What does one call Thomas E. Kennedy’s latest collection published by New
American Press in 2010? A collection of stories? A collection of essays? A mixture
of both? The subtitle says: A Novel in Essays. Did Kennedy just create
a new genre? The stories/essays/observations in Last Night My Bed a Boat
of Whiskey Going Down are labeled as creative nonfiction, which puts them
in the category of tweaked memoirs. The term seems relevant given that the arc of
these offerings describe the major ages of man—his youth, his young adult
years, middle age, old age on the horizon. The ingredients are laid out chronologically,
foreshadowing, perhaps, an autobiography waiting in the wings.
The first story in the collection, aptly titled “Maybe Baby,” is a reminiscence
set in New York City taking us back to the year the author first fell in love, fell
hard the way 14-year-old boys generally do, especially if the love is reciprocated,
or seems to be. “Maybe Baby” (the title comes from Buddy Holly’s
famous rock and roll hit of 1958) is a touching story about the purity of an adolescent
heart filled with ideals about love and the object of that idealization in the form
of Beatriz Gomez de Gomez. She’s an angel, a gorgeous gift from heaven. Well,
maybe not from heaven exactly. This is a learning-curve story, a hairpin turn.
“Song of Experience” with its echoes of Blake describes the more or
less harmless lamb of “Maybe Baby” maturing into a lust-filled tiger.
All grown up, he has his own apartment and five girlfriends, each with her own day
of the week, a Sunday girl, a Monday girl, so on and so forth. It’s a juggling
act, which he handles like a professional gigolo. Can’t get enough of that
good stuff. Until one by one, the lustful-lover loses his multiple partners. Some
of them break it off with him because they find out the sex is spread out indiscriminately,
not exclusive to she who must be one-and-only. Most of the women want emotionally
more than the horny boy-whore is capable of giving. He doesn’t understand
their aggrieved attitudes, but they understand his attitude well enough.
Lonely years of wandering follow our antihero, until we meet him again in a story
called “That Night on the Farm.” He’s married now and has flown
from Copenhagen to Dublin to attend a James Joyce Conference. His last night in
town he hits the pubs, has a few beers, samples some “potjeen” (an Irish
moonshine) and flirts with a young woman he spies reading The New Yorker.
She’s from Cleveland. He startles her with his knowledge of that city, how
it holds the largest population of Slovenians in “the world outside of Slovenia.”
Much impressed, she allows him to buy her a drink and feed her oysters. Eventually,
he takes her back to his room, where they enjoy a night of lovemaking.
Sober the next morning, he finds himself confused and amazed at how easily he slipped
into adultery after just four years of marriage. In a telling moment, he buys a
bar of Bronnley’s lemon soap as a gift for his wife, the same brand that
Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom bought for Molly on June 16, 1916, while she
was preparing to cuckold him with Blazes Boylan.
The guilty husband flies home and gives his wife the soap. She washes her hands
with it. She smells lemony, “its fresh, innocent scent” entering his
nostrils. They have drinks together on the balcony. The drinks loosen the wife’s
tongue. She confesses to having sex with a man, an acquaintance they both know.
It happened suddenly, within a year of the marriage. The husband is so stunned he
can hardly speak. She wants forgiveness. “It’s okay. I forgive you,”
he says. “I just need a little time to absorb this.” She goes to bed
angry after he refuses to have sex with her. He sits alone on the balcony, his thoughts
racing as he tries to process what it all means, her infidelity, his infidelity,
who is the bigger sinner here? Either/Or?
“It’s Turku It’s Snowing” might be titled “Breaking
Up is Hard to Do.” We leap ahead a number of years. The marriage is on the
rocks, but the husband is trying to find ways to save it. He takes his family to
Crete for a vacation. The kids play in the pool. The wife sits in a lounge chair
looking sour and bored. Later that night, he comes to the conclusion that no matter
what happens tomorrow, the marriage is doomed. “
Liv and you will never find
your way to one another. At best it will be a cold truce.” She goes to bed
that night and, as usual, he drinks alone. He recalls a Georgios Seferis poem:
“The stranger and the enemy/ We have seen him in the mirror.”
