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August's Book
Kentuckiana
by Johnny Payne

Bill:
Let’s all pile in the car and drive out to the ’burbs and visit the Mileses, author Johnny Payne’s seemingly middle-America family that takes root in your mind and locks the reader into a darkly funny, moving, yet disturbing portrait that refuses to let go. It’s Kentuckiana by Johnny Payne. bookclub@ket starts now.

[music]

Bill:
... So he’s really a funny guy. So let’s all get in the car and drive out to the suburbs—right to the ’burbs, or the suburbs—and let’s go visit the Mileses. We walk up to their home, and we knock on the door ... and what happens at that point?

Dava:
Talia answers the door with the butcher knife.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
Great way to begin! That’s the way the whole thing unfolds for you in Johnny Payne’s book. So besides the person who answers the door, who else do we find there?

Gabrielle:
I think it depends on what point of their lives that you are walking in and visiting the neighborhood. You get to learn about each of the family members at different periods of time and what they are going through, but it’s a very dysfunctional functional family.

Lynda:
Yeah.

Dava:
Hardly functioning functional.

Gabrielle:
I know.

Bill:
So Wilma: I am betting, though ...

Wilma:
[laughs]

Bill:
... that you don’t want to talk about the family first, do you?

Wilma:
Well, I might. I actually was thinking more about the overtone of the novel and the idea that it’s actually a satire or a farce, so we can hardly judge this the same way you would a straight fictional account of a dysfunctional family. And that’s in here, too; but also, because the author comes in and just talks to us throughout—and even tells us, “Don’t forget, this is a pulp novel; it is not a masterpiece”—therefore he puts a barrier to our really discussing this in terms of literature.

Lynda:
Now, which author? Which author?

Wilma:
Well ... and you are right; it isn’t actually the author, because that was Junior talking.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
Junior at the end.

Lynda:
There are several authors.

Wilma:
It is very confusing for people who have not read this book. But we have the author, who I assume is Johnny Payne. Then we have an omniscient narrator who is the developer of the subdivision, and then we have his son, Junior, who comes back in at the last and talks to us a little bit. And then, of course, we have the Miles family, the seven of the Miles family. So this is very complicated [laughs].

Dava:
The Miles family is actually just a creation of this narrator.

Wilma:
Of the narrator, and not necessarily the author.

Bill:
Story within a story within a story.

Gabrielle:
But it goes back and forth, so that sometimes you are caught up, and then you say, “Wait a minute; this is the narrator, but now he’s in the story, as well as his son.”

Bill:
If you lop off the first chapter and the last chapter, what do you have in between?

Wilma:
Short stories.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
You have character studies—unless, as I understand from reading the beginning materials of the novel, those stories were published beforehand in other forms.

Bill:
Oh, I didn’t know that.

Wilma:
Yes. And apparently he reworked them, and then they were all published in various journals. He reworked them to get them into novel form. So he actually takes the stories that had already been written, and I assume with, with some revision, sets them between our beginning narrator, the father [laughs], and the ending narrator, the son. And those two narrators talk to us, the audience, saying things like, “Well, I know I’ve gone on too long here, but I just had to tell you more about Talia,” or Lynette or whoever it happens to be.

Bill:
So a story within a story and the character study and all that ... Now, I said if you do take the first and last chapter out; but, of course, it’s there, and you do read the first chapter and of course the last chapter, too.

Wilma:
And it wouldn’t be as good. I mean, you just have a dysfunctional story. The unique thing about this novel is that the author does jump in, and he talks to us, and he makes fun of himself, and it’s not really the author—it’s the narrator and then the son, and that’s confusing, too. But that’s the whole thing, is that it’s a farce; it’s a take-off on other novels and on other fiction writers.

Dava:
Without the first and last chapters, you wouldn’t be concretely explained that this is a farce. Otherwise you would be like, you know, “I know some families have their problems, but how is there a family where all seven of them are just so messed up.?”

Wilma:
Right.

Dava:
You know?

Lynda:
Well, did you have to labor through the first chapter at all?

Dava:
I know.

Lynda:
To me it was a little bit like that I had to let some time pass. I had to really work to get engaged in it, and then once I was there, it was good.

