South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz

I bought this book years ago because it was called by Haven Kimmel “simply the finest novel ever written about the Midwest” (on her blog), and I’m finally getting to it. It is a very fine, bleak novel, set in 1990s Indiana. Thirty-year-old Arthur has returned home from Michigan after work ran out up there; now he’s camped out in his family’s abandoned farmhouse, on the edge of their former farm. We meet him at this moment, as he rigs lighting and heat, reencounters his brother and sister-in-law, and takes a job as hired hand to Gerry Maars, successful farmer and local big man in some complicated ways. Arthur is taciturn and simple in his tastes. He seems as surprised as perhaps the reader is, that he is so contented to run Gerry’s big machinery for him up and down the wintry fields at all hours and fall into bed tired for short spells in between. He also finds himself in a few damaging love affairs (least damaging to Arthur himself).

At well over 300 pages, South of the Big Four is a quiet novel in terms of plot. There are a number of events, but the overall impression is that of rhythmic, nearly numb repetition: the tractors go up and down the field; their parts break and are repaired or replaced; corn and beans are planted and harvested and sold and planted again. Gerry Maars is a fascinating character. City councilman, large personality, workaholic, self-aggrandizing and insecure, he casts a huge shadow and takes Arthur in completely, in ways that Arthur never quite articulates. The portrayal of north central Indiana is stark and desolate, and feels real enough to me (not that this is a region I know well at all). Its people are chapped and stark as well. No one in this story is happy. Remembering his 4-H steer, Arthur muses, “the last time I saw Sunshine he was frolicking his way out across that wide slaughterhouse holding pen, cantering and capering, glad to just finally be free.” That about captures the tone.

With Arthur as first-person narrator and protagonist, this is very much a book about the male experience; women are sexual partners and helpmeets. The perspective felt limited to me. It’s certainly a beautifully written book, and one that kept pulling me back: I was magnetized by its hypnotic pulse, “back and forth across an empty winter field.” It holds wisdom. But also not much beauty, or hope, and nary a likeable character. Rather, what it offers is perseverence. “The better, it seemed, in an ever more impatient world, to venture on anyway–unheralded and unprofitable; mortal, but still unaccountably alive.” I was not left feeling uplifted – and that’s not something I generally require of a book, but I felt the absence here of… something. A very fine novel, indeed. If I figure out what I’m missing, I’ll let you know.

Rating: 7 farm magazines.

reread: She Got Up Off the Couch by Havel Kimmel

You’ll recall that I really loved this book when I read it in 2013. (First review here.) I reread it recently as part of my first semester reading list (see new tag here, many entries to come!). Students’ reading lists are individual, created by the student and faculty advisor together, so Katie Fallon and I came up with my list as a team.

couchI loved this book again. Havel Kimmel’s mother is far from perfect; she struggles to hold herself together and care for her children and family in a way that her society deems correct; she appears ill-kempt. But in the course of this book, in Kimmel’s youth, she also learns how to drive a car (and buys herself one), enrolls in college and goes on to graduate school, gets a job as a teacher, and goes through a divorce. She struggles, but she keeps it together, accomplishes these large goals, and as this book’s existence shows, her youngest daughter loves her very much through it all. In other words, she’s our favorite kind of hero: challenged, imperfect, but eventually victorious against long odds.

So, a great story. But more than a great story, because Kimmel also presents it cleverly, with enormous humor (even when terrible things happen, like fifth-grade Kimmel’s double compound fracture with shattered bone extruding through the skin) and the kind of detail that makes the whole thing alive to her readers without ever feeling overloaded with descriptions. How does she do it? This is what I’m here to learn on this read. Because my stories are only as great as they are – I can’t control that part – but I can control how I tell them.

