Implied memoir and autobiographical details in novels are de rigeur and nearly quaint in this age of the tell-all and ghosted celebrity bio, yet the autobiographical parallels in Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Haywire with its Chinese mother and Polish-American father and mixed-race protagonist and his siblings seem nothing but authentic and original. It’s the subtle and endearing rhythm of the rural Pennsylvanian family that reminds one of the kooky coming-of-age narrators found in such presumed fact-limned-for-fiction classics as Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn and The Fuck-Up by Arthur Neserian.
These thirty-three vignettes or chapters in the guise of “flash fictions” are meant to add up to one whole novel. Taken individually, they are polished gems of short stories that are stand-alone and satisfying. But when lined up chronologically and broken into three parts, the second two do not fulfill the high expectations left by Part 1 and, even with all the sex, drugs and rehab, become tedious.
In that the book continues far along into the narrator’s adulthood, Haywire might just be a protracted coming-of-age story in which all the dramatic stuff that typically happens in adolescence elsewhere in literature takes a while to percolate up into the surface of this life.
Though the narrator grows up over the course of the book into a man with a wife and a child, in some respects he never quite grows up—something his young daughter notes in Part 3: “You’re more like a teenager.”
Later, in “Daughterly Advice,” she seems to catch the drift of life a little quicker than she surmises her father had: “Someday, I’m going to move out, she says. “I might be a wife and have a job, and that would be weird if I’m living with you.”
Not that our narrator didn’t make his own break with his family early enough. And yet the fact that he did is one of the chief disappointments in the book. Significant events go unresolved by the end of Part 1, which actually crowns that section with its consistent sentimentality and understatement yet leaves the reader somewhat nostalgic for that time, place and those characters even if our protagonist is not.
The Polish artist father with his Socialist sympathies is a howler of a character and, between drunken jaunts down the road to the local or hunting trips or nut picking excursions, carries nearly all of the tension of the book: “I’m going to take you out of school,” our father said. “I see the brainwashing that’s going on. You’re becoming typical Americans.”
So when the narrator carries on to college and hi-jinks (Part 2) and work, his art as a writer and risqué exploits, and eventually his own family (Part 3), that tension is clearly missed.
It’s the tension of slowness that touches the entire novel, even obstructing the actual naming of our protagonist who goes nearly unnamed and misnamed throughout most of it (but for a childhood neighbor and tree house club proprietor): “Club members have nicknames,” the boy said. “Mine is Pork Chop, because it sounds like Porter, my last name. Yours will be T-Bone, because your first name starts with “T.”
With that same logic of naming, Rutkowski’s adolescent protagonist creates and names his world, slipping in and out of not-quite conscious dream states, the mundane reality of which is harsh and particular enough to reveal the differences between his family and the rest of the world.
T-Bone’s headstrong personality comes off less as cultural nods to his Chinese and Polish ancestry than the idiosyncratic traits of a child becoming a teenager taking unsure steps towards manhood, stopping to angst about why the kids make fun of him for his too long hair or for looking like a girl or for liking a particular girl. He has no special insights into his parent’s marriage and can hardly pinpoint the signs of his parent’s foibles and how they affect him and his siblings. The reader will pick up clues like crumbs of the poverty and failure that impact this family.
Haywire’s nonchalant and unheated depiction of the narrator’s mixed-race family remains subtle and poignant throughout Part 1. A sentence in the teenager’s voice, believable in its innocence and simplicity is haiku-compact: “She began to sing in a language we couldn’t understand,” telegraphing the authorial knowledge of this mother’s deceptively cheerful isolation.
Frustratingly, however, references to the challenges (or joys) of the narrator’s multiculturalism hardly make any significant appearances outside of Part 1. It’s as if racial identity and the mixing of cultures has little bearing outside of a small rural town. One is left to assume that the narrator’s move to a big city and its apparent diversity most likely takes care of his angst over his difference outside of a few incidents mined for bad humor and to illustrate the narrator’s seemingly strategic passivity.
Based on the later chapters of the 298 page-Haywire, Rutkowski would have us believe that drug rehab sessions or the gossipy rehashing of writing retreat beddings more than rivals the day-to-day story of an adolescent and his family in rural Pennsylvania, yet it’s not quite a satisfying conclusion.
Haywire’s later chapters belong more in line with unsentimental Neserian’s oeuvre of urban fiction, especially if one were to read the last two-thirds of the novel alone. Individually, the last two parts are mainly entertaining and well wrought in Rutkowski’s minimalist style, but one wishes that Haywire had been more judiciously broken down into two or three collections of flash fiction (or novellas), making Part 1 a new classic of the not-quite-coming-of-age genre.
Any one of the chapters of Part 1 could be viewed as a story that the protagonist might tell in a rehab session, hinting at the origins of his particular proclivities, revealing that in this case the journey to adulthood was more interesting than what this protagonist did upon reaching it.