Bill:
Yeah.

Lynda:
The first chapter was just such a different way of looking at things. I was totally unprepared for that.

Gabrielle:
Yeah. I think, like Wilma said, once you realized it was dark humor at times, then all of a sudden you caught on and said, “OK.” It’s almost like when you have a puzzle, you put the framework around on the outside, and then you put all the pieces in the middle. At first I just didn’t understand where he was going. And then after a while it was OK.

Dava:
That got me real excited about the book—the first chapter.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
I mean, I thought it was really going to be different, and it was. And I really think he did a great job, especially with the opening and his omniscience of the narrator.

Gabrielle:
Yes.

Dava:
He keeps reminding us that he’s omniscient.

[laughter]

Wilma:
I think the part maybe I liked best was Junior’s part. And Junior comes in at the end and he’s actually the savior figure, you know: He’s the only begotten son of the omniscient narrator. All of the other people in the book are creations, and so he’s brought in to save the world of the Mileses. And, of course, he has to sell himself off to do that, so you have all of this savior type of thing at the end. I really liked Junior’s part a great deal, because he was trying to think of a way not to barter himself—although he finally had to in order to buy out his father’s business. And that becomes the business of the developer of the subdivision as well as the business of writing the novel and owning the rights to the Miles’ story. Very confusing.

Lynda:
Yeah. I think when you try to explain, it’s almost impossible to make sense of it.

Bill:
Well, I am glad we are talking about it like this, because we can either sort of talk about Junior and the story within the story and all of that, or you sort of jump into the character study and all that. So I sort of like this. It’s been termed “meta-fictional,” the way that Johnny Payne sort of unfolds all of this to you. Do you think Junior is real?

[laughter]

Wilma:
Well, he is real as much as anything else in this book.

Dava:
Yeah.

Wilma:
What do you mean? What do you mean, “real”?

Bill:
Well ...

Wilma:
In the last line in the book, he said, “I could almost believe I was real.” The last word comes from Junior.

Bill:
Well, do you think the narrator-developer really had a son?

Lynda:
I think you go down the wrong path when you start asking ...

Bill:
Oh, really?

Lynda:
Oh, I do.

Bill:
Oh, I think that’s sort of the intriguing thing. In fact, let me read ...

Lynda:
No, Dodie Wentzler—the woman who has all the money.

[Everyone laughs]

Lynda:
I mean, are you assuming she is real? She knows she’s a fictional character ...

[laughter]

Bill:
That’s right. Now is that bizarre or not? That’s what makes it so ...

Lynda:
... and in several different stories, movies, novels.

Bill:
So she knows she’s a fictional character.

Lynda:
Yes.

Bill:
OK. So we are reading about this character who knows that she’s not real.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
I think that’s what makes the whole thing work, and I think Johnny Payne goes out of his way to make you start to get into this mind-set and sort of challenges you. I mean, it’s almost like a terrific mystery, isn’t it, that you’re sort of questioning and figuring out and looking for clues.

Lynda:
A surreal mystery.

Bill:
One of our better writers and members of our in house book club at KET, Mary Duncan—and let me just read a little bit of what she wrote me this morning: “The literary convention is to maintain suspension of disbelief so the reader comes to regard the characters as real and the world they inhabit as fully formed reality. I think that when an author addresses the fact that both are fictions head-on, he shatters this illusion and brings the reader to the very metaphysical questions you are asking.” So you see, in that you are sort of asked to buy into a piece of fiction, that you question whether or not this could be real. Isn’t it confusing, yet at the same time sort of intriguing to think about all that?

Dava:
Because the characters are totally believable. I mean, they live in Lexington. He talks about real places in Lexington, actual things that happened. I mean, there is nothing out of the ordinary, and so they are more believable than Junior or Junior’s father. And it’s just very, very strange.

Bill:
Yes, but remember, too, that in the final chapter, Junior actually falls in love with ...

Dava:
Elaine.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Elaine.

Bill:
Is that not sort of an interesting twist? If you then go back and question whether Junior is real or not—as he says in the last sentence, “I am real” ...

