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1450 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Getting Lucky: New and Selected Stories 1982-2012
by Thomas E. Kennedy

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

New American Press (September, 2012)

Cover of Getting Lucky by Thomas E. Kennedy

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From 1982 to 2012, the themes in Kennedy’s New & Selected Stories have remained consistent: meaning and purpose, good and evil, loneliness, alienation, isolation, the endless quest for love, the domineering nature of fear itself and the certainty that nearly all of us have a secret life that shames us. Men and women in these stories are often seen struggling with inner demons and compulsions. They routinely give into impulsive behavior while trying haplessly to mend their lives.

In most of the stories making up Kennedy’s powerful 2013 collection, human beings (primarily men) are laboring to discover the point of it all, life, death, happiness, sorrow, sex. Usually, their striving centers on finding someone or some thing to love, but very often what they thought might enhance life, ends up diminishing it instead. This is what happens in “Bonner’s Women.” Bonner sees an old lover in a bar and feels embarrassed by the intimacy they used to share. He wishes the affair had never happened; he wishes he had “stayed home with his wife and children where he should have been” (257).

You should hear what they say
About you: cheat cheat cheat.

Guilt is the aftereffect of Bonner’s betrayal of his wife. The sex he had with his lover was nothing exceptional. But adultery itself is exceptional, at least in Bonner’s mind. Truth is he now has the burden of a secret life that his family must never know about. Consequently, instead of enriching his life, the affair leaves a melancholy unease that persistently troubles him. Bonner thinks that people go into love affairs telling themselves that “there is no such thing as cheating, you only live once and must not rob yourself of the few small pleasures available” (259). But what cheaters often find is a great smudge on their lives that will never ever rub off.

Kennedy’s men invariably adore women and are quick to fall in love-lust. In “Kansas City,” an aging Lothario named Johnny Fry sees a girl in a store, a “hardbody in baggie jeans and flannel shirt” (273). He fantasizes about her and about the possibility that she is the one he has been searching for. “His entire life might deflect off this chance moment” (273). But ultimately it comes to nothing and Fry’s heart is suspended in its own tenderness as he moves on, ever longing for the woman who will fulfill his needs.

Story follows story exposing our illusions, while also embracing those same illusions, accepting them for what they are—a means of coping. In “A Cheerful Death,” Jastovic is determined to celebrate life despite the fact that ruin is closing in on him. Jastovic is an income tax cheater and the FBI is on his trail. He leaves for Las Vegas and high living, spending his ill-gotten gains. It’s a humorous, ironic, on-the-run story of a man determined to be cheerful in a world full of fractured, uncaring people. The cheater applauds the pure joy of simply being alive in a world where the products of nature, whether human or otherwise, couldn’t be more indifferent to him, couldn’t care less if he laughs or cries, feels pain and sorrow, lives or dies. Cheerfully, he bears it all and cheerfully thumbs his nose at the silence of the universe. It’s a funny story—if you like dark humor.

Several tales in the collection deal with non-conformists addicted to exploring the outer-limits of freedom. These are people not inclined to follow the dictates of society, and most of them will always be on the edge, pushing boundaries, opening up dangerous worlds of ideas, new visions, maybe even sick visions, and there will always be an establishment trying to eliminate or muzzle them. Which is what happens in “Landing Zone X-Ray.” An Army deserter named Danny is kept hidden by his best friend for six months before he’s found and brutally taken into custody and ends up in prison. The narrator thinks about never seeing Danny again. Danny silenced, and now many years have passed and perhaps he’s dead:

How arbitrary it all seems. Danny’s life, mine. The fact that a nation, a president makes a bad choice, thousands of people die violent deaths. ...I am old enough now to glimpse that place up ahead where my days will end, a natural death probably, although who knows? Perhaps I will be killed by someone shaped into a murderer by poverty, misery, the chance turning of events. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I will die as quietly as fall becomes winter, a withering. Fading. (338)

Kennedy’s title story, “Getting Lucky,” speaks to the linked motifs of meaning and purpose. The main character is Lucas “Lucky” Bohannon. We meet him in New York, where he attends an award ceremony and wins first place at the National Magazine Awards. “Lucky” is on top of the world. For the moment, things are as good as they ever get. The next day he flies home and finds a party waiting for him, arranged by Lotte-Mia, the woman he loves. She has been with him fifteen years. She is a writer also, but not as prolific and award-winning as Lucky is. Throughout the party she is standoffish, doesn’t want to kiss Lucky or even hug him. He doesn’t understand what has happened. Why isn’t she happy for him? Everyone else is patting him on the back, shaking his hand, kissing his cheek, offering sincere congratulations. But not Lotte-Mia.

At one point Lucky tries to get her to tell him what is wrong:

Lotte-Mia laughs—to his ear it seems a dark note—and looks at Bohannon with a smile that is not friendly. “The little man,” she says, “with the big ass,” and steps past him and is gone. (153)

When he wakes the next morning she isn’t there. Instead, there are four handwritten pages whereon she has calculated that he owes her seventy thousand dollars in back rent. She also says she wants him to put a bed in his office. Another note follows days later in which she tells him to “Get Out.” Lucky tells himself:

Things change so fast sometimes. Look away for a second and people who once were bound by love are enemies forever. (156)

So what does “Getting Lucky” mean in this story? It could mean that winning the big prize was lucky for him. But it could also mean that Lotte-Mia decided she didn’t love him anymore and loathed that he won the award and decided she would get him for it. He scours his mind trying to understand what happened to her. Could his sudden fame and good fortune have made her so envious, so jealous that she now actually hates him? Surely she’ll come back and tell him. He waits. And waits. Finally she threatens him with eviction. So he finds an apartment close by and rents it. He moves his furniture in. Gets drunk. But continues to wait for her explanation. He ponders the meaning of it all, the purpose. Sometimes things happen to us and we never know exactly why. He remembers Sophocles saying:

Do not think that you are in command. And if you start to think it, remember how when you were in command you crafted your own destruction.
Did I craft this destruction? (163)

Kennedy’s stories tell us we are commonly alienated and easily segregated and we often turn to what we call love and create of it a means of circumventing our isolation. But love can’t save us. The ultimate insight that comes through time after time is that no matter what we do, no matter how many churches or cults we join, no matter what gods we make of charismatic figures who wish to control us for their own ends, no matter what stone figures we worship or rituals we perform, we are left with who or what we have made of ourselves. We are products of the baggage we have acquired over the course of our lives. Some of that baggage makes us dance. Some of it weighs us down.

Getting Lucky is bursting with the manic trappings of life, its humor, its loneliness, its emotion, its terror, love-found, love-lost, love of love itself—which is partly a love of being alive. There are no heroes in Kennedy’s stories. And no philosophers who have answers. There are only human beings, you and I and others, confused and full of questions, struggling to create a reality we can live with, while clinging to illusions that support our survival. Without them, naked existence itself would soon overwhelm us.


—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Fall 2013)


SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Duff Brenna

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, a Pushcart Honorable Mention—and, most recently, a 2013 Indie Book Award (Minnesota Memoirs was chosen as Winner in the Short Story category).

Brenna’s latest books include a memoir, Murdering the Mom (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2012), and a collection of short stories, Minnesota Memoirs (Serving House Books, 2012).

His novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, which he says is one of his favorites, was re-released in 2010 (New American Press). A New York Times review of this book says, “It is loaded with all the ingredients of an underground is nearly impossible to put down.”

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.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury