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A Novel Scrapbook 

Thaddeus Rutkowski uses photographs instead of words in this narrative tome

Thaddeus Rutkowski, public genius.
  • Thaddeus Rutkowski, public genius.
If the first novel by Thaddeus Rutkowski -- from which he will be reading in Cleveland Heights and Kent this weekend -- were made into a movie, it would have to be a slide show. Roughhouse, subtitled A Novel in Snapshots, is a collection of the impressions of a nameless narrator -- from his childhood with a Chinese mother, spouting off nonsensical aphorisms, and a father with a penchant for firearms, to his adult life as a corporate cog with a thing for tying up his girlfriends.

"I write in images," Rutkowski says. "It was intended to be vignettes that added up. There are gaps in between, but I hope that you see the continuity between them."

A copy editor in New York City by profession, Rutkowski's most public claim to fame is winning the Poetry Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café, and it is his performance approach to writing -- reading snippets out loud to an audience -- that appears to have affected his work most.

"I believe in listening to other people and making contact with your writing, and finding out what other people think," he says. "I'm not an isolated genius. I'm trying to connect with an audience."

His unique style, somewhere between prose poem and a novel written for short attention spans, is sure to fit right in with the turn-of-the-millennium channel-surfing mentality, though the book may be a tad disturbing for many readers.

Ostensibly the tale of a man who discovers the baggage he acquired from childhood didn't get left at home when he moved out, Roughhouse is a glimpse at the effects of living in a darkly dysfunctional family, where incest, violence, and love vie equally for attention. Sometimes the action is black humor, sometimes it makes you wriggle nervously in your seat, and often it evokes a sense of sympathy for what could be, in another author's hands, a collection of unsympathetic characters.

"The first part, about childhood, is more horrific," admits Rutkowski. "Mainly because I think children have a harder time surviving than adults. In the second half, there's a sense of play -- sort of the idea of not taking oneself too seriously. There's supposed to be a plausibility about it, but there's supposed to be an element of doubt, also."

In the first part, the father -- all of the characters are unnamed -- spends his life bouncing between his daughter's bed and threatening people with his shotgun, somehow missing the fact that he has a wife much wiser than he imagines. The second part finds the narrator replicating the milieu of sex and violence in which he was raised with an adult obsession for porn and tying up his girlfriends, also oblivious to the women's feelings. Yet the plot is not driven by the action, as a traditional novel would be. Rather, the story gains momentum from how the narrator reacts to the things around him.

"I thought, if the [narrator] develops, then that's enough to drive the story forward," Rutkowski explains. "When you think of a novel, you expect a straightforward narrative. This book is not straightforward -- though it is chronological. It's like there's a clear image, and the things around it are kind of vague."

The writing is concise, skillfully fashioning a whole story from seemingly unrelated images, but the reported feel of Roughhouse may be its only shortcoming. Though certain aspects and images strike you as you read them, the lasting impression is of entertainment culled from someone else's tragedy.

"I only know about these things secondhand," he agrees. "And that's how it's presented: as someone telling it to me. There's a control in the writing, but a lack of control in the subject matter. I wanted to strike a chord with readers. I wanted it to be sort of like a punk song, where every note is loud."

But let's hope, like a punk song, the noise clears with the hangover next morning. -- Powers

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