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April's Book
Kinfolks
by Gurney Norman

Bill:
In the best tradition of southern fiction writer Gurney Norman has crafted a unique and realistic collection of short stories that tells the tale of Wilgus Collier and his struggle to grow and search for the meaning of life. Kinfolks celebrates strong characters and introduces the reader to people any of us might know. The bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
What makes these stories so interesting?

Wilma:
Well, one thing I liked about it and I think this is the mark of a well written book. It was difficult for me to get through it fast because every time I read a story it reminded me of something in my own family, and so I had to stop and think over that experience and then I'd go oh I've lost total track of what's actually going on here. So for me one of the appeals was that this seemed like a real family to me and things that could happen.

Rochelle:
Well, I think every really good book starts with a good character. If they are going to be the Wilgus stories, Wilgus has really got to be somebody that you want to spend some time with. I liked that you spend time with him during different parts of his life without there being connections as to how you get from one place to the other. At one point he's a young boy and there is a little bit of a story about that and then the next time you see him he's a young man and he's doing something else. And then he is a little older, and he's involved in something else. So I like the way one of the reviewers called them surface stories that help you see a lot of things that you wouldn't otherwise see. I'd never gotten attached to a surface story before.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
The character Wilgus really surprised me. When I see Kinfolks: the Wilgus Stories, I think Wilgus is going to be some bawdy and bold character like Monk of The Natural Man. But he was just a very endearing character, so much about him actually just touching.

Rochelle:
Uh huh.

Dava:
I might have known Wilgus in the people I have met.

Rochelle:
That's a really good point. I expected somebody different too. Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories I thought it was either going to be the Wilgus family or some old guy who was going to sit on a porch and tell you about life. It was actually a young guy who told you stories through living his life. And with every situation he was in I learned something more about how people interact which is what the author wants for you to learn about family. But I didn't like every story equally. There are ten stories in the book and they are all about Wilgus at different points, and I had favorites. I had some that I thought were a little harder to work through.

Bill:
Jonathan?

Jonathan:
Well, I think that Wilgus is an interesting character. He appears, as you said, differently in different stories because some of the stories are written in the first person. A small number of them are written with Wilgus telling the story. And those are usually stories when he's a little older and more mature. And he's in a kind of care taking role in relation to some of the family members. Most of the stories I guess are in the third person, and they are sort of describing him. When it describes him as a youth I thought it was wonderful the way the narrator captured this little boy's emerging sense of himself. But he was still kind of inarticulate and still kind of bewildered by things and yet he was having strong feelings and emotions about things that he didn't quite know how to express or explain. If I just give you an example this is in the story called "The Favor."

Rochelle:
That's my favorite story.

(Everyone agrees)

Jonathan:
Well it's the story where he's talking to his grandfather and his grandfather is thinking about going away and leaving his grandmother,.

Wilma:
He is 13 in that story.

(Everyone agrees)

Jonathan:
And after he has this conversation with his grandfather.

Wilma:
I'm sorry in that story he is about 10 years old. He's not 13 until "Night Ride," excuse me.

Jonathan:
But it says here. "Lying there, feeling the rock beneath him, hearing the water flowing past his head ... Wilgus felt something fresh inside of him. Something was trying to occur to him. What was it? He didn't know. It was a feeling, a sense, that somehow this was it: everything he cared about was now at stake. In his hands. Up to him." I think so many of the stories are about him with an emerging sense of his own depth and the layers within himself, but also an emerging sense of how he is important to the family and how he is responsible to the family and responsible to other people. In that story it's a moment of growing up when he feels he is now responsible for his grandmother as she leaves. I felt that was an important part of of Wilgus -- these little epiphanies where this sense of himself. There is another one and this is in the story called "Night Ride" where he is with his outrageous uncle Delmer.

(everyone laughs)

Jonathan:
They are having this conversation and they are in front of this big slag heap that Delmer and the father had had worked on. "Wilgus sat there thinking about it, He didn't know what he thought, exactly. It was a feeling he had as much as it was a thought. But it was powerful. all the same." So these are little moments where he's having some new development.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
In his thinking but he doesn't know what it is, and I think that's so well done.

