by Jefferson Hansen
This coming-of-age novel begins when the Chinese-Polish narrator, who lives in Appalachia, is in about junior high. It ends with him as a married man in his mid-20's or so. Obviously, his character changes as the book unfolds. Rutkowski presents this change in the typical fashion: our main character behaves in a progressively more grown-up fashion, he responds to people in a different way, he understands his feelings better, he is more responsible. However, Rutkowski also charts this change in another way, the way that interests me: the very texture of the language alters. In other words, Rutkowski has his narrator inhabit and use language differently the further we go into this novel. This does not always happen in coming-of-age novels: here, the very terms of the narration alter.
This passage occurs fairly early, when the narrator is about in junior high:
"Reluctantly, I pushed a button to open a circuit between the car battery and the rocket engine. A hot copper thread ignited the solid fuel, and the homemade projectile left the ground with a hiss. Almost immediately, the missile went haywire. It started to corkscrew through the air. A couple of hundred feet up, it began to pinwheel.
A second charge deployed the parachute. Wind caught the thin material and carried the rocket away. My brother and sister and I ran after the brightly colored swatch but covered only a few dozen yards before we couldn't see it anymore."
In the above passage, what interests me is the emotional flatness of the narration. The only emotion we get is the word "reluctantly." The rest is pure narration, with all emotion implied. But it's not the rock hard, just-the-facts such narration that we see in Hemingway. This boy is tender, but can't express it. There is a sense that he cares for the rocket, wants to find it and the parachute just for the sake of having it, that he does so with his brother and sister because he cares for them. This is a flat narrativity on which everything hangs. He emotes outside himself, unlike most of Hemingway's characters, who seem absorbed.
Here, we see more direct emotion and a slightly different vocabulary:
"I moved from the small city to a big city. On the way, I stopped at my parents' house. There, I gave my car to my sister, who was just old enough to drive. When I left, the car was running fine. The rear wheel held by four bolts instead of five was tight as a drum. The car cruised without blowing steam. The radio played within five miles of any transmitting station" (153).
Again, the emotion is for the most part implied, but not as much. First, we can see how much he cares for his sister because he not only gives her the car, but makes sure it is in good working order. He wants to give her something good, that works well. The flat humor of the last sentence is also characteristic. In the first quoted passage, the emphasis is almost wholly on the technical, with the implied emotion very distant. In the second, the emphasis is still on the technical, but the emotions are closer to the description.
Finally, in the second passage the vocabulary becomes a little more engaged. The phrase about the sister being "just old enough to drive" speaks volumes, as does "when I left." It reveals how he feels, what he is thinking, and so forth. With some people that age, the phrase would be, "my mom made me give the car to my sister." Here, the texture of the language reveals character—namely, a deeply caring, sweet one.
"I move with my family to a new place. It's a storefront, and it's large, compared with our old place. But it's far from the center of town. It's so far I can't place it geographically, in my mind.
The ceiling looks high, maybe fourteen feet, but when I reach up, I can touch it with my hand. My reach is about seven feet, so the ceiling must be quite low. I can't believe this, so I try again, and my hand touches solid plaster.
I notice that we've left a side door open, maybe for weeks. Anyone could have come in. But there's no evidence of illegal entry. I guess the door must have been hidden behind trees or leaves (295)".
Phrases such as "in my mind" usually don't happen early in the book. The description also becomes more deeply rooted in wonder and fantasy—a place we all often live—and moves away from the facticity of the early part of the book. The part about the ceiling seeming higher than it is points to this. Notice also the phrase "can't believe," which also points to self-consciousness. As the book moves to a finish, our narrator gets married, has a daughter, and begins to develop a deeper understanding of the world, and this is tracked, in part, in the very warp and woof of the language itself.
Thaddeus Rutkowski webpage
Haywire is published by Starcherone books, run by Ted Pelton. A story by Pelton appears in AlteredScale.com 2.