I’m still learning this kind of reading, how to read for the craft, to take it apart and see how it works. But here are some things I see:

  • Kimmel’s book is about her mother. The title and Preface make that clear. But many chapters hardly mention her, or don’t mention her at all. Much of Kimmel’s story characterizes mom Delonda without even touching on her. Who she married, what her children and family do when she’s not around, where she isn’t – all these things serve the development of Delonda, which I think is really cool.
  • Kimmel is hilarious. (Here, I don’t have much hope for myself; I’m afraid I’m missing that funny bone…) In the incident I mentioned above, the double compound fracture etc., she uses a totally hilarious doctor to add much of the humor in that scene. Was her doctor really that hilarious? I don’t know. Maybe she was gifted a comic doctor; or maybe she knew how to write his dialog to play that up.
  • Her POV rarely departs from that of the child she was in each scene. She stays in the past tense, but her conclusions, what she sees and what it means to her, stay in character. This often yields humor, because her audience knows more than her narrator does. It can yield poignancy in a way that is just honest without being precious. And it plays up the few moments when adult Kimmel comments on her past: these are rare enough that we pay extra attention.
  • A few chapters take unusual formats. There are lists; a transcript of an audio recording; rules of a game she plays with her friends. This kind of formal play (that is, playing with form) can be dangerous – it can distract, or call attention to itself, as in ‘look how clever I am’ – but I think it serves her well here. For one thing, it’s used sparingly. For another, the formats really do feel like they contribute to the narrative she wants to tell. I think a transcript of an audio recording is a great idea, because it’s in the moment. It’s real.
  • I spent some time focusing on the short chapter “Brother” that biographies her much older, and therefore mostly absent brother Dan. It’s a little bit of a departure from the rest of the book, in tone as well as subject, and I found it a charming encapsulated profile.

This is just the beginning of what I have to learn from Kimmel. Exciting, right? If you haven’t read her work yet, you obviously have my recommendation. I love everything she’s written, in fact, as you can see here.

Stay tuned for more reading-list musings to come.

Rating: still 9 lines to be close-read.

She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel

couchHavel Kimmel aka Henrietta Krinkle, you are still my favorite.

This book follows A Girl Named Zippy, and I adore Kimmel’s explanation in her Preface: that she would definitely never write a sequel to Zippy, but that people kept on asking her if her mother ever got up off the couch; and here we are. This is an extension of that first memoir, then, with the focus being not on the girl called Zippy (Haven Kimmel herself) but on her mother, who in that first volume was a somewhat shapeless woman who mostly inhabited the couch and read a lot, talked on the phone, watched television, and didn’t worry too much about her children. This is told not unlovingly, but as fact. Zippy’s childhood is on balance awfully joyful and fun, and although a critical adult’s eye might point out lots of points of minor neglect, she clearly loves her family very much. This tone is continued in She Got Up Off the Couch. The family and each of its members is still, realistically, flawed, but lovable and well-loved. Kimmel’s brother is now mostly absent, with a family of his own; her sister marries and has two babies; her father finds work as a sheriff’s deputy (or similar job title); but her mother’s is the great change of this second memoir. This was, what, the late 1970’s I suppose, in a tiny Indiana town of a few hundred people. Zippy’s dad, Bob Jarvis, holds the keys: her mother Delonda doesn’t know how to drive. This will work as a fine metaphor (and indeed is part of the literal action), as Delonda calls a phone number on a television commercial to look into going to college. She wrangles a ride into the next town over for an entrance exam, which places her out of fully 40 hours of college credits. Under Bob’s clear disapproval – he says of the woman who takes Delonda to her test, “time was, a woman wouldn’t have gotten in a man’s marriage that way” – she persists in attending classes, studying, reading, talking to new people, and in 23 months, graduates summa cum laude – and continues on to graduate school. Eventually she earns a Master’s degree in English and becomes a high school teacher. This is all a stunning change. Along the way, to get to school and back, she learns how to drive and purchases a vehicle that is, in itself, a good joke.

She Got Up Off the Couch also follows the format of A Girl Named Zippy: chapters jump around, more as connected anecdotes than as clear narrative. Each chapter stands alone admirably as a hilarious or heartfelt – usually both – nugget of tears, joy, preadolescent confusion, and filial love. [In fact, as soon as I finish writing this review I’m off to read my favorite chapter out loud to Husband, if he’ll let me, while he smokes a brisket in the backyard. If you’re curious, it’s called “Treasure,” and is about a hippie college student hiking cross-country who camps out in the Jarvis backyard for a few days. It’s hilarious and heart-wrenching.] It’s a great structure, this anecdotal style. If I ever write my own mother’s biography, which I keep dreaming about, I have something similar in mind. Yes, there are odd characters that the reader of just one chapter would wrinkle her forehead at; but this is true of the whole book, too. Zippy has had an odd and happy life, and that’s exactly why we enjoy reading about it.