Rochelle:
I want to go back to "The Favor" again because this literally is one of the best short stories I have ever read. I want to talk a little bit about what happened when he got to that point where he was lying in the creek. I am glad we were drawn to the same thing because Jonathan is a teacher and I admire that. But his grandfather sort of takes him out on the south forty with wire and a hammer, but he doesn't take him out there to do work and he doesn't know it. This ten-year-old kid is just going along with grandpa, and he doesn't know it until they stop.

He says I need you to do me a favor and that's the way his grandfather is asking him to do something that's the most important thing he would ever do in his life. He went on to tell the boy what was on his mind. He was leaving home he said, going away for good, leaving the farm, divorcing his wife, leaving Kentucky altogether, to go and live his life in another place. He wanted Wilgus to take that news to his grandma and take some money to her he had drawn out of the bank that morning. He reached in his pocket and pulled out and he gave him one hundred and ten dollars. Wilgus decides he is not going to tell his grandma he's got to figure out a way for this not to happen and if he just pretends like it didn't happen and he doesn't tell his grandma, then there is no divorce and nothing is bad. There is another part where he says, "Later, when he had his breath again, (because he runs away and tries to figure out what to do.) and a sense of where he was, lying on his back on the cool flat rock beside the pasture creek, Wilgus felt light in the head. It was as if he had gone to sleep when he shook hands with his grandfather, and dreamed his frantic run through trees and across a wide, steep field. Dreamed two cows had stopped their grazing to watch him running by. Dreamed his tears, dreamed the hot constriction in his chest. ... Lying there, feeling the rock beneath him, hearing the water flowing past his head while overhead the leaves the pawpaw trees brushed and flapped together, Wilgus felt something fresh inside him. Something was trying to occur to him." (And this is what he was talking about before.) What was it? He didn't know. It was a feeling, a sense, that somehow this was it: everything he cared about was now at stake. In his hands. Up to him. The question was whether or not he was up to it." So a ten year old not only sees a dilemma, but then realized he has got to do something about it. It took a writer to be able to convey that. I thought that was just really beautiful.

Wilma:
Yes. Go ahead.

Dava:
It's just really unique that Wilgus is the citadel of the family. And in literature it has been tradition mainly to have like the mother or the grandmother, a womanly figure, an older figure, to be the center that holds people together, but in every story Wilgus is being almost the baby sitter. He takes care of Delmer; he takes care of Maxine, takes care of his grandfather, all the aunts and uncles. I think it's a very unique perspective for Gurney Norman to choose to present Wilgus this way. I think it's refreshing.

Wilma:
I looked very carefully at the structure of these short stories, but obviously the author means for us to bring them together into some unified whole. And the emergence of Wilgus is what I looked at. At first (and I loved the "Fat Monroe" story) Wilgus was completely at someone else's mercy. Fat Monroe is controlling him to the point that Wilgus is so controlled that at the end he is so frustrated he has to beat on Fat Monroe. He has no control over that situation at all. Then he goes on and in "The Favor" he suddenly realizes that he can have control over a situation because he decides not to tell his grandmother right off that the grandfather has left. Knowing that he can hold that at bay for a while. he's sort of does nothing and the situation takes care of itself. That's the first time that he realizes he can make a difference. He can make a decision.

Rochelle:
He has power.

Dava:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
Then in "Night Ride" Delmer is in control, but at the end Wilgus takes another step. He drives Delmer home. At the age of 13, he drives him fifty miles home. Then we get to the fight and "The Tail-End of Yesterday." He is not exactly in those two stories and those are the two stories that are first person. It bothered me a little bit -- the first person popping in all at once -- but I thought well this is at the time he has gone to college where every person in college, pardon me Dava, is very self-centered to the point -- this is the world.

(everyone laughs)

Wilma:
I mean not that you are self-centered personally, but it's your world for that amount of time. Even though in those two situations he takes care of people. He drives Jenny away from the house when she asks and he takes care of his grandfather certainly in "The Tail-End of Yesterday." He still is not taking great action and making an effect on the family. He is not confronting anybody; in fact, he's trying not to argue. But by "Home for the Weekend," he actually escalates the argument there by bringing up strip mining and something about the union. So you know little by little he emerges. Then when we get to "The Revival," he's not only stating his own opinions, he's taking care of Delmer totally. At the end, he intervenes. He calls Pauline to come back. I mean little by little he's taking over and his self is emerging.

