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CELEBRATE, v.t.: to solemnize; to honor or observe by refraining from business or by exuberant merrymaking; to proclaim, publish abroad; to extol, sound the praises of. Herewith a celebration of Jonathan Strong, a senior who in his long undergraduate nights has made himself a novella called Tike and five stories besides.
Strong's tales dwell on a particular moment in life--the time we at last come out onto the real battlefield, improperly equipped and scared, and take our first look around. The world is new and we are clean as a whistle. We take a lot of baths. We see things for the first bright time as near-grownups.
Strong has developed a lean, unadorned way to commit the starling newness of the world in prose. His people see and tell, hardly ever do they feel.
Without passion, the first 70 pages of Tike chronicle one of the most beauteous single days you could ever spend in fiction or in life. Tike is a boy who lives in a room and works nights shelving books at a library. He has a dog named McDog and an unfailing fountain of music from his stereo. A lady gives him a record for his helpful knowledge of discography. A girl downstairs named Val wants to sleep with Tike and does. Other people in his building invite him into their lives.
And yet something is terribly wrong. Listen to Tike as he sits in the bathub:
There is a feeling in my shoulders and arms of not holding something. I would like to have held Val then or Lilian in the hall or Irene just now. I feel there is nothing I can hold. Val is the first girl I have actually known at all whom I have held. It was an emptiness in me for years.
When I was twelve I felt things would be all right when I was sixteen. When I was sixteen I felt things would be all right where I was twenty-one. Now I am sure things will be all right. You do not grow up as early as I thought. Everything continues as it was. I soaked in the tub at home and put my ears under and thought about things for years, when I was twelve, when I was sixteen. It is the same.
Strong's writing is so artless it could make any other writer nervous. I feel like a lead-footed groundling watching a tightrope-walker without a net. But more important than the sheer virtuosity is the fact that the writing captures a true feeling and recalls a real time.
TIKE AND FIVE STORIES has been criticized for lacking variety, and because the heroes are all essentially the same character. Given the time of life Strong is plumbing, though, it is unlikely the stories could be anything other than solo pieces.
The protagonists are boys with invisible Gardol shields around them, so unsure of themselves they can't like other people as much as other people like them. As many of Scott Fitzgerald's narrators also do, they stand at windows and peer out at life. Or stand on the street and peer in. It seems to me that Fitzgerald assauged his own loneliness and inferiority by creating other people larger and better than life, the heroes his narrators could never be. As long as there were titans, the world was at least tolerable. Life was an eating club Fitzgerald could never get into, but he could stay alive for a time by hoping and punching for it.
Jonathan Strong is not so sure. Loneliness and self and boredom yes. But maybe no banquet over there where the titans and the adults live. His narrators do encounter a few older people who give them some cause for hope. There is Supperberger, a composer whose music has affected the story's young narrator. If Supperberger has succeeded, then maybe it is possible that art is a salvation.
Then [Supperburger] asked if I was bored and lonely here, and that surprised me. I have met a lot of people on the street and never known them to ask something as personal as that right away, I was glad he asked it, so I decided to tell him the truth, which I usually avoid on the subject of boredom and loneliness and I said yes. From then on I felt I was friends with Supperberger.
It turns out that Supperburger's only good bit of music was something he wrote in loneliness and isolation. And the bond between Supperburger and the body is only the friendship of two lonelies.
But wait. Sharing loneliness is not nothing. The young men in the last two stories begin to make contacts. Rather than only taking from the world, in secretive small ways they begin giving back. Loneliness remains a constant, but shared loneliness brings a certain solitude and salve.
Most first books of stories claim on the jacket that the author is at work on a novel, as though admitting to the public that stories are not enough for a writer to achieve. Jonathan Strong's stories are plenty. They recapture a time, they have a tone of their own. Never do they take a glitzy, Krackerjacks way out. Never does Strong dress what can be bare.
If, as celebrants of his achievements, we still long for more, I suppose we are only being human. As long as we don't carp, our expectations for so good a writer are really parallel to his own hopes for himself--always to achieve more, always to make a deeper contact with the world and with himself.
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