Don’t Tell Me Your Childhood Was Not A Minefield: A review of Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Guess and Check (Philadelphia Stories)
Originally from Philadelphia Stories
An effective technique in poetry is to guide the reader on a journey that feels like you’re discovering together as opposed to resorting to a heavy-handed didactic approach. Guess and Check is not a collection of poetry, however, Rutkowski employs this tactic as we follow his protagonist on life’s obstacle-ridden path; a process of trial and error while navigating a magnified reality—scenarios wild enough you want to believe they couldn’t possibly happen, but not far-fetched enough to be disregarded as absurd. As a result, these stories uncannily hit home. You get that back of your head worry—somewhere in America lives are unfolding in a frighteningly similar fashion.
The family dynamics in Guess and Check illustrate how a person acquires life experience—often in bits and pieces, by hearsay and chance—like the child who touches the stove and learns it is hot, Rutkowski’s protagonist puts his finger in his father’s fly-tying vice. His father initially shows him the vice saying, “You should learn to make something useful.” Playing with the vice later, the child notes, “My fingertip would have burst if I’d kept going.” In Guess and Check, all is consistently on the brink, consistently on the line.
Guess and Check is a thought-provoking book, subtly nudging the reader to reflect how our choices shape our reality and lead us to our present selves. Engaging with the text, here’s something that tumbled onto the page after sitting with G&C for a while: We learn lessons over and over. Mind you, I don’t mean we learn the same lesson over and over, although certainly in some cases that is also a truism. Rather, my sense is we adopt a methodology for lesson learning, and we rely on this strategy to find our footing in any new circumstance. At some point, we all learn that fire burns. How we learn that fire burns is what makes us individuals. The branch splits with each choice creating the unique tree that is a human life.
Reading these stories, I occasionally felt Murphy’s Law—that anything that can go wrong will go wrong—was somehow at play. The following, though it may appear to be a low stakes example, illustrates the point well—if you can’t even manage the energy to secure a decent night’s sleep it feels the universe has aligned against you.
Once awake, I noticed that the air had gone out of my mattress; I was resting on the hard floor. I blew up the mattress, but I was too tired to inflate it completely. When morning came, I was again lying on the floor, with only a sheet of plastic between my body and the wood.
Instead of dwelling on grim fatalism—calling to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s term “The Doomed”—Rutkowski’s characters are resilient—they don’t get down on themselves, they roll with the punches. After a scene of brutality, in the next vignette they generally seem no worse for the unpleasantness experienced before. Or perhaps, these characters are simply that well-trained in compartmentalizing the horrors. You put them in a box, you put that box in the attic, and you do not enter that attic under any circumstances.
What I said about characters managing to appear undamaged is not wholly true. From scene to scene the protagonist may seem to cope, but then you’ll wince watching his exposure to abuse without displaying emotion. Of course, this is a survival mechanism—but from the outside looking in it’s frightening to bear witness to the learned behavior response that results from repeated trauma.
When a teenager shoots one of the family dogs and the protagonist confronts the teenager for an explanation, the teenager says, “He was running across my yard, so I picked up my .22 and plugged him.” The section breaks here.
Violence and gunplay escalates throughout the text. Here too there seems to be a lesson about indoctrination into normalcy. Later, the protagonist is living in New York and decides to reclaim a gun his father had given him as a child. He looks into obtaining a permit, but the paperwork is cumbersome. He opts not to bother with the paperwork; possession of a firearm is simply not a big deal to him. After all, he grew up around guns.
He’s babysitting a child one day and lets the child handle the weapon. When the mother arrives to pick up the child she is less than pleased.
In this next gunplay example, Rutkowski’s dark humor comes through:
“Did you have to take a course to learn how to shoot?” my friend asked.
“Yes,” I said. “The instructor set up a cabbage and told us, ‘This has the consistency of a man’s head.’ Then he pointed a shotgun at it and pulled the trigger.
“My god,” my friend said.
“Just showed what could happen.” I said.
Rutkowski employs humor that offsets the frenetic uncertainly and darkness. And the humor increases when the protagonist is an adult. The reader can bear in mind that there are glimmers of light at the end of the winze while navigating the dangerous waters of childhood that occupy the early sections of G&C.
Here’s a glimpse into Rutkowski’s protagonist as an adult:
Later, I walked my guest out to the street and helped her hail a cab. I must have been nervous, because when I shut the car door for her, the metal frame hit me in the face.
Before I wrap up, here are a few more examples of Rutkowski’s memorable voice:
Even in daylight, the flames were filled with energy.
In the shared kitchen I found lizards living behind the appliances. They were geckos of some sort. They clung to the walls when I made coffee. Maybe they liked the heat radiating from the stove coils, or maybe they just liked clinging to walls.
He said he wanted to go to the bottom of the pit. He said he was already there.
In these vignettes, Rutkowski offers lessons that are not always clear cut. And, at times, you’re left wondering what it all means, what kind of lasting effect would these experiences have on a person. As the protagonist is followed from childhood to adulthood, I kept wondering how someone could undergo all of these damaging experiences and come out on the other side unbroken. Maybe that’s a question Guess and Check requires of its readers. Who among us can say they’ve made it this far unscathed?