Haywire by Thaddeus Rutkowski (Starcherone Books, 2010)

Fractal Identity, Hard-Won Peace

by Susan Scutti

“Who am I?” is the central question of Thaddeus Rutkowski’s latest novel, Haywire. This query is posed within the context of race; the narrator, J. Thaddeus, has a mother who is Chinese, a father who is Polish-American and he and his family, which includes a sister and brother, live in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, being of mixed race in such a locality is striking to say the least. Yet despite the specificity of the narrator's issue, any reader who is of ambiguous identity in any respect—religion, gender, class—can relate to his struggles.

An exceptional craftsman, Rutkowski constructs his novel with great deliberation and austerity. Each chapter is titled and composed of separate scenes that follow one another intuitively if not always chronologically. His sentences, which most usually offer precise unemotional observation, flow effortlessly from one to the next creating a collage-like effect. His imperceptible plotting is compelling, his prose is unerring. Reading his novel, I did not skip or stumble over a sentence even once... Rutkowski is that clean, that spare.

Divided into three sections, the novel’s first third focuses on the narrator's childhood. Thaddeus is often derided by his schoolmates who call him, variously, “toad,” “chink,” “weird,” even “faerie.” For the most part he silently endures these slings and arrows, yet at times he is obliged to react. Witnessing his younger sister fighting with a boy who told her she “looked Chinese,” the narrator hits the boy, tells another to back off, and hurries away with her. “When I got home, I poked at my nose until it started to bleed. I stood with my hand over my face until my mother told me to lie down. ‘What do you think happened to him?’ she asked my father. ‘He got sun poisoning,’ my father said. ‘Either that, or he’s a hemophiliac.’ I lay on the sofa and felt blood dripping down my throat.” In this way Rutkowski subtly acknowledges the inevitable undertow of self-loathing and self-destruction which follows a biased attack (no matter the resistance mounted). And this is Rutkowski’s great strength as a novelist; he presents his truths directly and without embellishment and so his psychological knowledge travels unswervingly to its mark: a reader’s heart.

The father, an unnerving and disturbing character, is an artist and a heavy drinker and very much a man who harbors and possibly acts on his pedophile desires. “My father made a series of paintings of my sister. I didn’t see him working on them; I saw only the finished products.… [in one] the back of her nude body was shown. Two careful brushstrokes defined her buttocks.... I didn’t know if my father had worked from memory, from photos, or from life.” Although Thaddeus does not know what the father has or has not done, he does see that the sister begins “to stay away from our house at night.” Boldly, Rutkowski never portrays the father as anything less complicated than all that he is: a faltering artist; a man at odds with himself, with his wife and with his children; a hunter; a rare intellect withering within the stark landscape of Appalachia; an alcoholic; a man inappropriately acting out with his daughter; a nascent environmentalist; and a teacher. Such commanding restraint is another of Rutkowski’s many gifts as a novelist.

The second section of Haywire focuses on the first years away from home and take place at college then grad school. Thaddeus lives off campus with a white roommate and begins to address the complexity of his own identity through self-mockery; he asks if his roommate wants to eat “flied lice” then serves it up to him. Surprisingly, the presence of Asian students on campus fails to ease the narrator’s self-consciousness. Just as he does not fit with Caucasians, he also does not fit with them; more to the point, to date an Asian girl is as interracial an event as dating a Caucasian. Nevertheless, proximity to Asian students provides meaningful context for Thaddeus. “I wanted to join an Asian fraternity.... I didn't find anything like an Asian fraternity. I did, however, find a math club that had many Asian members. I found a chess club with a similar composition.” Yet it is only when Thaddeus makes a road trip to Mexico that his interior life seems to transform from black & white to Technicolor, even though to a reader it is unclear whether his resurgence is the result of long hours in a car with a real friend or the result of time spent in a third world country. “At times, the rancheros took breaks to drink from a large puddle beside the road... a man arrived on a motorcycle. In the realm of horses, the man on a bike was king.” Rutkowski suggests these “neighbors,” so different from those of his childhood and also different from his own internal polarities, provide Thaddeus with rich and unseen perspective on his own life.

The final section of the novel centers on the narrator’s life after his school years. During this period, Thaddeus quits smoking marijuana through a recovery program; also his escapist interests and sexuality converge into a full-blown fetish (bondage), which he also will eventually dismantle. It’s rare for an American author to portray sexuality non-puritanically; even the most overt sex scenes within American novels are usually shadowed either by an unconvincing amorality or by some form of negative reprisal (read Phillip Roth, for example). By recounting the psychological groundwork of Thaddeus in the childhood scenes, Rutkowski deftly exposes sexual self-expression as simply a fundamental aspect of character. The sister also communicates her wounded identity via sexuality; visiting her brother in his new city apartment, she does not hide her promiscuity, even sleeps with his roommate. In later years, the narrator learns she has become an abused wife and later, after leaving her husband, she devises a life of subservience to a worthless boyfriend. Different yet somehow still an echo, Thaddeus’ brother, the youngest in the family divorces his own wife then moves in with his mother and ultimately attempts to take over her house while she recovers from a stroke in the hospital. All three siblings, then, responding in individual ways to painful childhoods, remain deeply unhappy in the early years of their adulthood.

Rutkowski, though, does not end his novel there; in concise scenes, he shows his narrator meeting a woman he eventually marries; later he becomes a father of a daughter. This transcendent finale to Thaddeus’ life story shows him achieving, against all odds, the ultimate dream: a fulfilled life. And so Rutkowski ends his novel by recording Thaddeus’ actual dreamlife in a final, lyrical chapter titled, “Night Journeys” — a simple yet exquisite conclusion to a masterful character study.