By Carol Wierzbicki
Thad Rutkowski has made quite a franchise—one might even say genre—out of family dysfunction. I do not say this lightly or facetiously. In his previous autobiographical fiction Tetched (Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press), we meet a father with a persecution complex; a Chinese mother who’s mostly quiet and submissive but makes the occasional barbed retort; and a brother and sister who are just as isolated as Rutkowski’s protagonist, recognizing the symptoms but powerless to alleviate them.
Guess and Check is really a retrospective of Rutkowski’s mostly previously published work, exploring his experiences from his rural Pennsylvania childhood through his college years and finally adulthood in New York City.
In spite of the deadpan narrative, you find yourself rooting for the narrator, whether he’s on an awkward date (virtually all of them are in these stories) or just trying to endure one of his father’s often shrill rants (“’Enough!’” my father shouted. ‘I’ve had enough of you kids for a while.’”). His narrator’s detachment forms an eerie counterpoint to such histrionics. After reading just a few of these scenes, you can easily conclude that it’s his emotional evenness and writer’s/artist’s objectivity that has enabled him to survive the often volatile environment of the family unit.
What makes his prose surprisingly engaging is that just beneath the surface of his deadpan tone is a passionate will to survive, whether the challenges appear in interpersonal relations or grim workplace politics. And who among us would not identify with that?
Guess and Check is an odd title for a book. I marked the two passages where this phrase occurred. The first scenario has the narrator’s mother helping him with his algebra homework:
My mother looked at the same problem, worked for a minute and came up with an answer. For her, x simply equaled 4. According to the workbook, her answer was correct.
“How did you get that?” I asked.
“I can’t explain it in English,” she said. “I know the language of numbers.”
“Maybe I’ll just guess and check,” I said. “I’ll guess at an answer: then I’ll check to see if it works out.”
The second scenario involves a frightening nighttime storm rattling his childhood home. When the narrator wakes up the next morning, the stream nearby has overrun its banks and flooded fields:
I could cross the flooded field and walk up the hill on the other side. The problem was, there was nothing but brambles and tall grass on the other side.
I put on my insulated boots and got ready to go out. I didn’t know what I would find. I would have to guess and check.
Then I ran across this passage, toward the end of the book, where he muses on the often zigzag paths he takes when walking the streets of New York:
I want to find the hypotenuse, the shortest way…
Where are the hypotenuses in the city? Was this city planned by “experts” who had no sense of geometry? Did these experts forget the teachings of Euclid? Euclid of Alexandria would never have stood for this street pattern. He would have added some hypotenuses. And if Euclid couldn’t get the mayor and the City Council to adopt his plan, he would have brought in the big gun. He would have called on Ptolemy. A heavyweight like Claudius Ptolemy would have straightened out the local politicians and planners. This goes without saying. It is axiomatic.
I found this to be Rutkowski’s most profound statement in the book, while also incidentally being the most hilarious. It gives you the key to his whole world view. To him life situations—from being rejected as a child by other children, to the often absurd and confusing interactions with other New Yorkers, to the humdrum tedium of office jobs—are problems to be solved, like a math equation. There are angles to be navigated, risks to be calculated. He reduces possible catastrophes to a theorem in order to manage them, planting himself deeply in the hypothetical. A couple of pages after the above passage, he contemplates the possibility of his apartment being burgled:
Inside, the thief would work fast, but he wouldn’t be able to get out the front door because it has an illegal lock that requires a key on the inside. He will have to pick up items and throw them (gently) out the window to his friend waiting on the platform. Then they will both have to jump down to the sidewalk and run. On one trip, they could carry a couple of thin computers and a flat-screen TV. If no one stops them, they can stash the first batch of stolen items in a fence’s warehouse and come back for seconds.
Now I understand the meaning of the title: In Rutkowski’s hypervigilant mind, it is always a question of look or leap. He must guess and check. And guess and check, again.
This is a rewarding read for anyone interested in family dynamics, or the challenges of coming of age and raising one’s own family in a big city, or who just wants a satisfying compilation of Rutkowski’s oeuvre. The long list of publication credits at the back of the book attests to the success of his “franchise.”
You can find the book here: http://www.givalpress.com.
Carol Wierzbicki’s reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and American Book Review. Her work has been published in Long Shot, Public Illumination, Evergreen Review, Big Bridge, Many Mountains Moving, The Otter, and The Bug Book (Poets Wear Prada).