An Artist’s Life: A Review of Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Memoir, Guess and Check
The son of a Polish-American father and Chinese immigrant mother, Thaddeus Rutkowski, along with his brother and sister, grew up in rural Central Pennsylvania. A thoughtful, intelligent child, Thaddeus had a love of nature and books and excelled at school, but was unpopular with his classmates, mostly because of his intelligence. His father was an alcoholic, an intellectual and an artist: a difficult and temperamental man without much patience for child-rearing. His mother was much more compassionate, gentle and practical; she was employed in the medical field and the primary breadwinner for the family. His mother was mysterious to him, especially her life in China before immigrating to the United States: her girlhood belongings (sandalwood fans, traditional silk dresses and slippers) were tucked away in a trunk rarely opened. As a young child Thaddeus was interested in the people around him and their inner lives. Rutkowski’s father was a hunter and an outdoorsman as well as an artist and intellectual and he encouraged his son to adopt the same traditionally masculine activities, as well as learn to be a marksman. He wanted his son to be tough and independent, not sensitive and compassionate in the ways required for a writer to blossom.
Apart from his rural childhood, Rutkowski writes of his time spent in Paris as a young man, but mostly he writes of a New York that no longer exists: when he moved here in the 1980s New York City was a place where artists could live very inexpensively, unburdened by high rents; Times Square was still loaded with peep shows and porno theatres instead of tourists. Chained bicycles were routinely stolen and apartments with fire escapes were broken into and robbed regularly.
Rutkowski seems to have led a life with very little fear, and has always been open to all kinds of people, places and experiences. That’s what makes him such an admirable storyteller: He doesn’t pull any punches; tales from his life are told in such a straightforward and honest manner that it’s impossible not to admire them. Activities that would terrify many, such as hitchhiking alone, sleeping on trains, and riding a rickety bicycle through heavy city traffic at top speeds are commonplace throughout the passages detailing his younger years; he’s an adventurer and an explorer – different than how his father expected, but still courageous in many ways.
He writes with great sensitivity and respect for women, especially his mother, sister and former lovers. He also writes lovingly, but not sentimentally, of his long relationship with his wife, Randi, and their only child, a daughter named Shay. Before becoming a writer Thaddeus studied the visual arts and was dedicated to becoming a skilled painter; his training as an artist has influenced his writing a great deal: like an impressionist painting in its structure, Guess and Check is written in short sections – little snippets of memoir and flash fiction – that only begin to create a complex narrative after the reader consumes a large quantity of pages and then pieces them together.
Rutkowski’s language is not ornate nor is his storytelling verbose, but terrific in its detail. It is a beautifully written memoir with moments of real poignancy and plenty of humor. Rutkowski does not take himself too seriously, which is hugely refreshing, as we tend to live in a world that sometimes appears to be a giant reality television program where everyone is the star on their own daily show. Guess and Check offers a glimpse into the life of an artist and man who has lived on his own terms while also being a family man and living honestly and with grace. The language is unpretentious and the book, written in short vignettes, is a quick, pleasurable read, but the themes examined, such as love, art, family, and identity are the most complex as well as deeply universal.