mother kills one of its pups, gets violent, kills some more pups, and is eventually shot by the father. Just the last sentence would lead one to believe this was a good tale, but it’s not. While it’s a bit more self-contained than the first story it also suffers from the trite, in descriptions and narrative, even as it follows Anton Chekhov’s advice to be brutal to one’s characters. He recommended this so the reader could empathize, yet that’s this tale’s fatal flaw. The human characters, so far sketched in the first two tales, and even just this, if read by itself, evoke no sympathy. They read like soulless Steinbeckian rejects, and the prose, in this story, feels even more hamstrung and bound by artificial workshop prohibitions.
Gone: Thus far the simplest tale. The mother leaves her family. There’s some nice symbolism involving a lightning struck tree, but this tale is the least fully developed. It suffers the most from the reader needing to know what comes before. Without that the tale has gaping holes in continuity and consistency- such as the father’s violent reaction to one of his son’s query as to why their mother left. Yet, even if you see this as having antecedents in the earlier tales it’s still not clear. Is the father a monster? Is the mother psychotic? While we do not need definitive answers a better story, and series of tales, would at least fill in enough about things so a reader would care to ask. These do not, and this is another example of Cook’s inconsistencies- this time in characterization.
Thrumming: In the aftermath of her mother’s abandonment Laura catches her father having sex with a young girl, and is taken with the act, and the feel of warmth in the bed after they leave. Yet, nothing really occurs in this tale, although its end has some poetry, however stale. It is another tale solely for the purpose of setting up later tales that portray Laura’s screwed up love life as having stemmed from her mother’s leaving and father’s sexuality- a Freudian stew that exhibits another of Cook’s flaws that thread through the book- a penchant for melodrama over narrative realism. Having recently read Reynolds Price’s descriptions of sex and the body, Cook’s are a downer:
She moved her face closer to the door. Her heart beat in her chest and neck and temples. She felt paralyzed by their laboring. She thought of Fay when she was in heat, the male dogs panting, their tongues dripping.
Cringe-worthy, to say the least. Another flaw reoccurs at the top of page 57, when a reference alludes to an event in an earlier tale, yet the stand alone reader is left scratching their head as to why it’s mentioned, or of import. It is generally best to not give superfluous details in a narrative, and only those that serve the tale or character development. This detail does neither, so its mention is another example of the linked nature of the tales overpowering each of them as single entities.
Thus far, by the end of section one I saw some good things in Cook’s writing, but an absolute obliviousness to crevasse sized flaws in each tale, and the overall book. The tales had moments, but no real psychological depth, as I found in Monica Wood’s Ernie’s Ark. Also, there was a willful mysteriousness attempted that did not pan out, for a lack of explanation is not mystery, just poor storytelling.
Texas Moon: The second cycle moves us up to 1978, and this tale follows Gene, his soon-to-be ex-wife, his brother Rich, and another girl, through a night of drinking that ends up with him sailing his care and passengers off a hospital ramp and into a lake. The biggest problem with this tale is not what plagued the first four, although there are some of those flaws. Rather, it is simply too long, and larded with filler material. At 29 pages in length the heart and meat of the tale really only starts with seven pages left. The first three quarters of the tale, therefore, is just prologue which does little. There are some nice moments, such as this sketch of awkwardness and bravado:
Across the dance floor, Angie leaned over the green felt on the center pool table, a cue stick in her hand, studying her shot. She looked wonderful, wearing the blue cotton captain’s shirt I’d bought her last summer at South Padre Island, her thick black hair done up in a French braid, the way I liked it. It’s a strange thing to see a woman you love and have lived with after not seeing her for four months. It makes you wonder, for one thing, what the hell you are doing piddling around on the floor of The Texas Moon.
We had been separated for about six months, the longest we’d ever been apart. I hadn’t seen her at all in four months because we hadn’t broken up on the best of terms, and she said she was going to file for divorce this time. I felt sure she was bluffing. We’d always been together and, except for a few intervals, I was sure we always would be. At the moment, though, I had about ten good reasons for not wanting to see her, the most important of which was that I owed her money.
But the payoff, at story’s end, is far too melodramatic. Also, Cook does not apply concision to his conversations, either. Good conversations are not merely real conversations, but the essence of a conversation, that offhanded poetry that a character may not realize when pared to its nub. Also, most of his conversations are not vital to the narrative arc. As with the other tales, this one succeeds only marginally if you’ve read what comes before. Without that knowledge its length seems even more pointless, and it is even more chapter-like.
