The Dark Sunshine by Len Kuntz
Connotation Press, USA, 2014
Fiction Review by Mia Avramut (Romania/Germany)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 38.
The Italians have a word for it: spezzatura. It signifies the ability to not show the effort that, no doubt, has been put in learning the art of performing effortlessly. The opposite of affectation. Driven by nuanced characters, unusual circumstances, and recalled or perhaps hallucinated experiences, all powerful and often unsettling, Len Kuntz' stunning debut collection of short stories reveals a master of the craft, who expertly conceals his own effort of creation, to deliver a beautifully constructed and smoothly flowing mosaic of human tribulations. The sweat and blood of our very existence are revealed without mercy, in fluid, clear prose, and with an economy of words that stuns from the beginning.
These unusual stories deliver both punches in the gut and barely perceived caresses. Tortuous, sometimes tortured, life paths emerge from an initial faint glimpse, expand under close scrutiny, and pull the reader into a strikingly familiar, albeit frequently perplexing landscape of mirrors. Kuntz forces humanity to look itself in the eye and bear the image with lucidity and grace.
Sometimes, the mirror is clear, almost ruthlessly so. Coming-of-age (with the afferent development of inner and outer world views) and dissolution of relationships are preferred themes. In dysfunctional families, adulthood often arrives on the heels of trauma („Lillies from a fallow field“, „Big oak“, „The sky, the sky, the wide open sky“). In ''Bad connection'', a sister's descent into mental illness, and the implications for the narrator and his extended family, are chronicled with uncanny intensity and acuity in only one page. One sentence, at the beginning, holds the key to this tragedy, and its overarching mystery: „In a sixteen month span – the entire time our uncle lived with us – my sister's mane went from cobalt to burgundy to inkblot-black, then bald.“ With the turn of a phrase, with an added wry remark, destinies change. An alcoholic divorcé faces his daughter's sexual maturation and his own fallibility in ''Mouthwash“. A widow feeds her spouse's ashes, „mix for a grey cake“, to the toilet, and proceeds to ingest gin, „sweeter than a kiss“ („Cake mix“). Even in apparent clarity and full light, turns out, the mirror reflects worlds of possibility, shadows of uncertainty, layered tones of dark. The dual character of love between man and woman, at once passion and hatred, confers an air of enigma and foreboding to stories like „I'll never tell“ and „Jackknife“. The long-suffering wife of a drunkard, childless after an accident killed her offspring, quietly resolves to perpetuate the silence and not to disclose the presence of a tumor in her man's testicle („Trees“). A panopticon of sins, of shady deeds, emerges slowly and surely, while perspectives shift, best laid plans crumble, epiphanies must wait („Black heart“), and redemption may or may not come in this lifetime („A little thing“). As the hero of „Lillies..“ concludes, „sometimes the secret is the only thing that makes life bearable.“
At times, imagination reigns supreme, fogs the mirror, and alters reality in surprising ways, prompting the reader to explore remote corners of consciousness, forgotten fears, subconscious labyrinths. Brief excursions into the fantastic do not unveil new worlds or bizarre beings, but rather the meanders of our own psyche and its often idiosyncratic reactions to the mundane. It happens in „Postage“, and „The veracity of certain demons“, for example, bearing shades of Borgesian absurd and twisted logic. The mystery persists after the story ends, allowing the reader's own sensibility and Weltanschauung to reconstitute the characters' trajectory. It is the case with „I'll never tell“, where the „secret“, never disclosed, becomes an accessory to the adolescent's turmoil, to the disappointment of betrayed trust and aborted connections. The final confession hints at the young narrator's future, and to writing as coping strategy: „ I decided to let them read the journal and learn all of the secrets. They knew most of them anyway, because they'd caused each one in some form or another. But I decided I'd parcel them out, in stories tricked up by fictitious identities and jerry-rigged with different settings. I'd write every last story, but make them have to do the work to figure out who they were, what they'd done, and why.“
Perhaps we all should do the work. Perhaps it is just what Kuntz – nonchalantly, inexorably – urges us to attempt, with his gripping stories: to look at ourselves, under dark sunshine.