In "The Wounded Man," then, we are starting to go past the family: we get two things. First of all, the story that the grandmother is telling about a person that came into her life from the outside and at the same time Wilgus is tape recording this so he's going to take the story to the outside. Maxine is a little bit confusing. We almost get into Maxine's mind in that rather than Wilgus, the story takes us away from Wilgus a little bit, and then I really liked the correspondence. It almost looked as if that wasn't part of the story, but it shows that Wilgus in just mentioning to a woman that he met in Phoenix that he knew where her brother was, he actually made an effect on another family. Not that it came out to anything great. it was a good correspondence, but he's making an effect on the outside world with almost not realizing what he's doing. So I love this going from a child who has absolutely no control over the environment to someone who doesn't even realize that he's affecting other people. I like the progression.

Bill:
You really firmly believe then that there is a thread that runs through all of the stories, and I certainly think maybe. I'm not sure that maybe one or two of them don't stand alone. Wilgus is in "The Correspondence," but I almost thought that was that was meant as comedic relief at the end of the series of short stories.

Rochelle:
I loved the thread that he used to pull them together, so I did see a connection with all of them. But I absolutely loved how Wilgus didn't have to have a thing to do with his power that he developed as a person --it continued to do things without him even having to be there. But even when he was in a room -- and I tell you I love this 'home for the holidays part' -- he could start a debate that turns into an argument and not be a part of the story except to watch the whole thing.

There was another part that I wanted to read because it was just hilarious. This is after the family has all gotten together, and they are mad. Everybody is ready to take off. "Junior and Betty started for the door. But half way across the floor he remembered the ten dollars Delmer had owed him the last two years, and he decided to collect it. Everybody expected Delmer to say something awful to Junior but he didn't. Without batting an eye he counted out ten ones on the table. Then as an afterthought he took a handful of change out of his pocket, threw it on the floor at his brother's feet and said, 'There's the goddamn interest.' 'Well, if that's the way of it.' Evelyn said to Junior. 'you can just pay me back for that tank of gas I bought.' 'Gladly,' said Junior. He handed three of the ones that Delmer had given him. Suddenly everybody started remembering all the old, petty debts the others owed them, For the next few minutes the kitchen looked like the stock exchange. Nobody was shouting now. Everyone was grimly polite as they handed their money back and forth. 'Why thank you darling,' Betty said as she collected a dollar and forty cents of the money Evelyn had just got from Junior that Junior got from Delmer, for a collect call Evelyn had made to Betty the week before. Delmer collected two dollars each from Junior and Elsie for the fishing licenses he'd paid for a trip to Cherokee Lake."

And this went on and on and on and on until the grandma starts crying. And she's not one to cry, so that stopped everything. All of a sudden people stopped and realized this is silly, and she makes everybody put everything back on the table, and it's nineteen dollars and something, and she gives it to Wilgus.

(everyone laughs)

Rochelle:
Who was over there sort of watching the whole thing.

Bill:
Not like any family members that I know.

Dava:
Oh my God.

Bill:
Or anybody else's family members, right? Besides Wilgus, who are the other strong characters in the story? How are these short stories defined so much by the characterization other than Wilgus who certainly all of us agree is a central character throughout most of the stories, if not all of the stories.

Jonathan:
Uncle Delmer is very important. He appears in two stories. In "Night Ride" he takes the little guy out and they go for a ride in the countryside.

Rochelle:
Drinking beer.

Jonathan:
Drinking beer.

Wilma:
Shooting guns.

Jonathan:
Shooting pistols and

Bill:
Smoking.

Jonathan:
Smoking and stuff like this.

Wilma:
And stopping for a visit with Pauline.

Jonathan:
That's right.

(everybody laughs)

Jonathan:
And so on and so on.

Dava:
He learned everything in one night.

