Thad Rutkowski's new novel Haywire is currently the #1 book on the Small Press Distribution best seller list. The novel is made up of 49 semi-auobiographical flash stories narrated by the son of a Polish-American artist father and a Chinese mother.
Thad's a terrific writer, and I recommend his work. As the novelist John Barth says, Thad Rutkowski is "tough and funny and touching and harrowing."
I heard Thad read a section of Haywire at a Polish American Historical Association meeting in DC a couple of years ago, and I still remember how much the audience enjoyed the story "Pan Tadeusz." In fact, I don't think I've ever heard people at an academic conference having that much fun.
Here's the Pushcart Prize-nominated story he read that day in DC:
In the morning, my father drove me to school because I had missed the bus. I’d missed it because my father was talking to me.
“I don’t care if you go to school,” he said as he steered his car. “I don’t want you to associate with American kids. When I was in school, I had no friends. That’s why they called me The Brain.
“I say, to hell with this educational system,” he continued. “You’re going to learn what Polish schoolchildren know. You’re going to read Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. You’ll start by memorizing a hundred lines. Then you’ll recite to me.”
As we rode, cold air blew through the seams of the car’s flimsy convertible roof. Mornings brought a chill in this part of Appalachia.
“Do you know who Mickiewicz was? Mickey was a poet and a hero! There are statues of Mickey all over Poland!”
I looked at the gas gauge. The needle sat almost at Empty. “Is it time to get gas?” I asked.
“Don’t interrupt me!” my father replied. “You’re going to learn about the lost country of Lithuania and the noble families who lived there. If you don’t pick up anything else, you’ll have better manners.”
When I told my mother about my father’s assignment, she said, “That’s the Polish way. I know nothing about it. I know my own way, the Chinese way. But if you want to be part of this family, you’ve got to act like a Pole.”
“How about you?” I asked. “Did you convert?”
“I learned to cook like a Pole from my mother-in-law. After I met your father in college here, that was a condition of marrying into his family.”
I started to read Pan Tadeusz. The poem was in a small book with a plain-red hard cover.
I couldn’t understand why a traveler named Thaddeus arrived at a farm, caught a glimpse of a swan-necked woman next to a pond, and shared a meal with the people of the estate. These people spent a lot of time hunting hares and loading sheaves of rye.
I put the book down, pulled on my clodhoppers and went to visit an Amish friend. I rode my bike a few miles, then crossed a field on foot. In the open, a bull spotted me and started to charge. The animal bellowed as it came. Its horns had been cut off, but the loss seemed to have aggravated its anger. When it got closer, it began to dig at the ground with a front hoof. Clouds of condensation sprayed from its nostrils.
I hopped a fence and reached the farmhouse. I knocked on a side door while looking into the dark interior. I saw a dog sleeping on an upholstered chair, and a woman with a headscarf sitting next to a cast-iron stove.
My friend came to the door.
“I’d like to walk to your pond,” I said.
“I’ll go with you,” he said.
The two of us I hiked across fields until we came to a crater filled with water.
“The pond almost went dry,” my friend said, “but your father brought a drainpipe to fix it.”
I looked into the water and saw a thick iron cylinder standing on end. Water was flowing into the mouth of the pipe and leaving from under the pond’s embankment.
“We jammed the pipe into the ground,” my friend said, “and the water rose, but most of the fish died.
I could see the Amish family’s barn in the distance. It looked sturdy and newly painted. “Your building is in great shape,” I said.
“Someone burned our old barn down,” my friend said.
“Who did it?”
“It happened while we were asleep. We saw a truck driving away, but we couldn’t see its license plate. Ours was the fourth barn burned in this valley.”
“Why did they do it?”
“They like to see things burn.”
On our way back from the pond, my friend brought me to a chicken shed. “Have you ever seen a green egg?” he asked.
He unlatched a rickety door and led me inside. I saw a bird-shaped object on the floor. It was on its back, with its curled wings pointing upward. “Is that a dead chicken?” I asked.
“Why is it on the floor?”
“No one has taken it out yet.”
I looked around the small, hot room for green eggs.
“You know,” my friend said, “sometimes I think about leaving the faith. I’d like to have a truck instead of a horse, and maybe a telephone. I’d like to smoke tobacco.”
That night, I noticed that my mother didn’t offer Polish food. Instead, she served a mixture of rice and Chinese cabbage. My brother and sister and I used American utensils. My father wasn’t present; I guessed he was at the local bar.
I picked up a pair of chopsticks; I’d learned from my mother how to hold them. But my brother and sister didn’t follow my lead.
The next time my father and I were in his car, he tested my knowledge of Pan Tadeusz.
“What does the title mean?” he asked.
“Sir Thaddeus,” I said.
“That’s right. Now, recite!”
I was silent.
My father pressed the accelerator, and air began to whistle around the edges of the car’s vinyl roof.
“I see you’d rather horse around than listen to the old man.”
“I went to see a friend,” I said.
“I’m the judge,” my father said. “You’re a peasant. In the poem, the judge decides what happens with peasants.”
The car’s engine banged a couple of times, then went dead. “We’re out of gas,” my father said.
I waited while my father walked to a fueling station. His trip took a long time. When he came back, he was carrying a large can with a goose-necked spout.
He removed the gas cap on the rear fender and funneled liquid into the opening. When he turned the key, the engine churned but wouldn’t catch. He repeated the steps without success.
Presently, a passing motorist stopped and said, “You need to prime the carburetor.”
My father lifted the hood, unfastened a metal lid and poured a small amount of gasoline down the engine’s throat. When he turned the key again, we heard a small explosion. Then we heard the cylinders engage. In a moment, the engine was spinning like a top.
On the way home, my father stopped at a roadside bar. I sat at a Formica-topped table with him. He had a bourbon and a beer, while I had a ginger ale. “You will go to your room,” he said, “and you will not come out until you’ve memorized a hundred lines.”
In my room, I ignored the Polish epic. I lit a stick of incense and let it smolder. Then I lit a hand-rolled tobacco cigarette and smoked it. I looked out my window and imagined there was another country on the other side of the nearest mountain. I could climb over the ridge to get to the other realm. Boulders strewn along the summit wouldn’t stop me. On top, I would look over and see a city. I’d walk down the other side and come to a street. The street would take me to a customs office. I’d show my identity papers and cross.
I opened Pan Tadeusz. Sir Thaddeus was leaving the farm. He was saying goodbye to the swan-necked woman. His head and the woman’s head touched like the tops of two trees in a storm.
I shut my eyes and mouthed the words. I thought it wouldn’t take long to commit a hundred lines to memory.
Credit: Published in The Westchester Review, 2010, and in Haywire (Starcherone Books), 2011
You can buy Haywire from his publisher Starcherone Books or Amazon.
If you want to know more about Thad. You can find biographical information, interviews, and more at his website.
There's also a fine interview about how he uses autobiographical details in his writing at Planet Green.
By the way, if you're interested in reading Pan Tadeusz and getting really smart, there's a wonderful English translation by the poet Leonard Kress available free as a PDF download at his website.