Last Call: Another too long tale (26 pages), filled with melodrama, clichés, and no real point, save to act as a slice of life in oldest sister Gloria’s life. The last page provides no insight and makes this tale read the most chapter-like of all.
Knock Down, Drag Out: Set in 1980, this story follows Rich as he basically kidnaps his soon-to-be-ex-wife. This tale lacks drama and insight, and its few moments of humor are ruined by the fact that many more details make no sense without reading the earlier tales. This is a serious flaw that Cook manifests: he’ll often leave out details needed to connect lesser facts, yet later bury a reader with an orgy of explication of the most obvious feelings because he doesn’t trust his own ability to convey such emotion in simple words, or in passing. Yet, there are some nice turns of phrases, glimmers of deeper characterizations, and moments, and by this point I am really getting angry. I don’t really get angry when I read totally PC garbage, nor the diarrhea of PoMo frauds like Rick Moody, because they have no real talent and show no desire to explore real lives and situations. Cook does, but has such a ham-handed way of doing it.
Simply put, by this point I feel that this book should have been made a novel or more deeply cleft into individual tales, because splitting the difference only highlights Cook’s callowness and limitations as a writer.
Costa Rica: This cycle follows the romantic travails of Laura through the eyes of her son Lee. This tale is set in the early 1970s, and Laura’s husband Neil has a plan to get rich by buying up and ecologically devastating Costa Rica. His plane crashes, the clan worries, and he survives. That essence is rather trite, and nothing really occurs within to differentiate the father’s plight, nor the son’s experience of it, from other such tales. It’s as if this tale were a breather in the book, and its last paragraph is mind-bogglingly trite and melodramatic:
Later that night, in bed, beneath the soft sheets, in the dark, I relive my father’s story again and again. I close my eyes and imagine the kind of darkness he must have experienced, the tall trees looming, the whir of insects, the gurgle of the stream, the breath of exotic animals dangerously close. I listen intently to the night, re-creating it all, as my parents make love in the room next to mine. And the sounds of their lovemaking become the sighs and moans and gentle sobbing of the jungle.
This is absolutely atrocious writing, and a horrible way to end any tale, much less this one. Furthermore, the tale also manifests another flaw in the book- that Cook often tips his narrative hand in throwaway references:
My uncle stays to help the search party while my grandfather immediately flies back from Costa Rica to comfort us and to tell us the brutal truth of the situation. There are rescue crews searching, but, quite frankly, there is very little chance—one in a thousand—of even finding the plane in such impenetrable forests, and even less chance of survival. My grandfather tells us that a DC10 crashed in the jungles several years ago and no one even found the plane. My mother begins to sob uncontrollably, keening, but my grandmother, a Sun Belt Baptist and sometime reader of fortunes, looks my grandfather in the face and calmly tells him, “Neil will not die young. I know it.” We turn to her, expectantly.
We believe her, though she will be wrong.
That last sentence is a stand alone paragraph that gapes at the reader. Its fact is shown to be true later in the book, and in another tale, but serves no purpose whatsoever in this one, for it is never used effectively in the remainder of the tale. It thereby is superfluous in this story, and undercuts the narrative tension and denouement of the later tale Pool Boy.
Breaking Glass: This is the best tale in the book, thus far. Set in 1973-1974, it follows up on the prior tale, but stands alone. It follows the little romantic waltz Lee’s parents do in divorcing, and getting back together, all the while a third player enters and leaves the picture. It is concise- 8 pages- realistic, and disavows melodrama.
Marty: The next tale, set over the last half of the 1970s, chronicles Laura’s abusive second marriage to the titular character. It’s not a bad tale, and has some moments, but the end’s overt Oedipalism veers the tale off the path to being a really good story. Here is a good example of Cook skillfully detailing a realistic moment, just after Lee confronts his mom over being abused, yet hiding his own secrets:
I was grateful that she did not involve me then. I saw my mother’s dilemma through the refracted waters of adolescence. I was more concerned with hormonal shifts, body hair, and the alternating ridicule and elation of junior high and early high school. I was trying to work up enough courage to ask Susan Gloyna, the envy of my ninth-grade class, to go steady, a difficult hurdle since my voice could not be trusted to stay in the lower registers. I had no time, really, to concentrate on my mother’s problems. Besides, those sobs and thunks I heard coming through the vents late at night would often wake me from not so very chaste dreams of Susan. So when my mother covered up her bruise and told me to worry about my own body and let her worry about hers, I thought she was onto me, that she had a direct pipeline to my more carnal fantasies. It was best to leave well enough alone.
