A Review of Beneath the Neon Egg by Thomas E. Kennedy

(New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2014)

 

The town where I live sits on the flanks of the Colorado Mountains, at the collective mouth of several rocky canyons. Last fall, eight days of steady rain filled the narrow streams that thread those canyons with a muddy torrent that swept through town, carrying away and redistributing everything in its path, from clothing and children’s toys, to cars and even homes. Almost a year later, I am still fascinated by the dynamic nature of things once held immutable: rivers, bridges, homes and hillsides.

In Beneath the Neon Egg, the fourth independent novel in Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet, the main character, Patrick Bluett, roams an equally dynamic personal landscape, emerging from the dissolution of his marriage into a mid-forties exploration of sensuality, obligation, and what it means to be a father, a friend, a lover and a man. The reader accompanies Bluett as he discovers, and expands, the margins of the post-divorce life that many of us have, but never intended to have. The story is a marvelous wander-log of sensory images—architecture, food, sex, music, alcohol—broken into four sections; Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm.

Beneath the Neon Egg opens with a journey, as Bluett heads north on the train to Halvstrand, for a tryst with Benthe, the wife of a business acquaintance. He is excited by the idea of navigating the familiar backdrop of sexuality made exotic with new experiences and partners. As a reader, and moreover, a woman, I found myself fascinated by Bluett’s unabashed, uncensored introspection. For me, there were elements of both “is that what guys really think about?” as well as the somewhat uneasy feeling that we are not as far apart as I thought (or hoped?). Kennedy has stepped away from patently macho preconceptions of masculinity and allowed Bluett to be at once fragile and thoughtful, as well as deeply and essentially a man.

When the tryst becomes an unexpected threesome with Benthe and her sister Dorte, Bluett participates, but later examines it as he would something interesting but not altogether appetizing in a dinner salad. He likes the idea of the act, and even ponders bragging about it to his best friend Sam, but the following day is glad to be on the train, returning to more familiar terrain. Kennedy allows Bluett to extend, experiment, fail, ponder and reinvent throughout the narrative: “Looking out over the white lowlands, he is aware of his thoughts, his emotions, but he is also aware that he does not know what he needs. He only knows that he has a need.”

Toward the end of the Acknowledgement section of the novel, Bluett forms a deeper connection with a former lover, Liselotte, and we are swept into his delightful and giddy anticipation of pleasure, rich with the texture of music, food and alcohol. Kennedy has an uncanny knack with simple but evocative and tactile writing. He guides us through Bluett’s preparations for entertaining Liselotte for the first time in many years with endearing detail: “He shaves, slowly lathers up and scrapes the blade across his jowls, brushes his teeth, gargles, clips his nose hair with mustache scissors, trims his ‘stache, trying to clip most of the gray and leave the red, brown, and black hairs.”

And then, as quick and breathless as his preparation started, Bluett retreats into bravado, pushing Liselotte away out of fear, or in favor of freedom. His relationship with Liselotte reminds the reader that life is broader, and happiness is more poignant because it can’t always be sustained. Rather than relying on archetype, Kennedy reveals Bluett’s uncomfortable humanity, and lets us know that the topography of this new landscape has not been fully defined. He questions the value of his connection to Liselotte, and yet is immediately overwhelmed with the loss of it.

The door clicks shut after her, and he slams the flat of his hand on the tabletop so his mug leaps off and spills across the beige carpet.

“Shit!”

The less sophisticated reader in me, the one that cleaves to fiction and film as an affirmation of what I thought life was supposed to deliver, i.e. my soul-mate on a platter of sexual fulfillment, intellectual stimulation and financial security, is disappointed with Bluett. But Kennedy has offered us a rare peek into a vulnerable man, expressive in all his needs, doubts, desires and possible failures—a man who loves his children desperately, yet wonders about their connection to him, a man who examines and second guesses his choices, a man who hopes, as we all do, that pleasure and fulfillment are reserved for only the young and resilient.

The second half of the novel, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm, gives us a more fragile Bluett, less sure of himself and his path. The retreat of his friend Sam into an unusual and consuming relationship with a provocative younger woman, and Sam’s subsequent death/suicide, pull Bluett into a discovery of his friend’s non-traditional sexuality and the price of suppressed desire. For me, the heart of the novel resides in Bluett’s struggle to reconcile with Sam’s death, a larger version of the poignant everyday battle with expectation and truth. “He is on his feet and his hand lifts back as he hears the cry escape his throat and the glass flies, spraying vodka back across his own face. The tumbler smashes on the wall, but it is not enough, he has the bottle by the neck.”

There is such frustration with the inability to resolve, such vibrancy in the desire to, and such peace with the eventual acceptance; wouldn’t it be marvelous if we all had Bluett’s ability to gather up the everyday pleasures and use them to rebuild the architecture of our lives?

Kennedy delivers what so many writers strive for: prose that is at once economical and electric. Beneath the Neon Egg is an evocative and hedonistic, yet somehow delicate, portrayal of a man’s world, with all the stuff of life lifted, shuffled, and redistributed. As a reader, I was left with a strong sense of kinship: the feeling that I could settle onto the bar stool next to Bluett, strike up a conversation, and happily dive into his world. One cannot read this novel and not hunger for a midnight walk down cobbled streets, the touch of a lovers hand, the sounds of Coltrane and Miles Davis, the sting of iced vodka on the tongue, and the taste of “open sandwiches on rye bread halves – salami and chives, liver paste and salt beef and raw onion, strong cheese.”

 

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Jody Handerson is a working writer and editor living in Boulder, Colorado with an enormous black cat, five bicycles and eighty-two pairs of shoes. She is a contributing editor to TLR.