Zippy herself, naturally, also grows and changes in this book. Delonda is our star and makes the most life-changing journey. Kimmel writes in her preface, “I will never do anything half so grand or important,” and I know exactly what she means: the decision of Delonda and other women of her time who broke out of where they were told they belonged have done something for the women of my generation that we are now saved from having to do, if that makes any sense. It is something I’ve long felt about my own mother. But I was saying that Zippy continues to grow up: we see more of her engaging and eccentric friends, Rose and Julie Ann, and we meet a new friend, Jeanne Ann. And when she gets a nephew and then a niece, Zippy becomes hopelessly devoted. The blizzard that sweeps through when her niece is long overdue and panics the family is, again, funny and riveting at the same time.

I’ve now read everything that Haven Kimmel has written except for every single one of her blog posts, and that one children’s book. I hope she is getting to work right now on another book – fiction or non, more Haven Kimmel, stat.

I love it. Funny, true, humble, real.

Rating: 9 cherry-red polyester suits.

Teaser Tuesdays: She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The idea is to open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. And try not to include spoilers!

Haven Kimmel is absolutely and totally my literary obsession these days. She is hilarious, and wise. I think I might be most mesmerized by her novels; but her memoirs are so funny and strange I can’t put them down. (Thanks, Krinkle, for keeping me up way too late on work nights.) And she has a way with words. Take today’s teaser:

In truth, if there could be said to be one truth about my brother, it is that he carried both a tombstone and scraps of coal in a little red wagon, and what that did to him and what it meant to him is written in a closed book in a library guarded by dragons.

He literally had a tombstone and scraps of coal in his little red wagon. You’ll have to read this book to find out more.

[I wanted to reprint the entire two-page dedication and the preface for you here, but I fear copyright violations. Go read it!!]


Last night, just goofing around, I asked Husband to name three authors I love. [If you’re not a regular reader, I will tell you that Husband is a NONreader. I am such a reader that you’d think he’d pick up a little; you be the judge.] I thought this would be a funny exercise. He piped up immediately with “Papa!” which was the easy one; we have a Hemingway shrine in the living room, and we’ve traveled together to Key West and visited couchthe Hemingway House there. He stumbled on the second one. I’ve been reading a lot of Haven Kimmel lately, but he’s had trouble learning her name; I had shown him the cover of my latest read, Kimmel’s She Got Up Off the Couch, not 20 minutes earlier. So, for a second author I love, he guesses “Krinkle.” Really? That’s your new nickname, Haven Kimmel. He slays me, really.

For the third one he cried for mercy, which is really pathetic, gonefriends. But I told him to think of books that HE has read – and these are very few – and he came up with both Lee Child and James Lee Burke, so I’ll give credit for those. He missed Michael Connelly – who he has also read – as well as the obvious choice, Edward Abbey. Maybe I’ll try again in three months and see if he’s paying attention. And while we’re on the subject, congratulations, Husband, for finishing a book! He’s been flying a lot lately and recently finished Child’s Gone Tomorrow, which makes for about 4 books now completed in our 5 years of marriage. I’m so proud. [If you’re keeping track, they are The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, Void Moon by Connelly, and I think now two Childs. Guess who influences his reading.]

Now back to my Krinkle book.

EDIT: Husband wants to be clear that he is thinking of Henry Krinkle, apparently the alias of the main character in the movie Taxi Driver, which, no, I haven’t seen. So we can call Kimmel, more properly, Henrietta Krinkle. I wonder if she has had a stranger nickname. She’s a good candidate, of course.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

othervoicesOther Voices, Other Rooms was Truman Capote’s first novel, and I have picked it up because it was referenced in The Used World. Such is the power of Haven Kimmel.