While the last sentence is a cliché, coming from an adolescent voice it’s not as bad as many of the other clichés. A good choice Cook makes, that minimizes his cliché addiction, is that he tells each tale from the first person. In an omniscient voice such tripe would grade the tales much lower overall.
Pool Boy: At 27 pages this is another far too long tale for the story it tells, yet it is the second best tale in the book so far. Set in 1981, Lee now visits his dad, Neil, in Las Vegas, and sees an attempted Mafia hit on Neil fail. Lee’s relationship with his father is nicely portrayed, both stand alone and connected to the earlier events in other tales. The ending is very weak- with a forced poetry that is trite and does not resonate. Cook is simply not that lyrical a writer for sustained bursts of intense feelings. His best moments come in short prosaic bursts that juxtapose each other in interesting ways.
Overall, this is the strongest of the first three sections.
Penance: Overall, this last tale and section recapitulates almost all the strengths and flaws of the overall book. Set in 1990 it’s Laura’s final tale, and firmly posits her as the book’s central figure. She is now thrice divorced and looking to avoid a fourth marriage to a good man who loves her and dotes on his elderly mother. She also seeks to repair her relationship with Lee. After an trip to see him, without telling her lover, she returns, only to have a crucial moment that ends with violence and recognition. Yet, both the ending and overall tale are too long and melodramatic- with reactions more suited for television movies of the week rather than real life situations. The last page is a bit too mawkish and self-indulgent an end to both the tale, which can stand alone, at least better than most of the tales, and the book- especially viewed as a novel in short stories. That is until the last few sentences almost redeem the rest of the flaws. As I said, this is simply emblemic of Cook’s wildly veering style.
I believe he has the ability to be a great prose writer, but he must loosen the shackles of the workshop formulae that absolutely mute and moot his skills’ powers. Too often his tales run out of gas, or are absolutely destroyed by unnecessary clichés. One example- on page 121, in Last Call, Cook writes ‘In the dark chill of that freezer, I made impossible comparisons. I wondered if losing a baby was as hard as losing a father or a brother.’ Now, without going into what the rest of the tale is about, let’s just look at the cliché ‘dark chill’ in the context of the sentence, for a cliché is not merely a familiar phrase, but a familiar phrase in a familiar setting. Since freezers are dark and chill why does Cook state the cliché, since it is not only trite, but redundant? Because he wants the phrase to linger in the mind, as the reader comes upon the musing over the loss of loved ones. Yet, the idea that such losses could be dark and chill only exacerbates the cliché by using its triteness to apply to two ideas, doubling the grating banality. Even just the word chill in that sentence could be considered clichéd juxtaposed with the remainder of the sentence, but is not nearly so indefensible as the doubly modified description. Yet, Cook does this, applying needless and trite modifiers to passable sentences dozens, if not hundreds of times, yet any good writer at a critique group would immediately point this out. That Cook, who seems to swim in this bad habit, is also a creative writing teacher does not speak well for those he instructs, nor the future of writers whose individuated talents are homogenized by such programs.
Equally as puzzling are the gaping flaws in the basic constructions of the many tales that do not stand alone. This is because on Cook’s website he has a whole page devoted to explaining linked stories, where he states:
Linked stories, short story cycles, novels-in-stories—this form of fiction explores the gray area between collections of stories and novels. In her excellent scholarly study, The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion & Reference Guide, Susan Garland Mann suggests that “there is only one essential characteristic of the short story cycle: the stories are both self-sufficient and interrelated. On the one hand, the stories work independently of one another: the reader is capable of understanding each of them without going beyond the limits of the individual story. On the other hand. . . the ability of the story cycle to extend discussions—to work on a larger scale—resembles what is accomplished in the novel.”
