What shapes us? Is it our parents’ bitter fighting (or our parents’ compassionate/passionate embraces, if that’s, instead, what we most often see)? Is it the one teacher who sees something in our deliberate camouflage of mediocrity (or our determined scramble for top billing, or our desperate fight just to keep up)? Is it the aftermath that engulfs us following a young, helpless, foolish act, and an enduring, maybe mistaken, belief in our own guilt?
Charles Marlowe carries unhealed childhood wounds into his lonely adulthood, and that is the basis of Stephanie Kallos’ Language Arts.
I loved Broken for You, Kallos’ redemptive story of a wacky young artist and a guilt-raddled elderly woman. Their odd and unexpected alliance creates the possibilities each desperately needs but can’t achieve alone. It is an elegant story, woven together with flawed, believable, potential-imbued characters–characters I really liked, cared about, and rooted for. So I was excited to see Kallos’ book, Language Arts, on my library’s New Reads shelf. I bought it, though–I had coupons and birthday bucks and an outing planned to the big-box bookstore. I was pretty sure this was a book I’d want to own.
Marlowe’s story is not as fluidly engaging to me as Broken For You,–not as easy or as entertaining a read–but it’s very, very compelling. There are points, for me, of personal connection: he is an English teacher with an autistic son. I have an autistic son; for most of my career, I taught English in one kind of classroom or another.
And the pursuit of ‘script perfection’ informed Marlowe’s grade school years, as it did mine. How many sheets, I wonder, of that cheap, yellowy, blue-lined paper did we go through, attempting the slant, perfecting the loops, approximating the flow of our mandated cursive models? For me, it was a kind of waking meditation; in some classes, we even scrawled to classical music–updown/rightleft/make the loop, and flourish!
Marlowe’s life is built on chances and accidents and, sometimes, serendipity–a story he writes, a teacher who against all odds dotes on him, a handicapped child who sees, in him, a hero. A later chance meeting with a persistent woman.
He meanders into adulthood, carrying a dubious guilt that defines and identifies the paths he takes and the voices he hears and the decisions he puts on hold. Life comes at him on a slant, by accident, when he is not looking for changes or progress.
And yet. Charles somehow, on some level, succeeds. And when he does, finally, discover an essential truth, it’s not too late–not for him, and not for the people with whom his life intersects.
Hmm. I will need to read this one again, after the initial bubbling has died down. I’ll need to rediscover Marlowe, trying to determine if he really deserved any of the guilt he carried throughout his life. And I’ll spend some time with the characters who populate this book…not just Charles and his family, but also his odd but impressive fourth grade teacher, the elderly, damaged woman who befriends his locked-up son, Cody, and the dedicated high school senior whose capstone project fires up some changes.
I visited Stephanie Kallos’ website (stephaniekallos.com) trying to discern where this story might have come from. Was she by chance, an English teacher? I discovered she’s not a big fan of sharing her formal biography; she posts a quote from Katherine Anne Porter, intimating that anyone’s history after she turns 10 is not terribly important. But Kallos shares what she calls the ‘tink’ files–tink being the backwards of ‘knit’–and offers a dozen or so essays on a variety of topics. They have titles like ‘Natal Streams’ and ‘Why Knitting a Sock is Like Writing a Novel’ and ‘French Resistance’, and I will spend time with them, every day, for the next week or so. And maybe that will give me a little more insight, and maybe it will give me more questions. I’ll read Kallos on making mosaics and I’ll try to figure out what she’s trying to tell us.
I’m pretty sure it will be time well spent.
Image taken from StephanieKallos.com