National Post (Latest Edition)

Find comfort with the strange in Andrea Kleine’s Calf

- Calf By Andrea Kleine Soft Skull Press 368 pp; $35 Philip Marchand Weekend Post

Calf is a dual-track novel, -travelled on by twowo protagonis­ts who are among the most woebegone characters you will ever meet in fiction.

W-e are introduced to Tam my first, an 11- year- old girl living in Washington, D. C. with her mother and her stepfather Nick, a creep who habitually warns his family and the world not to push his buttons lest a tantrum ensue. This makes it hard to have a conversati­on with the man. In a typically contentiou­s argument with Nick, Klein describes Tammy’s “voice squeezing itself out between uncertain breaths.” Klein likes to foreground breath as an indicator of a person’s state of being — hence in the novel we have long breaths, tiny b-reaths, shallow breaths, sag gy breaths, breathing through the nose in order to appear self- controlled, a murderess b-reathing in sync with her vic tim, another killer holding his breath and experienci­ng the sensation of floating.

Tammy is largely left in c- harge of the younger sib lings — including Steffi, who, Kleine writes, “made a point o- f being good so that every one would love her.” This is a skill beyond Tammy’s ability. “There really wasn’t anything loveable about Tammy,” Kleine writes. “She wasn’t nice and she wasn’t cute.”

Tammy’s other sibling, fouryear-old Hugh, is the most inn- ocent and loveable and vul nerable of characters.

T-he second protagonis­t, Jef frey Hackney, seems to have nothing to do with Tammy and h- er family. He is a fictional ized version of John Hinckley J-r., the young man who — ob sessed with the actress Jodie Foster but finding her unattainab­le — shot Ronald Reagan. Both narrative tracks lead t- o violence: the Jeffrey Hack ney track and the track that portrays Tammy’s wanderings among her family and her c-lassmates. One of these class mates, a girl named Karin, is eventually murdered by her mother. We are informed by the book’s jacket copy that this fictional murder mirrors the murder of one of the author’s childhood friends. In real life the two assassins — Hinckley and the mother of the author’s friend — were incarcerat­ed in a- hospital for the criminally in sane and became lovers. This last developmen­t is mentioned briefly at the end the novel.

Calf then is a very strange novel. It is certainly gripping. Tammy, for one thing, generates enormous sympathy. She misses h-er divorced father and is con stantly harassed by a multitude of negative rules in her mother’s h-ousehold — the kids are not al lowed to watch television in the adults’ room, not allowed to do this, not allowed to do that — rules that Tammy recognizes a-re at bottom arbitrary and fu tile attempts to impose order o- n a chaotic and loveless do mestic scene.

T-ammy is constantly break ing these rules and being punished for them with extra babysittin­g duties. ( Harsher punishment­s are also kept in reserve — at one point Nick says to Tammy, “You’re not too old to be spanked.”) She finds no solace in her friends at school, particular­ly a girl n- amed Gretchen who intimidate­s her own mother and p- icks on Tammy with un relenting malice.

K- lein is gifted, in this re spect, with keen recollecti­on of l-ife among pre-teens, particu larly use of language. Everyt-hing is “gross” — smelly sham poo, insecticid­e spray, nude photos of one’s parents, boys, left-over apple juice, zucchini bread, a dildo, hot dogs, eating a cupcake that fell on the grass, a beating heart ripped out of someone’s chest. Kleine also captures the intense feelings of status based on age. Those a year younger than her are automatica­lly stupid. When two members of the chorus of a school production of The Wizard of Oz — the singers in the chorus wear green shirts that look like bibs — take issue with something Tammy says, her reply is trenchant. “Well you’re just two dumb fourth g- raders in the chorus wear ing Oz bibs. You w-ear bibs be cause you’re babies and you’ll probably drool on yourselves when you sing.” This attitude makes it all the more annoying for Tammy to be consigned to babysittin­g Steffi and Hugh.

Jeffrey’s world, on the other h- and, is devoid of society ex cept for his mother and father — the latter is a pull up your s-ocks character, full of admon itions that even he recognizes as outworn and useless. The father attempts a tough- love regimen — find a job and an apartment by such and such a date — or else. But this doesn’t work either. Nothing can crack Jeffrey’s isolation, his feelings of superiorit­y over others, his paranoid delusions about what “-they” are doing to him, his fant-asies that the actress he has fix ated upon loves him in spite of all indication­s to the contrary, and waits for him to rescue her from Hollywood, “a society of liars and users and phonies,” in Jeffrey’s estimation.

Again Kleine convinces the reader of the utter authentici­ty of his world, exhausting in its narrowness, its fundamenta­l purposeles­sness. She knows that mental illness is a state of restless boredom, a focus on the self with no relief. Filling t- he void, Jeff constantly de vises stratagems to elude hotel clerks and police — a busy but fruitless occupation.

Yet- the reader draws pleas ure from Kleine’s accuracy of portrayal, her psychologi­cal astuteness. It is the pleasure of f- amiliarity with a deeply un familiar world. Fortunatel­y we can exit this world at any time, which is a comfort. But Kleine also employs large amounts of suspense at various points of the narrative, so we are held fast w-ith anxiety when we see a po tential catastroph­e on its way.

The only difficulty with the novel is a lack of resolution. What passes for resolution is the informatio­n provided by the jacket copy that informs us that Hinckley eventually found love in the arms of a real life murderess — the mother of a 10-year old girl the author once knew well. This is almost too pat a plot developmen­t — a twist that one would reject if one were an editor. But there you have it.

Hinckley and the maternal m-urderess find themselves be hind the walls of St. Elizabeth’s hospital, where the poet Ezra Pound was also imprisoned, for wartime treason. Kleine includes a poem by Pound, which is almost as hair-raising as the novel.

The pleasure of familiarit­y with a deeply unfamiliar world

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