On the day that my first novel hit the shelves, I was introduced to Thomas E. Kennedy. We were appearing at a writers’ conference in New Jersey — I, the nervous new kid on the block; Tom, the veteran novelist and author of countless short stories. He shook my hand as a fellow man of letters and bought drinks, along with a copy of my book. I was honored and yet emotionally drained from my first serious gig as an author, but unless I was comatose, it would have been impossible not to gather a sense of the gracious, intelligent, and thoughtful man who would later become my friend.
First, I needed to understand Tom Kennedy as “one of the greatest living short story writers.” This is the way I now describe him to other writers — the scribes who forever hold the short form in esteem. It is not that I harbor a preference for living writers. It is more that a working collection of short stories serves as no better measure of a writer’s assembling oeuvre. Novels are expansive undertakings that take years to build and even longer to grasp. When they are complete, they stand as signposts and skyscrapers, mountains even, but they are stationary and iconic at best.
The short form is always moving. It gauges the depth and breath of the artist’s force and temperament. There is a compulsive yet natural craft to good short prose. Like the hexagonal weave of a honeycomb, collected short stories become fertile interconnected cells — small moments captured and illuminated through the prism of the writer’s personality. They create permanent images that we carry throughout our lives. They serve as talismans for our ideas. When we spur into action or shy from danger, the decision might be only that which we have gained through the experience of story. It is the ancient art form first shared through oral tradition and eventually wrought by master scribes such as Kennedy.
In an early collection of Kennedy’s stories, Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight, the eponymous story is narrated by the lonely Twomey, who has lost his lover through attrition of spirit. He is painfully self-conscious, and his imagination runs the gamut of many lives, each turning against him. In this quiet, self-sabotaging interior landscape, everything happens and then nothing at all. Songs of regret weave through promise, hope, memory, and the brilliant activity of apparently more fruitful lives. In all of this, he is alone until he plunges beyond his fears and the inner core of himself. In this way, the sea becomes the stage for the dangers of self-transformation.
The sea is not to be fooled with my friend. You go to the sea alone and the sea may just decide she wants to keep you there, so do not fool with this, okay, my friend?
Of course, Twomey — not unlike the author, not unlike any serious writer — must go to sea alone to harvest its treasure, and the jewels are found close to the soul, like the gems of Kennedy’s stories.
Two years after our introduction, Tom Kennedy and I crossed paths at another writer’s conference. By now, I had three books under my belt. I was cockier and more ambitious. Tom was warm and supportive. His hand extended first. He remembered my name. I’ve come to learn that good manners are not only a sign of civility, but a superb indication of true intelligence and insight. I cannot be persuaded into believing that hauteur and arrogance are the shields that buffer ones superiority from others. They provide more evidence that one lacks the base knowledge that civilization must interact well in order to thrive, perhaps even to survive. A glance about the current affairs of the world proves that a society’s worth is only as good as its manners.
At the time of our second meeting, I was the editor of a fledgling literary magazine. Tom immediately offered his credibility in the form of a story called “The Great Master” — the disturbing and fixating tale of a man who eats his way into oblivion. The narrator retracts from his family, home, and livelihood, but he cannot retreat from his mortal flaws and neuroses. He locks himself in his basement, eating all of the kept staples in sight. It reads like a nuclear bomb shelter scenario set in fast motion, but the world outside continues to turn. In the narrator’s self-abandonment, layered in ripples of fatted flesh, he becomes the god-like stuff of folklore, attracting followers to his subterranean domicile, his self-ascribed hole in the earth.
Sometimes many people come, sometimes few. When there are few, I worry, and when I worry, that worries me even more: that my appetite will abandon me, that I will begin to shrink, that I will lose my power to draw followers and offerings, that I will go hungry. — As gods we begin. And end in hunger
Eventually, Tom Kennedy would take lodging in my home during one of his many author tours through the United States. After decades in Copenhagen, Tom can be described as Danish-American. His adopted European ways bring a refined edge to the fabled spit and swagger of his native Queens. I had the pleasure of joining him on a couple of gigs and later splitting a bottle or two of whatever excited our livers. We stayed up through the night and regrettably discussed anything but writing. I prodded him for secrets in hope for advice, but he only replied, “I try to work every day.”
This is the business of true scribes: to never share the story in progress, to not talk of the mystery. I only needed to return to his stories to garner my answers. Any writer worth his pen and paper understands that his lessons await him on the pages of other writers, as much as his own. I might crack open a Kennedy collection to view the effluence of human drama — love, loss, desire, ecstasy. As a writer, I pay homage. As a reader, I acquire clarity.
In 2007, circumstance conspired so that I was editing — ever so lightly — Kennedy’s latest collection of short stories, Cast Upon the Day. This was a more mature collection, although Kennedy’s unique fingerprints are viewed throughout the pages, as in the story The Splendor of Truth. The paranoid, Hamlet-like Dittel cannot determine his mind and ruminates over secret germs, the recesses of Goethe’s ancient skull, and ultimately the hidden meanings of his unexpressed feelings.
What should he wish to relive? It would be too sad to relive the sweet moments and too devastating to relive the sad ones. You couldn’t change anything anyway, he was sure of that. No one’s dreams would come true. His beloved father would anyway die of drink. His brother would die in the war. His sister would marry a stinker who beat her with his fists and her own son, so sweet as a lad, would do the same to his wife. His mother would still never cuddle him when he really really needed it
Kennedy rarely leaves the narrators of his stories stranded. Not only would this be impolite, they come too close to our own lives to remain desolate and despair over their failings. Kennedy nudges his characters to the breaking point, shatters them at times, but leaves the pieces in sight for reassembly. It is just and fair. He understands that without hope and reprieve there would be nary a reason to go forward.
I, along with many others, await Kennedy’s next move.