Book review: Flypaper Dreams

Flypaper Dreams, by Jay Kendall. 165 pages. Paperback. $13.95

Reviewed by Tena Starr

There are both pros and cons involved in self-publishing a book. The pros are that it’s difficult to get a book, even a very good one, published these days through traditional means. Self-publication allows some books that would have never, otherwise, seen the light of day to get into print and be read.

One of the bigger drawbacks, however, is that the self-published seldom seek outside help — as in an editor to advise on how a manuscript could be improved — or even a proofreader to check for obvious typos, misspellings and the like. We’ve seen many such books and find it unfortunate. Mechanical error, as well as implausibility, detract from the dignity of a story.

Jay Kendall’s Flypaper Dreams does not suffer from those flaws. His is a well and cleanly written story.

Mr. Kendall is currently retired and lives in Arizona. But he grew up in Newport, in Skunk Hollow. He graduated from UVM with a degree in English and went on to be a teacher and counselor. As a graduate school field worker for the Dictionary of American Regional English, he collected the dialect of the Northeast Kingdom where he grew up, and in this book he does what so many have tried and so few have been successful at: He recreates both characters and language that ring true to this small part of the world.

Largely, this novel explores a young man’s relationship with his father, who has recently died. It was a fraught relationship, characterized by violence and disappointment, but also love and eternal hope. Upon his father’s death, Zack, a grown man now with children of his own and a fulfilling job as a teacher, goes home for his dad’s funeral and journeys through childhood memories. But all is not what it seems. The man he knew, and the man others knew, does not appear to be the same.

This is very much a Northeast Kingdom story. Troubled father-son relationships are generic — they can happen anywhere. But in this case we’re talking redneck and tradition, about a father’s disappointment in a son who is not inclined to kill a deer, stinks at football, and doesn’t “man up” when he has to have an infected toe cut off and walks with a limp.

Henry, Zack’s father, runs a hard school.

As a freshman, Zack decides he’d like to smoke a pipe. His father, a storekeeper, says, okay.

Questioned by a customer about the wisdom of that, Hank, says, “‘Absolutely! It makes all kinds of sense. It shows he’s growin’ up. I was younger than he is now when I started smokin’ corn silk behind my father’s barn.’

“So Henry helps his son choose a pipe from the store, and then the tobacco, and he carefully shows him how to tamp it.

“‘I myself smoke Union Leader, but we’ve got quite a few others,’” Henry tells his son. ‘All right, so now you’ve got your pipe, and you’ve got your tin of tobacco. The next thing is to learn how to pack it. Now this is something that takes practice. You don’t want it too loose or too tight, just a nice even smoke. Now you watch me do it once.’

“His father showed him the procedure, adding comments and cautions as he went. Then he knocked the tobacco out and handed the pipe back to Zack. ‘Okay, now you try it, and I’ll watch you to make sure you’ve got the hang of it.’ Standing over Zack, Henry was completely attentive and encouraging.

“Zack had never felt such a close connection to his father before. By lucky accident he’d discovered a common interest and launched the kind of father-son relationship he’s always wanted. He tried to blow smoke rings like his dad’s, and Henry laughed at his attempts. But the laughter warmed Zack, and he thought about Sunday evenings in summer when they’d sit on the porch and smoke together. Then his dad would teach him how to blow smoke rings, and they would talk and talk about… whatever fathers and sons talked about. The smoke had made him a bit queasy, but it had been worth it.”

But Zack’s new, intimate relationship with his father isn’t to be.

“Henry’s voice dropped an octave, becoming intimate and sinister. ‘Now I want you to smoke this whole can of tobacco tonight. And you know I mean it, mister. Don’t you try to cheat, because I’ll be watchin’ you,’ he threatened. ‘You won’t need to do any other work tonight. And as soon as you’re done, you’re getting’ a good big dose of castor oil. So that’s what you’re doing’. Get started.’

“That was the first and last time Zack smoked a pipe.”

Zack’s father is also obsessed with the notion that his son is not his son, but has been fathered by one of his friends. His long-suffering wife is a terrific character, who isn’t what anyone would call a deep thinker, but she’s realistically portrayed. She’s a fusser and fretter.

“You know I can’t help it,” she tells Zack at one point. “I worry. It’s what I do.”

It’s a bit hard to write about this book without giving its surprises away, and the surprises are what keeps the narrative going. Zack, always believing that he was a failure in his father’s eyes, learns otherwise through talking to the old man’s friends, as well as his mother. He learns that his father was far more like himself than he could have dreamed.

Contacted by phone, Mr. Kendall said his parents were the studies for his work on the Dictionary of American Regional English, and the models for this book, which is largely autobiographical. He grew up on Hill Street in Newport with a mother who was French Canadian; English was her second language. Her family moved to Vermont when she was four, and she didn’t start school until she was ten, he said, so she only learned Northeast Kingdom English. She used the word “spider” to refer to a frying plan, for instance. And the first time he heard himself on tape, Mr. Kendall said he was surprised to hear his own accent, which he has since tried to remedy.

Mr. Kendall said he started writing novels —this is his second — when he found himself responsible for teaching a creative writing class. The summer preceding the class he took a creative writing class himself and was asked, “What do you write?” Up to that point, he hadn’t written much beyond letters and notes on class work. “They said, can you think of a piano teacher who did not play the piano every day?”

So Mr. Kendall set out to write, and to write what interested him. That turned out to be a novel, his first book, The Secret Keepers, published in 1998.

Yes, he said, he misses the Northeast Kingdom. One of his sons still lives in Newport, and he tries to get back here from time to time, but he also loves Arizona.

“The Northeast Kingdom is very much in my thoughts all the time.”

The book is available online through Amazon, and it’s worth a read.

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