by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Starcherone Books
Third Collection/Novel-in-

" After a time, we came to understand our parents in a different way. We no longer thought they were crazy.
    We were not immune to depression.
We agreed that guilt was not necessary.

Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

Haywire seduced me with what’s written on its cover: "Darkly funny"… a novel "composed of 49 flash stories"…"surrealistic, giddy page-turner"…by "one of the most original writers in America today"…and so on. It promised everything I was looking for in a book—at least, at the moment—and I was eager to give it a read.

The third novel-in-stories from author Thaddeus Rutkowski, Haywire explores the same theme and characters as Rutkowski’s previous work, Tetched and Roughhouse. Basically, the biracial narrator—whose background and experiences reportedly resemble that of the author’s—shares vignettes from his childhood in rural America, his time in college and graduate school, and finally, his years as an "adult" trying to make it in the big city. In each, he is often out-of-place, yet rarely judgmental. In each, he appears nonchalant and deadpan, yet one could easily see the hurt, turmoil and consequential self-loathing brewing underneath. And while Rutkowski’s prose is sparse and largely understated, he manages to cover plenty of ground—poverty, racial and cultural prejudice, child abuse, substance abuse, sexual addiction, bisexuality, the "artistic impulse," and the ongoing attempt to "do well," to not fuck up, to be a good person/partner/parent, and to forgive. As Rutkowski writes in What We Had in Common:
After a time, we came to understand our parents in a different way. We no longer thought they were crazy.

We were not immune to depression.

We agreed that guilt was not necessary.
To me, Haywire’s best moments are in Part 1, when the narrator, then a kid, talks about his father—an alcoholic and narcissistic Polish-American "artist" who, for all his obvious smarts, is slow to see his failures and shortcomings, and quick to impose his will and to criticize what’s around him. For instance, in the opening story In Cars, the narrator recalls the following scene:

At home, I went into my bedroom. I shut the door, but I could hear my mother’s and father’s voices.

"I need cash," my father said. "When I go out, I’m not flush. I don’t want people to say to me, `If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’"

"Maybe you should get a job," my mother said.

"I can’t join the rat race," he said. "That’s a waste of life."

"You could borrow money from your parents."

"I could ask, but they’ll tell me to get a job. That’s what they’ve been saying for years. By they’ve also been saying, `You’re not qualified to do anything.’ Actually, I’m overqualified to do most things."

"Maybe we don’t need money," my mother said.

My father’s voice became louder. "How can I find work if I’m underqualified for everything and overqualified for anything?"

"I can’t answer that," my mother said.

I heard a door hit its molding as my father left the house. I looked out a window and saw his car approach the one intersection in town. His turn signal indicated he was heading for the hotel bar. I didn’t know why he couldn’t just walk there. The bar was about a hundred yards away.
Part 2—wherein the narrator gets his "escape" by going away to college and then to graduate school—is the shortest, and to me, the weakest section of all three. There’s less tension, the characters seem glazed over and inconsequential, and there are fewer psychological insights.

Thankfully, the last part—which depicts the narrator’s attempts to recover from his pot and sexual addiction; to become a responsible "adult"; and to succeed in finding a job, a romantic partner and some sort of peace and normality—picks the pace back up, although it doesn’t reach the same intensity and impact as in Part 1. It does, however, have its funny and even "racy" moments. Clearly, Rutkowski has a knack for writing tongue-in-cheek. But he can also be poignant, without being too sentimental. Take, for example, the following excerpt from Dog Days, wherein the narrator talks about his brother, who moves back to their widowed mother’s house after his divorce:
When a home health nurse came to check on our mother, he shut himself in his room. He didn’t want the nurse to see him. He believed that if she did, she would know he was a loser.

His despair was so dark that our mother thought he might kill himself.

He had threatened to end his life after his divorce. Back then, our mother had said to him, "Please don’t kill yourself while you’re so far away. I’ll have to buy a plane ticket to clean up the mess. Why don’t you wait until you’re here before you do it? I’ll be able to clean up more easily."
Did I enjoy Haywire? Yes. Do I think it lived up to its promise and my prejudged expectations? Perhaps I’ll need another shot at it before I can (if I could) agree. I enjoyed the book, but contrary to what’s been claimed, neither the individual flashes nor the novel as a whole really "pulled me along by the nose ring." I suspect, however, that there’s more to uncover, and that Rutkowski’s writing is the kind that, while it initially makes you chuckle and give a slight nod here and there, could also make you do a double take if you spend just a bit more time to dwell on it. I’m looking forward to giving it another read.

Read a story from this collection in the Hamilton Stone Review

Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau wants to explore the world by foot, pen and lens. Raised in Manila, she lived for a time in Los Angeles before moving to France. A Pushcart Prize nominee and 2008 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition finalist, she has stories in places like the Humanist and Southword.

Michelle's other Short Reviews: Matty Stansfield "Donut Holes: Sticky Pieces of Fictionalized Reality"

Stephen Shieber "Being Normal"

"Discovering a Comet and More Microfiction" by Various

Sefi Atta "News from Home"

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Contemporary Stories


Jim Hinks and Gul Turner (eds) "The Book of Istanbul"

Andre Mangeot "True North"
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Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in central Pennsylvania and is a graduate of Cornell University and The Johns Hopkins University. Nominated five times for a Pushcart Prize, he is the author of the novels Tetched (Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press). Both books were finalists for an Asian American Members' Choice Literary Award.

Read an interview with Thaddeus Rutkowski