This is a strange, spooky, sad tale, beginning with an unwanted child: we meet 13-year-old Joel as he’s hitching a ride en route from New Orleans to a crumbling estate in Mississippi. He had been living with his aunt following his mother’s death; now he has been summoned to his father, who he’s never met. Upon arriving at Skully’s Landing, he finds no father, but an odd stepmother and her even odder cousin, Randolph. Approximating friends are a neighbor tomboy named Idabel and a black servant named Zoo. Eventually Joel’s father is revealed, mute, bedridden, and as horrifying as everything and everyone else at the Landing. Among these horrors are a ghostly woman in a window where no woman belongs; a cottonmouth “thick as his leg, long as a whip”; and a mule who hangs himself.

Randolph is clearly gay, and a model for the effeminate Joel to consider, for better or for worse – sexuality aside, Randolph has a dubious moral code. He relates (among other things) the story of how he met Joel’s father, in an episode that rather reminded me of The Sun Also Rises, in which a motley mismatch of characters in a debauched setting (here, New Orleans) are remarkably frank about who wants who sexually. Later, when Joel attends a country fair with Idabel, things turn more towards Alice in Wonderland, in its sinister moments. But Capote is in his own class here, regardless of my literary comparisons. He evokes a startling, ghostly, creepy, sleepy yet stark atmosphere, and for me, that atmosphere was the great accomplishment of this novel.

Plot-wise, Joel’s story is one where not a great deal happens but a major life change takes place, anyway. This is a coming-of-age story, in which Joel starts off decidedly a child but finishes – just a few months later – a young man with a somewhat clearer picture of himself. (But, I think, no happier.) Part of that coming-of-age regards his sexuality, but only in an unstated, amorphous way, which is a fair description of the whole book, really. In fact, I have to admit to some trouble following things, as so much is unstated and wavering and strangely expressed from varying and unreliable viewpoints. That this novel is at least vaguely autobiographical I guessed; that there were themes of understanding one’s sexuality and coming-of-age was clear to me. But the rest was less clear. In fact I was reminded somewhat (to drop another literary name) of Faulkner, a la The Sound and the Fury. I won’t bother regurgitating it for you here – they are not my own interpretations – but even Wikipedia (for example) gets way more out of this story than I got. Go figure.

I think Other Voices, Other Rooms is likely to be another great candidate for a “close reading” with a knowledgeable guide – I picture my high school English teacher, Mrs. Smith – to direct related readings and fill me in on the background. Without such assistance, I still enjoyed a creepy, weird tale of cobwebbed, forgotten Southern grandeur and depravity. Take it as you will. If nothing else, Capote’s talent shines through and foreshadows his future success – but I still prefer In Cold Blood.

Rating: 6 bluejay feathers.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

As promised in yesterday’s review, I am here today to share a few of my favorite passages with you from A Girl Named Zippy.


Our dogs never misbehaved, our tires never went flat, and if the people camping next to us needed five gallons of gas, he would just happen to have it. When he was at the wheel, everyone else could sleep, because he never would. In short, he was what it meant to be a father and a man in 1971. Up against his power I could see none of his failings.

I love this image of Man In 1971 and a girl’s adoration of her father. (Also, the longer version of how her father packs up to take the family camping is freakin’ hilarious.)

Christmas was my favorite time of the year, in part because of the excellent speech, “Fear not: I bring you good tidings of great joy…” and because of the song “The Little Drummer Boy.” Anything that involved such persistent percussion was undoubtedly both religious and true.

Such persistent percussion, yes, naturally!

She was sitting at her sewing machine, making curtains for the nursery down the hall. She wasn’t pregnant yet, but would be anytime, because nobody would be a better mother, which was a thing God definitely paid attention to when He was passing out babies.

How about that sarcasm. No emoticons needed.

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

zippyHaven Kimmel wins again. This is her best-known and best-selling book, and her first memoir, and my first of her nonfiction. It is everything I had hoped for. She’s hilarious. She communicates a rather modestly lived mid-American existence in such a way that it is compelling, interesting, and occasionally involves small-scale tragedies; and at the same time it is recognizable as the lives of all of us. But on the other hand, make no mistake: Kimmel’s life as a small girl called Zippy (for her high speeds) is frequently bizarre. She was apparently funny-looking, with eyes too close together, and as a baby she was bald for an unusually long time, save a tuft of hair on the top of her head. She did not speak a single word until she was nearly three, when she began (we are told) with complete sentences. As in her novels, Kimmel introduces fully realized canine and other animal characters that her reader comes to love.

I would read anything Haven Kimmel writes; but I am especially excited about She Got Up Off the Couch, her memoir of her mother. Said mother is a character in Zippy who receives relatively little treatment, but is hinted to possess hidden depths, and I can’t wait to get to know her in my next read. Kimmel’s father, a funny, likeable mischief-maker, is a little more heavily featured. Her brother continues the theme of odd, amusing relatives. Friends from the neighborhood and from school, the local storekeeper, the old lady in the haunted house next door, and various teachers are described in brief sketches that make me giggle and paint a complete portrait in a paragraph.

A Girl Named Zippy is very, very funny; occasionally sad; insightful, beautifully written, and long on pathos. Tomorrow, come back around for quotations from a few of my favorite passages.

Rating: 8 science fiction novels.

book beginnings on Friday: A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

The beginning of this book is so good that I would like to post the prologue in its entirety. But I’m worried about copyright; so I’m instead going to post a link to Amazon, where you can “look inside” and see all of the prologue (about three pages). Do it. It’s worth it. Here.

Or, to more faithfully follow instructions, and for those of you who don’t have time to read three awesome pages (shame!), here are the opening lines…

If you look at an atlas of the United States, one published around, say, 1940, there is, in the state of Indiana, north of New Castle and east of the Epileptic Village, a small town called Mooreland. In 1940 the population of Mooreland was about three hundred people; in 1950 the population was three hundred, and in 1960, and 1970, and 1980, and so on.

And so on. Go read the rest.

The Used World by Haven Kimmel

usedworldMy love affair with Haven Kimmel continues.

Billed as the third in a “loose” trilogy begun with The Solace of Leaving Early and continued with Something Rising (Light and Swift), The Used World inhabits the same space but doesn’t share many of the same characters. In fact, I couldn’t connect any characters from Something Rising, although several are tangential to Solace. I looked again, and Amazon (et al) calls this a “trilogy of place,” so, okay. I’ll start there. The place is Hopwood County, Indiana, and the little town of Jonah. Presumably it is based in part on Kimmel’s own hometown in that state. There are drugs and dysfunction and small-town bigotry and meanness, but it’s not all bad; there are also big-hearted people and open minds, and Pastor Amos Townsend (you’ve seen his name before in an earlier book review) is a bright star. I like that he is simultaneously transcendent, intelligent, & thoughtful, and deeply fallible & human. He has company, in this book, in the three women of a secondhand shop called Hazel Hunnicutt’s Used World Emporium.

Hazel is the proprietor, in her 60’s, decidedly eccentric and devoted to her aged mother and her cats. She turns out (naturally) to have an interesting history which I won’t get into here. Claudia Modjeski is a loner and accustomed to being stared at: she is 6’5″ and well-built, and occasionally gets called sir. And then there’s Rebekah Shook, a fragile woman who only recently escaped her father’s hellfire-and-brimstone cult of condemnation and is still being made to pay for it. Into their lives come a baby boy quite literally forgotten at a nearby meth camp, and an unwanted pregnancy, and everyone’s world shifts a little.

As I’ve said about all the Kimmel books I’ve read recently, this is lovely. She has a fine, crystallized perspective on middle America. The language continues to be stunning: Kimmel is a word wizard. The erudition present in her other books I’ve read, where one or more characters are so cerebral and caught up in the theoretical as to be nearly loony, is not so much present here; but there is decidedly more religious nuttiness. There are really good people, but also less good things (case in point: forgotten baby at meth camp). As a recurring theme, romance and beauty will blossom in the most unlikely places, and I confess I’m a sucker for that. Watch closely for the little details. I had to go back and reread a bit to track a character who starts off as insignificant and suddenly looms. Kimmel is a tricky one. Subtlety. Surprises.

I may have to stop reviewing her books. I feel inadequate.

Rating: yet another 9 for Kimmel, what can I say? 9 pit bulls. (There will always be dogs in her books. I like that I can rely on that.)

Next up: Kimmel’s best-known, award-winning memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, about which I am (understandably, I think) excited, but also nervous because I don’t always agree with the general consensus about which book is an author’s best. I am also excited, perhaps even more so, about her later memoir of her mother, entitled She Got Up Off the Couch – not least because I hope to write my mother’s memoir one day, too.

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