A Novel of a Writer-Teacher

Do you know the writer Thomas E. Kennedy? I’m embarrassed to say I only learned of his work a couple of years ago. Though he’s had devoted fans for decades and won many of the top prizes, Kennedy is one of those people who’ve lived several lives—writing or otherwise—without due notice, a mistake that’s being rectified now as mainstream publishing, the media, and critics catch on.


May 10, 2009

Do you know the writer Thomas E. Kennedy? I’m embarrassed to say I only learned of his work a couple of years ago. Though he’s had devoted fans for decades and won many of the top prizes, Kennedy is one of those people who’ve lived several lives—writing or otherwise—without due notice, a mistake that’s being rectified now as mainstream publishing, the media, and critics catch on.

Kennedy is the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of individual stories, essays, and poems. The bio on his website says he was hit hard by literature early on, but he didn’t publish a story until he was 38, after the kind of varied life—Army service, hitchhiking around, undergrad education, a move to Europe, MFA, Ph.D., children, other jobs—that endears him to me. Since the mid-‘70s he’s lived in Copenhagen, the setting of his cycle of four novels called, collectively, The Copenhagen Quartet.

I read his essay collection Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America in manuscript and liked it, back when I interviewed the publisher of New American Press. Recently Kennedy’s funny (and awful, in the old sense of the word) essay “I Am Joe’s Prostate” appeared in New Letters, won a 2008 National Magazine Award, and was included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008.

Now, in a gesture usually reserved for the canonical, Bloomsbury not only has picked up In the Company of Angels, one of the novels of the Quartet, but also, a spokesman says, “is committed to bringing Kennedy’s complete body of work — including novels, short stories, and essays—to a larger audience.”

The novel of Kennedy’s I finished a couple of weeks ago, though, is A Passion in the Desert (2007). (Disclosure: It’s published by the same press that will release my novel soon, but no one asked me to write this, and I don’t know Kennedy beyond having a mutual acquaintance.)

Passion is the story of Fred Twomey (too me? to me?), writer and creative-writing teacher, husband and father with (at least) two sons. Twomey is sane, likable, and funny. Near the start of the novel he’s at a writing conference in Montpelier (“Montpee”) with his old friend and fellow writer, Geoffrey Burns, and together they flee a presentation (“Hamlet as a Moral Metaphor for our Times”) to go booze and feed. They see a woman walking up the other side of the street toward them, “looking all around her with a liberal smile.” Burns says:

“She’s a poet. Asked me would I blurb her last collection. So I read the thing and it’s like okay, nothing great, but good enough that I can hype up something for the jacket. I write a blurb that is maybe a little more than ethically defensible, but what the hell, are we here to help or hinder? I send it to her, figure she’ll be happy, figure, who knows? She might even desire my bod in gratitude. She sends me a letter complaining that the blurb failed to focus on the two strongest poems in the book, asking how could I have missed that and if I don’t want to reconsider what I’ve written in light of that.”

“What’d you do?”

“Didn’t answer. Brassy bitch,” he says as the woman waves, and he smiles, returning the wave in a motion that looks like he’s wiping a window.

“You’re a bit of a hypocrite, aren’t you?” says Twomey.

But from the start of the novel there’s also a sense of darkness, even evil, intruding. It opens with Twomey waking in his berth in a stalled train and thinking someone might be in the private compartment with him. It’s dark.

The air is moving. He feels it. Cold air moving across his cheek. He can hear the faint whistle of breath in his own nostril, feels sweat on his forehead, his back. He moves very slowly, quietly into a better position. Better for what? […] “Who’s there?” he demands suddenly….

The novel’s title is from the Balzac story of the same name, about a French soldier, just escaped from a nomadic desert enemy, who wakes in a dark cave and hears breathing, so that “…his ignorance led him to imagine all terrors at once…he could no longer doubt the proximity of a terrible companion….”

In the morning, Balzac’s protagonist discovers that he shares his cave with a leopard with fresh blood on its muzzle. Luckily it’s fed well recently (on his horse) and allows him to pet it to be mollified. He fears the death it represents and considers stabbing it in the belly with his dagger as he strokes it, but is too terrified to act. In time he grows to love it for its possessive nature and wild beauty.

Twomey, it turns out, has reasons to be afraid and guilty in his comfortable life, and those reasons seem to become manifest. An old affair, another near-affair, an abandoned lover many years earlier, his sons growing apart from him, his wife maybe in an affair of her own, disgruntled graduate students, angry colleagues: Do any of these have to do with messages and signs that might or might not be left for him to find? For a long while in the story, it’s not possible to know if sense and sensibility have gone out of whack in Twomey’s mind—if he’s paranoid from constantly looking for patterns and meaning, or if he should protect himself and his family from the thing that’s hunting, or haunting, him.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter if the danger is real, since the sense of it does something on its own. Balzac writes in his version:

Towards the end of the day [the French soldier] had familiarized himself with his perilous position; he now almost liked the painfulness of it…now that he had…alternations of fear and quiet, and plenty to eat, his mind became filled with contrasts and his life began to be diversified. […] He passed whole hours in remembering mere nothings, and comparing his present life with his past.

Twomey too, under threat seemingly from every quarter, slips into the past, which defines his present in ways he can’t control or even know, a painful thing for someone who wants to make good stories:

Up until now, Burns has been one of his best friends here, and he almost feels good sitting in his office, though he cannot help but wonder whether he himself, had he not wasted more than ten years of his life before finishing his education and getting serious, might have done better, gone further, written more, got a better foothold.

In order not to give too much away, I’ll just say that the threat to Kennedy’s protagonist is much like Balzac’s—intimate, feral, dreamlike but very real—and the inevitable confrontation is life-changing for all involved. But one reason Twomey is a sympathetic character is that he has the courage to face it.

Balzac writes, near the end of his story, “Like men…who defy death and offer their body to the smiter, so [the soldier]…resolved to play his part with honor to the last.”

Kennedy writes of Twomey, alone late at night and exhausted but resolved to meet his fate:

A sound draws him from his reveries. He looks at his watch. Past three. Still dark. The room is chilled. He rises and goes to the front window, sees the Chevy there again. At the foyer closet he pulls on his fleece-lined jacket, checks his pocket to be sure he has his key, lets himself out the front door.

“How does it all end?” a character in the Balzac story asks. The answer, bitterly understated, fits Kennedy’s novel too: “[T]hey ended as all great passions do end—by a misunderstanding. From some reason one suspects the other of treason; they don’t come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part from sheer obstinacy.”

Passion is a novel about a “terrible companion” that seems particularly fitting for its writer-teacher protagonist: One’s own dawning awareness of untameable life, the inability to know, and the failure of imagination.


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