(everyone laughs)

Jonathan:
He's a strong character, Delmer. He then appears in a later story when he is really a washout, isn't he? It is ten years later and he's been drinking a lot. he's been on a long binge. His wife and children have left him, and he's really at rock bottom. Wilgus becomes his caretaker, and he comes and looks after him and cleans up the house and so on. It's very interesting seeing the character in the first story, almost a kind of heroic figure for the young boy. Then later on just a total washout, somebody who hit rock bottom. He lies to him in order to comfort him. He says to him the sort of thing you say to a child if you want to comfort them. You know in this case he says I know that your wife and children are going to come back tomorrow and Delmer says are they really. Of course, they are not, or they might, but there is no evidence that they will, and so he just says that to give him some gusto, just to give him some encouragement. It's wonderful seeing that same character in two different ways and seeing how Wilgus behaves very differently to him in each case.

Bill:
I think that really shows we've all read a lot, but it shows the strength of Norman's writing in the characterization. Not that Delmer is a hero figure at all in these, but you remember so much about him.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
In that itself you know how well the character is structured.

Jonathan:
The writing I think, one of the strengths of the writing, is it's very economical.

Bill:
Yes.

Jonathan:
You know you might say well you really get a strong sense of these characters, and yet he doesn't spend a lot of time describing them. I mean you don't have long descriptions of people. I think a lot of the characters are revealed in this superbly revealing dialog. Their conversations are so realistic, so relevant to real speech. We really see the characters come forth before you. But just like a really good painter with a few deft brush strokes.

Bill:
An economy of words.

Jonathan:
The picture comes.

Wilma:
And that's it.

Jonathan:
Yeah, yeah.

Rochelle:
He doesn't waste words on the colors of shirts or things like that. But he can give you a characteristic of somebody that will make you remember them long after you have read the book. It's like you know them and know that about them.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And also these are kinfolks. It's the entire idea, and we forget what our relatives look like. Because we don't think about it. We just think about the inner essence and what they are doing, and we get an almost a stereotyped idea of what this relative is going to do for any time any moment on. But it's looks in a family -- in kinfolk -- that would be of less importance than the interactions of the characters.

Bill:
I liked this passage from "Night Ride": "Wilgus was only 13 but he knew about beer. He'd been sipping it from other people bottles as long as he could remember and he thought it was fine stuff indeed. Wilgus had never actually had his own full can to drink all by himself before. But when he took this sip he suddenly realized it was time."

(everyone laughs)

Bill:
I think he does it with just crisp, concise, thoughtful passages. It doesn't take a lot to really capture the feeling that Wilgus had riding along with with Uncle Delmer. So we've mentioned Delmer. Who else stands out?

Dava:
We have Wilgus's aunt Jenny who constantly fights with Grandma Collier and seems to be overly concerned with her father's health, when actually I just think she's trying to take control over the family away from Grandma Collier. With all these characters in the story I think it's really important that Wilgus almost seems to be the only one who knows them personally. He knows what to expect of the thinking, knows how to comfort them, knows how to communicate with his grandfather when every one else is just making over him. Are you all right? Are you sick? He actually communicates with him. He communicates with Aunt Jenny, with Grandma, with Uncle Delmer, and he knows what to say and what to do to comfort them without them even knowing that's what he's doing.

Wilma:
He is almost the pet in the family though I think sometimes that's typical. Because all of them said well Wilgus what do you think and give the money to Wilgus and so on, and, of course, he would become that way because his parents are dead and they have all had to to rear Wilgus.

Rochelle:
Or be reared by Wilgus.

Wilma:
Or, right.

(everyone laughs)

Bill:
In some way. Yeah.

Wilma:
I know what you are saying. And I do know that he is taking care of everything, everybody in a subtle way but I still almost see that he's almost a mascot.

Bill:
But at the same time I think they've put him on a pedestal, too.

Wilma:
Yes, they have.

Bill:
For a good reason.

Wilma:
And they send him to college.

Bill:
He's the only educated member of the family.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
I assume the first one maybe one of few who finished high school and then on to college. I think even graduate school is mentioned, is it not? Yeah.

(everybody agrees)

Bill:
But they really rely on him. And there is one of those in every family, too.

Rochelle:
I just see him exactly the opposite. I think he is the one that they sort of depend on, but they don't like to talk about it because he is so young. But he's the one that the grandfather went to when it was time to break the news about the divorce. He's the one who has to calm down Jenny and Maxine. He just has roles and responsibilities that a boy his age shouldn't have. He has because everybody else has their chores to do and that is his chore -- to sort of take those things and tell them the right way to act about them. But the other character that I thought was really strong, and I didn't want us to leave him out was the granddad. There are three lines in three different places that got to me about that. When Wilgus and his grandfather are walking out because he is about to ask him to do the favor.

