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1134 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Beneath the Neon Egg
by Thomas E. Kennedy

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

Bloomsbury (2014)

Cover of Beneath the Neon Egg by Thomas E. Kennedy

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Beneath the Neon Egg begins with a jarring “threesome”—a man ambushed by two women (one whom he knows well, the other a stranger). After the encounter, the narrative becomes a meditation on the meaning of love—its connection to sex and ecstasy and pain and music and liquor and loneliness.

Kennedy’s tale chronicles the experiences and musings of expatriate Patrick “Blue” Bluett as he struggles to make sense of his life and his relationships with a variety of women, including his ex-wife and his son and daughter. The passages showing Bluett’s interaction with his two children are the finest expressions of what true love really is. Bluett’s earlier “threesome” leaves him feeling ashamed and degraded. He wishes it hadn’t happened and he knows it won’t happen again. What he experienced was a fantasy that should have never been realized. It was “Mechanical? Planned? Unengaging? Lacking in intimacy. Yes.” He looks at the definition of intimacy: “...belonging to or characterizing one’s deepest nature...marked by a warm friendship...” (104). Intimacy is the word describing how he feels about his kids: “A love supreme a love supreme a love supreme a love supreme...” (108).

While searching for “the holy world of love,” Bluett attempts to explain it as it pertains to love between a man and a woman: Can it be something as simple as this? To share life like this? Just unwrap, unwire, uncork the champagne and enjoy one another, and nothing else is required? [Love is] ...pleasure and joy and human communion and comingling (64).

As he continues to contemplate the holiness of love, he remembers that his twenty-one year marriage failed. A marriage that had an optimistic and promising start, ended with Bluett and his wife “unable to be in the same room with each other.” It’s a moment when he realizes that love is too often the “stale religion of pleasure.” And he tells us: I’m not sure we’re made for pleasure. We’re turned into orgasm dogs, pawing the orgasm button till we perish from neglect of our other needs. We are not meant to be happy. Guilt and sorrow is our natural lot (66).

Despite all the disappointments and heartache, Bluett keeps searching. He’s chained to the act of dreaming. Maybe true love waits in that shabby pub across the street; or maybe in that nightclub with its neon egg beckoning; or around the corner he might meet the woman who can make him forget his aborted marriage and all that he’s lost. One would have to say for love-starved Bluett that in the midst of a vicious, indifferent world, at least the man refuses to surrender to his own pessimistic thoughts. He tries. And tries again. Even though too often he finds disenchantment in public places and hard-bitten women who want physical contact but are wary of Bluett, wary to the point of paranoia. These women, like Bluett, have been burned.

Liselotte, a woman who for a while seems to love him, proves to be just one more disappointment. “What is our goal?” she asks him. “To please one another,” he tells her. “Isn’t that okay?” She gets testy, her mouth puffed with petulance. “I am not interested in getting AIDS,” she says (92). Another hard fact of the new world Bluett has entered is the irony of death-dealing diseases caused by a so-called “act of love.” It’s a dangerous game and occasionally he isn’t willing to play it. There is more safety and solace in music, where one can lose one’s self by simmering in millions of vibrations (95).

Beneath the Neon Egg is not only a meditation on love. It is also an encomium glorifying music, especially jazz, and especially John Coltrane’s majestic symphony, A Love Supreme, the gifted saxophonist’s humble offering to his god, which Bluett listens to as he gazes out the window of his apartment to the frozen streets of his adopted city, listening as if he’s asking for mercy and forgiveness, finding briefly in Coltrane’s sounds “thought waves, heat waves”: [The music] vibrates in his limbs, enters his blood, calming a mantra, like a prayer to whatever power is greater than our own, greatest in the universe (107).

The religion of Coltrane’s heavenly sounds overcomes (for the moment) the religion of sexual pleasure. Bluett grasps the truth of music, its frequent holy nature, before submerging again in the deep blues and litter of his life and the lives of those around him. A state of mind where booze can dull the pain-filled edges for a time, and calm his terror of those Satanic forces at work on the other side of Bluett’s flimsy door.

When his best friend, Sam, is found dead, Bluett suspects the worst, that Sam was murdered. Bluett finds his friend’s memoir filled with descriptions “of strange passions.” The memoir connects Bluett to the impulses of his own sensuous life. “Is it evil?” writes Sam. Then: Or is it grace? It feels like Grace. It feels like something holy. Or is it the flame that kills the moth? I believe that many men, perhaps all men, have a shadow life...and that is why they are so willing to attack one whose secrets are revealed and why it is necessary to keep them hidden. I know this from bitter experience (141).

Did Sam’s strange passions lead him down a road that finally led to treachery, to murder? Will Bluett’s own life lead a similar way if he doesn’t get a grip, quit drinking so much, quit chasing women, hanging out in bars and walking the winter streets in search of something that will renew his faith in life? It takes the entire novel for Kennedy to give us some answers. Or maybe they aren’t answers. Maybe they’re just ambiguous options.

As in all four of the novels Kennedy set in Copenhagen, Beneath the Neon Egg captures those recurring, compelling voices of men and women aware of how helpless and disconnected they are living within the isolation of their own enigmatic minds. And wondering: Is this what is happening to everyone in the world? Everyone sitting alone and thinking? [And] ...going about pretending not to be alone, when in fact they are alone. Aren’t they? (106).

With his customary stylistic brilliance and complex characterizations that rival the best authors of his time, a wiser but darker Thomas E. Kennedy gives us a wanderer chasing life, chasing truth, longing for connection to something nourishing and durable. Blue Bluett eager and ever desperate for— “a love supreme.”

Beneath the Neon Egg is the fourth and final novel comprising Thomas E. Kennedy’s magnificent Copenhagen Quartet. This reviewer can’t help wishing the Quartet were a Quintet.

—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Volume 47, Number 1, Fall 2014)


“...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