Wilma:
Well, his father told him that he couldn’t get involved in fiction, with fictional characters. There wasn’t any way he could do that. But he just couldn’t help himself because he loved Elaine—which doesn’t make sense either.

[laughter]

Wilma:
But anyway, it did bother me, but I—see, you can’t talk about this novel and why anything in it would bother me at all—but it bothered me that he and Elaine had that little sexual misadventure that they had, because ... I don’t know why that would bother me, because the whole novel is illogical. So it doesn’t matter whether he is kind of a real person and has had some kind of experience with a fictional character at all.

Bill:
You can’t even say that.

Wilma:
I can’t even say that.

Lynda:
The last chapter is when I think all pretense ends. I mean, they at that point ...

Dava:
I do, too.

Lynda:
At that point all touch with reality ends. When they do have that sexual ...

Wilma:
Encounter.

Lynda:
... encounter. It is at Natural Bridge ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
... State Park, and the husband rushes in the door and doesn’t catch on at all that something has happened, and says, you know, “I finally found out that my fishing buddy has been disloyal,” which is a whole ’nother storyline, but ...

[Everyone laughs]

Lynda:
I won’t even try to explain it! But at that point you realize that everything is up for grabs. Nothing is as it seems to be.

Wilma:
And Junior says, “I want you to know right now, Elaine and I are sharing a room,” and her husband says, “Well, yeah, that’s just like Elaine. She is all the time trying to save money.”

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
Something funny like that.

Lynda:
And then the flood at Natural Bridge that sweeps everybody away, and I mean at that point it just becomes really impossible to believe.

Wilma:
Well, one thing I wanted to say about the flood: He says—Junior or whoever that is telling us, says—“I bet you readers think that this is a deus ex machina”—which is a ...

Lynda:
Right.

Wilma:
... a Greek device to get a character off the stage when the plot has just gone so awry. And so he says, “But it wasn’t. It’s not that kind of cheap plot turn at all, because if it had been, the flood would have come before Elaine and I got together.” Then he goes on—which is really interesting—and has two deus ex machinas: one when the helicopter comes and he’s up on the skylift with Bubbles ...

Lynda:
Right.

[laughter]

Wilma:
... and the helicopter just comes down, scoops them both up out of harm’s way. And then at the end, the very idea that this woman—we haven’t even heard of her until about the last four pages of the book—comes in with ten million dollars to give to Junior so that he can buy the world, apparently. So we have two plot manipulations there that in any other book would be so cheap; but he points out to us, “This isn’t cheap.”

Bill:
And we are asked to buy into all of that and to sort of suspend any sort of conventional writing or style or method. But is it too clever? Is the author, the real author, Johnny Payne, the real live person—we think there is a person down in Florida teaching at the university that is a real person ...

[laughter]

Bill:
We’ll find out someday. But is it too cute? Does all of that work?

Lynda:
I thought it was.

Bill:
Or does it get to a point that you just described, where you are thinking, “Wait a minute. I have bought into this up to this point, but this is a stretch.” Even the devices, the Greek ...

Wilma:
But I liked that, because he was making fun of conventional writing precepts—the idea that we are not supposed to use this cheap melodramatic device, and then he goes ahead and uses it. I mean, that’s the funny part of the story. I thought he was less effective when he got into realism, somehow. I liked it better when it was just pure farce.

Dava:
Well, I think the realism was very effective. I mean, after I would read of, maybe, some of Judy’s escapades, I just wanted to smoke a cigarette and drink a beer.

[laughter]

Dava:
I don’t even do that, and, you know, I was just feeling real gross, and I mean really did get that.

Bill:
Wow, it did have an effect on you.

Dava:
Yeah, I was just: “Ooh.”

Gabrielle:
What about the undertones of the violence? There was rape and all of that.

Bill:
Sure. Yeah, some of that stuff was awful.

Gabrielle:
How did that make you feel?

Bill:
Singeing and burning the cat.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Bill:
And then there is an abortion in it.

Wilma:
Actually, that is a fine line; and if anything in the book bothered me, it was that the entire tone is flippant, and it is real chancy for an author to be flippant about rape and sexual seduction of an 11-year-old girl and that type of thing. So when you get to that, you want to go, “Yeah, I just want to go.” So I was alternately repulsed and fascinated by this book—which maybe the author wanted us to be. Did you feel that same way, too, when you got to those parts?