"Ordinarily his grandfather speaks in such a soft and gentle manner it was a comfort to hear his voice. But just now when he said, 'Come with me to the field, Wilgus, a section of the fence is down," his voice had been as heavy and nervous as it was in church when Brother Elis called on him to pray." And it's almost like somebody who's taking someone older and they have something to say to them and it was something really powerful that he was going to have him do. Then there is another and he is also wearing all of these new clothes which Wilgus had never seen him in.

Then there is another passage where he says: "Granddad was setting up straight in his rocking chair looking intently at the chunk of cedar he was whittling on. He had on the same old clothes he always wore, overalls and a faded work shirt, buttoned at the collar and the cuffs. He was a little thin to what he was the last time I had seen him. The shirt collar wasn't as tight against his neck; his socks had fallen down his thin ankles and were lost somewhere in his old brogan shoes. ... He was clean-shaven and I could tell by the neat, horizontal line of hair along the back of his head that Grandma had been working on him with her clippers. 'Looks like you have been to the barber, Granddad,' I said." This is Wilgus talking. "'Pulled out a sight more than she cut,' he said. She can't barber any better than she can doctor.' " And he's not only comic relief, but somebody who's really strong and always around. And then when he finally gets sick enough where he is in the hospital and Delmer goes to see his dad and he falls to pieces. "Oh God, oh my God, my daddy is dead" and they get him out of there, and then granddad says who was it made all that racket. " 'That was Delmer, Granddad.' 'Who?' 'Your son, Delmer.' The wrinkles on Granddad's forehead drew together as he stared at me suspiciously. 'Whose side is he on?' I laughed and fluffed his pillow for him and then helped him to lie back down."

It's almost like Wilgus is always there in all of these different scenes to do what is necessary. He 's almost like the uncle who comes for dinner and never leaves because you have stuff for him to do all the time.

Bill:
What do you think these stories and Gurney himself his writing style fall in. None of us is Appalachian writing scholars, but in the other books that we have read in the year and a half that we have been on the air with the bookclub@ket in the other eastern Kentucky Appalachian/ West Virginia writing that we've read and enjoyed where do you think this falls? If we plucked someone out of Michigan or Washington State or New York City and said here are the Wilgus stories, this is Kinfolks, what sense would they come away with after reading these stories?

Jonathan:
Well, two things I'd like to say. Firstly the stories are full of a real sense of place. Although as I said it's not sort of incredibly detailed in its descriptions, nonetheless we use the tools in each case where geographically the story is taking place and many of the stories have a road and a truck and many of the stories are about a journey going from one place to another near the homestead. Particular places are mentioned in eastern Kentucky. I think the whole thing is rooted in eastern Kentucky, and, although it's really a study of character and a character's relationship with his environment, it's very much rooted in particular place and really the sense of place here is very strong I think.

The second thing I thought of was that some of the other novels we read last year by Kentucky authors I'm thinking of Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack and one of the other books we read they are very strong in the idea of family and family being rooted in a place and the memory of the family being passed down from generation to generation and I think the title here says it all. It's all about family; it's all about generations; it's all about what is passed down from one generation to the next.

There was one thing that Gurney said in an interview which was recorded in Emory and Henry College in 1996 during a Gurney Norman literature festival there, and I thought it was germane to this question. Gurney is being asked about his work in relationship to Appalachia, and he says, "I think one of the reasons that the Appalachian region is special is that still to this day you have a substantial healthy relationship between the older generation and the younger generation. I think the process of cultural transmission of handing down is quite strong in this region. We still draw our sustenance and guidance from older people through conversation, family stories, local lore, folk tales, fairy tales, myths, Bible stories, Christian stories or other religious traditions."

And I think that there is a lot in here about stories. I mean these are all stories but sometimes there are stories about stories.

Narrator:
Remember to check out ket.org. And learn more about this book and other book club selections. Plus enjoy author interviews and discussion boards. You can join the club any time the address is ket.org.

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Last Updated:  Thursday, 08-Jan-2009 13:20:24 EST