We meet the enemy again in “I Am Joe’s Prostate,” an essay that
won Kennedy the National Magazine Award in 2008. It covers a period in which he
had a major cancer scare and was subjected to 32 painful biopsies and surgery to
scrape out what the all-knowing doctor assured him would be cancerous tissue. Only
it wasn’t cancerous tissue, not a cell of it. His excruciating little walnut
of a prostate, now damaged, was never harboring malignant tumors eager to kill him.
After being released from the hospital, Kennedy did what any writer would do (or
at least should do), he wrote about the experience. One might anticipate a dark
story full of scary stuff, but Kennedy somehow sees the humor of the cancer
“rumors” and arrogant doctors, with their godlike certainty, and nurses
who handle his privates as if they’re examining a finger, the pushing and poking,
the humiliation of becoming not a man but a thing to be manipulated like a lab rat.
“I Am Joe’s Prostate” is full of irony, full of grim giggles.
It’s as perfect a piece of writing as this reviewer has ever read.
In the following story, “Adventures of an Old Dude,” Kennedy is kicked
out of his long-time girlfriend’s bed and has to find a new apartment. It
seems the girlfriend, her name is Bodil, is having an affair with her “analyst.”
Well, maybe he’s an analyst or maybe he isn’t. Kennedy is suspicious
because the man is treating Bodil for free. Hmm, whatever the truth of the matter,
Kennedy is totally blindsided. He says he did not expect it:
You did not expect this.
You did not expect that she would be sending you and others strange, vaguely poisonous
You did not expect to dine alone on Christmas Eve on pork belly and chopped cabbage
in an upscale diner by the harbor.
Over the next few months he withdraws from the world. He gorges himself on TV, drowns
his sorrows in vodka, listens to jazz and dances alone in his apartment. But finally
he girds his loins and ventures forth. He’s lonely. He thinks he’s ready
for some female encounters, companionship. Maybe sex? Sex would be nice. Easier
said than done, however. Wandering the streets of Copenhagen, stopping at this or
that pub, he meets plenty of women, converses with them, but doesn’t get any
“hanky panky.” He wants hanky panky, but every woman he meets seems
to have something wrong with her, a funny-looking nose, a porcine face, a porcine
body, old and mumbley, or way too young for an old dude. No fool like an old fool,
he tells himself. He pictures himself old and ugly “and alone and at the mercy
of your loneliness.” He is filled with self-pity and a heart-rending sadness
that plagues him daily.
One night he becomes deathly ill, his back wracked with terrible pain. He passes
a kidney stone, which “on a scale of 1 to 10? This has its own scale which
outweighs all normal measures.” After he recovers, he gets back in the game.
Makes love to a woman half his age. He drinks heavily, smokes pot, flirts, hangs
out at a variety of pubs, but in the end nothing he does is satisfying.
Kennedy ends the book with an abrupt switch in point of view, from second person
to third person. It’s as if he’s looking for distance from his own experiences
and trying to judge them. The main subject of the final chapter is love and how
it fades, how we lose it, how it haunts us.
Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down is wry, ironic, and full
of self-deprecating humor, so much so that it is easy to miss that the leitmotif
holding the collection together is an understated cry of the heart, a cri de
Coeur compounded with the difficulties of aging and the almost certain knowledge
that love will never come in quite the way it was when he believed he had found his
soul-mate, Bodil, who, for whatever reason, didn’t want him anymore. Shit
happens. Then you pick yourself up and get on with whatever the future has in store
for you. And Kennedy does just that, picks himself up time after time and moves on.
Written by a great lover of life in all its alluring forms (especially its feminine
forms), his offerings, his “novel in essays,” is compelling from beginning
to end, a wonderful ride through the mind of a man brutally battered but ultimately
—Previously published in South Carolina Review
is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel
(The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year
(The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short
Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.
Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City
Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review,
New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated
into six languages.