Yet, most of the tales in his own book are not self-sufficient, and demonstrably so. I pointed out one example of this flaw, as I did an example of his damning clichés, but like that I could have pointed to a few dozen references- some minor and throwaway, while others seriously undercut the individual tales, even while not necessarily bolstering the overall arc of the book. In reading the page, however, I suspect its purpose is less about explaining the ‘form’ as puffing up Cook’s own chest, for he namedrops gratuitously, including contemporaries like Michael Chabon, Amy Tan, John Updike, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Olen Butler, and icons like James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And while he may not have had anything to do with the dustjacket description his publisher- the University Of Nebraska Press- put on his book, its PC- and MFA-drenched wording-
K. L. Cook’s debut collection of linked stories spans three generations in the life of one West Texas family. Events both tender and tragic lead to a strange and lovely vision of a world stitched together in tenuous ways as the characters struggle to make sense of their lives amid the shifting boundaries of marriage, family, class and culture.
A series of unusual incidents—a daughter’s elopement, a sobering holiday trip, a vicious attack by the family dog, a lightning strike—provokes a mother of five to abandon her children. An oil rigger, inspired by sun-induced hallucinations, rescues his estranged wife, who doesn’t appreciate his chivalry. In the wake of his father’s and brother’s deaths, a teenage boy finds a precarious solace working with his mother at a country-western bar. A cosmetics salesman schemes to buy Costa Rica and flirts dangerously with mobsters in Las Vegas. A woman, fleeing her fourth marriage, arrives at a complicated understanding of love and responsibility.
Railroad worker and conman, grieving son and battered wife—these characters explore the limits of family fragility and resilience. Their stories—suggesting unlikely connections between comedy and pathos, cruelty and generosity—promise a hard-won dignity and hope.
-is at the center of Cook’s dilemma; whether or not to ‘play the game’, for publication, or break free of the strictures, inured into him by years of workshopping, and allow his mind to actually push the limits of his creativity.
Let me restate this point; because one might think because I’ve pointed out many flaws and cannot recommend this book overall as a good read, that I think Cook is yet another literary hack and fraud: he’s not. Truly bad writers, like a Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody or Dave Eggers, will never have to confront the choice of whether or not to choose real individuated art or lowest common denominator slop to get published. Cook does; although one could argue that since his book was published by a university press, retailed for $25, yet an author signed copy was bought by my wife for a single dollar at a markdown table at a Barnes & Noble less than a year after its debut, and was only stocked locally because of its Texas theme, that this, in itself, should have been the opportunity to really break free, and realize his potential. College presses get lousy distribution, no major reviews, and even blurbs from unknowns, and are, in many ways, little better than vanity or print on demand presses, so why bother getting published there if not to take advantage of the freedom from commercial genericization? I just wonder how much dumbing down and bowdlerizing the press was responsible for since Cook states that many of the tales were seriously revised following their initial publication in journals?
Cook could do well from not being star-struck by big name writers, but looking at a contemporary published good short story in Monica Wood’s Ernie’s Ark to see what his tales could have been had he been more genuine in his narrative voice, rather than assuming the generic mantle of ‘connector of comedy and pathos’. As with Cook’s tales, Wood’s individual tales are not multi-dimensionally complex, but they synergize into something more rich via their parallax. Cook’s do not. Last Call is a promising, but ultimately disappointing, book that I hope serves as Exhibit A in an immature writer’s coming to grips with the clash of his potential meeting his desire to conform for the masses. It is properly to be termed juvenilia, for these stories lack a personal signature, and too many of the tales exist in an unsatisfactory netherworld between being true stories and serviceable chapters of a larger narrative, and failing fully at both tasks. There are flashes of a real ‘K.L. Cook’, but far much more, and too much of just another MFA wannabe. Too many bad critic- even those who might be able to see his weaknesses, would simply praise this book because they like what he attempts- as I do, yet not point out the manifest flaws. But, that modus operandi is why there are so many published writers who are far less talented and accomplished than even Cook is in this work- where he shows he is a talented non-PC writer simply too straightjacketed in workshop formulae. I demand more, especially from those like Cook who can likely meet that demand. However, his next book will likely be a career definer- it could herald his frittering away of potential, damning him to a career trajectory of countless forgettable contemporary writers, or his ascension to the status of a major writer- one whose works not only excel in form, but explore real characters in bold ways. Those tales and writers are sorely needed in publishing, and Cook has a choice to make, just as Loren Niemi did all those years ago. I say, choose more wisely than he did!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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