on June 27, 2008
In a former incarnation, I lived together with a now-ex wife in a beautiful apartment that had been the home of my ex-wife's grandparents. I loved this place, because the decor, the coral base-lit floor lamps, the art deco radio, the wallpaper was 1940's and '50's vintage and some pieces quite possibly dated from a decade or two before. This is the America that the grown Weldon Kees inhabited, and the smells, the arabesques on the carpeting, the tinny sounds of the radio are all replicated to perfection in these stories. In fact, reading these stories reminds me of climbing the back steps to that great apartment I once lived in and creaking open the door. All the things this tragic suicide knew are there: the Lucky Strike commercials, the tough guys saying See? See? over and over as they jabbed each other in the chest in the black and white movies Kees loved to watch. The short stories Kees writes are full of the telling details of a different, brasher, bolder, certain of itself America, but an America that could still drive sensitive people to despair. Some of these stories have the understated power of Kees' poems: "The Ceremony" with its nightmarish "petrified Indians" and a strange predicament right out of Kafka; the brother/pimp of "I Should Worry" who sits downstairs in his parts store while his deaf and dumb sister services a man upstairs in the same room in which their parents gassed themselves years before; an older spinster sister outraged by the sound of a couple next door having sex and struggling with the younger sister in a thwarted attempt to knock on the wall. There are memorable characters here aplenty and a clarity of language and vision that can be found in the best of Kees' poems. However, though I am mighty glad that Kees wrote these stories, I am even gladder that he abruptly stopped to write the often darkly exquisite poems, for Kees was obviously not a first-rate talent in his prose, mainly because he allows his lack of sympathy for some characters to portray them as one-dimensional cartoons. (Perhaps he lacked the "Negative Capability" that allows a great writer to love even the bad guys he or she creates.) Women, for instance, often appear in a totally unsympathetic,one-dimensional light. Indeed, in many of these stories women assume all the complexity of an "Our Miss Brooks" episode, stepping forth as carping harridans and frustrated, fire-spitting viragoes. Gays too are a problematic subject for Kees. "A Trip to the Mountains" and "The Life of the Mind" present homosexuality in a stereotypical way. However, given these obvious flaws, this selection of stories introduces readers to yet more glittering facets of a dark gem of a writer who left us all too soon.
on November 14, 2002
No one knows how, or when, or even whether, Weldon Kees died. Having talked both of fleeing to Mexico and of suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge, his car was found near the latter on July 18, 1955. No hint of the man has since emerged.
But while he was active, Kees wrote fiction (initially), poetry, and cultural criticism of all kinds for major national periodicals; he painted (abstract expressionism), was a jazz musician, made films, and collaborated with anthropologists and behavioural scientists on various ventures. From his time of relocation to New York until his disappearance, he circled with many of the avant garde leaders in the New York art scene. Brief as his life was, it represents one of the most multi-faceted talents of his, or any, age.
Born in the plains (Beatrice, Nebraska, 1914) to parents operating a hardware store, Kees had several short stories published while in his twenties, but quit writing them altogether by the early forties when he moved east. They (43 in all) thus confine almost exlusively to glum-faced real-life depictions of common folks in depressed, small, mid American towns. Dana Goia has selected about a third of these, those deemed most successful, and includes an informative introduction. Kees, in this work, reflects clearly the social-conditions focus of the thirties throughout the US and presents his small gems in down-keyed, often unresolved, personal reflections and observations on everyday hum-drum existence by a generally undistinguished, often quietly frustrated narrator-protagonist. Generally these are finely edited, simple-language depictions of unfulfilled yearning and coping with material boredom and insignificance.
Stylistically, most are relatively brief and trenchant in their resolute resistance to unfounded optimism. But they are poignant within the simple, disciplined writing, and the reader is pulled gently and feelingly into the glum world of the however hapless, however compromised narrator. All presented in a gray climate unaccommodating of patriotic, religious, or familial panegyric.
Kees is a unique, if minor figure in American 20th century literature, and the thoughtful reader will be rewarded by giving him some time, likely reminded - nostalgically perhaps in the half-tone depression hues Kees uses - of the unadorned nature of the lives most of us lead.