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by Thaddeus Rutkowski

One of my great personal disappointments was missing out on the great beatnik days of Greenwich Village. I felt the breath of them, though, in the suburbs where we'd moved to escape the big bad old city in search of a better life; clean air, quiet nights punctuated by cricket chirps in late summer, and broken each dawn by the pleasant sound of singing birds. Well, I wasn't searching, I was only five and things had seemed okay where I'd started out in the big bad city.

Dream-family-in-split-level-bliss wore off fast. A bleak, underlying fraudulence ruled, and I felt life was on hold growing up in the mannered quiet of Westchester County. For one thing, I never knew where anybody was, just a lot of space: woods and gardens and trees, perfectly painted houses--paradise, but it was too quiet and I had the idea the lavishly curtained windows had eyes. They could see me, but I couldn't see them, and everybody seemed to be hiding something. They were all living on some tiptoeing dimension. What I believed about the Beats was that they crushed out phoniness like spent cigarettes in the ashtray of life. They had the pulse, they had the rhythm, they had the real. At least in books, the Beats tore the curtain off Oz without a backward glance. And that is exactly what the burbs wanted to be, lushly green and tightly wound; Oz.

Roughhouse by Thaddeus Rutkowski is a vivid, toughly aching novel-in-snapshots that picks up the thread where some of what the Beats were all about left off. Only it's a pre-punk world, not the suburbs but semi-rural America, and a family where a painter father confuses art with anarchy as he rips the childhood right out of the throats of his startled children. This is a home where pulling out the family rifle is a commonplace event and a bullet through a wall releases Dad's pent up angst.

The never-named protagonist is eye witness: "'Kill the capitalists!' my father said, and I heard a slapping sound."

The mother turns stone-faced toward non-stop verbal harangue.

Her oldest son tapes his father's words: "'What did they do to Jesus Christ?' my father asked... 'I don't know,' my mother answered, sounding petrified, 'What did they do?'" Playing the tape in his room, the boy fails to see the father's logic, "...so I listened to the question again." It's a world where conclusions are tough to draw because the emotional pace is non-stop, where an outing in the country becomes a place to let off steam: "I walked to a farm field and screamed obscenities at the grazing cows. They were a good audience."

We read on as the eye-witness crawls into irony for survival. When he is tied up by a neighborhood kid in an initiation rite (into what we never know, probably initiation as concept, an excuse to experiment with light weight torture), he doesn't react, he doesn't even "squimmer" as an eyelash is burned with a match. Free floating cruelty runs like fairy tale porridge in this countryside neighborhood, in this pretty landscape that will never tell. Like a place in an X-File episode, so serene, so filled with hidden, hard to explain atrocities. Mr. Rogers, beware.

That the boy grows out of family life into an obsession with bondage makes perfect sense. His voice becomes that of an edgy animal outside the cage looking in. It's the looking that saves him; tying up girls is intimate, he dreams--as long as the laces stay mostly inside their sneaker slots and off ladies' wrists--he is alone but relatively safe to dream. A little bottom paddling, a visit to a slave auction...the inside of the cage is the path to madness. "I debated with my inner spirit in front of a pornography store. 'Should I go in?' I asked." This isn't anti-porn, it's porn as intimacy.

"I decided that I had no patience for partners who refused to seek greater degrees of behavioral perversity and believed that, in so doing, they represented the female majority. I knew I belonged to a psychographic minority. I realized I had missed out on parochial theory, burned my option to seek comfort in family, and openly disregarded dating philosophy. But I saw no reason to abandon my search for psychotragic-comedy. I was ready to take out my ski mask, pull the wool over my eyes, and play."

Adventures with LSD, alternative life style rebellions, and fetishistic fantasy settle into a life in the city: office job, rent due, 'normal' love. But Mr. Rutkowski's character remains non-plussed, confined to the outside, eyewitness still, and not at home in any phony truths. This is an unflinchingly wide-eyed peek at the familial underbelly. Someone I know once said, if I had to grow up again, I'd take a correspondence course. Roughhouse could be the primer.

9/2000 J. Stefan-Cole

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