Gabrielle:
At times I was shocked at the detail, and I found it repulsive at times, but I kept reading.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
It did surprise me, because I thought it was going to be totally dark humor, kind of funny stuff, and then he got really deep, kind of on the edge.

Dava:
I mean, he treats everything in the book as manufactured, prefabricated. It’s like the neighborhood they live in: It’s just, you know, cookie-cutter. Everybody’s messed up, and really nobody’s life means anything, and no one really tries to make it mean anything. Maybe Steven tries to write an account of his family life, but no one is really up to any good.

Bill:
Well, it’s about, of course, the ’60s and ’70s. Drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, and there is a lot of that. And I’m not sure the term “dysfunctional” was used at that time—not as much as we use it today in descriptions. Is that a term that is overused today as well as to describe what was going on with all of these characters, or ... You know, they fit that description, didn’t they?

Lynda:
Yeah, they did. But he starts out saying that Garden Springs ...

Bill:
The subdivision.

Lynda:
... the subdivision was home to a lot of families like this, and you didn’t really know what went on behind closed doors, but it was all rather controlled and tame. There weren’t the kinds of problems we see in “mixed-use neighborhoods”—since the fellow writing is a developer at that point, and he uses terms like that. I found the whole use of suburbia as the structure for the story compelling, because personally I have some issues with suburbia, as an original downtown-dweller—although he doesn’t really draw that analogy out throughout the whole story. But certainly the way it opens makes me believe that there are issues about suburban living, particularly when suburbs were becoming so popular, just taking over the countryside.

Bill:
Well, this is a sort of a naïve question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is this a typical family that you found in the suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s? Or in the ’90s or the ’00s? Typical, dysfunctional?

Lynda:
I can’t say it’s typical. I can’t say. It wasn’t typical for me; it’s not my experience.

Bill:
Wilma?

Wilma:
No, I wasn’t disagreeing. I think I might have been agreeing with Lynda. That wasn’t an experience I had in the suburbs during that time, although I did live in the suburbs during that time. But the idea that maybe the children might have been on drugs, I think, is correct. I mean, that could have happened. Let me put it that way. I don’t think it’s far-fetched. Do you feel that it’s far-fetched?

Lynda:
Well, he couched everything in terms of Lexington culture.

Wilma:
Uh huh; yes.

Lynda:
And not being here at that time, I don’t know. I don’t know how realistic it is. I don’t know how true it is.

Dava:
Well, the thing about this family is, everybody has got this lethargy about them, and there’s no one ... I mean, usually in a family that large, or even in a smaller family, there’s at least one person ...

Bill:
Have one good egg.

Dava:
... who wants to do something. And they are all just like, “Huh?” Even Steven, who is the gifted one that kind of floats along, goes out to Albuquerque for a winter vacation, probably doesn’t know when he is coming home. That’s just too much for one whole family.

Lynda:
Playing the fact that those could be real aspects of culture at that time against the fact that so much of it is definitely not real is an interesting juxtaposition.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
And I frankly don’t know how Johnny Payne kept it all going, all the different balls in the air that he had going.

Bill:
That’s the amazing thing about the novel, I think.

Wilma:
I also was interested ... When he started out with the various members of the family. I thought, “Oh, he is just trying to do this cheap take-off on The Sound and the Fury with the Compson family.”

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
There are a great many parallels—even to the point that the father is an alcoholic and the mother is a hypochondriac. So near the end he says, “I’m afraid somebody, some reader, is going to say, ‘I know Quentin Compson, and you are no Quentin Compson.’”

[laughter]

Wilma:
He kind of pre-reads the reader’s attitude toward all of this, and I really like that. I thought he was just making fun of himself totally—and literature also. So I liked that.

Lynda:
One thing is clear: that he knows literature.

Bill:
Yes.

Wilma:
Oh, absolutely.

Lynda:
So many things in here are references to other literary works.

Bill:
Well, are you OK with that? That’s why I asked a few minutes ago the question about was he trying to be too cute or too clever with all of that? I mean, it’s a device, but somebody else had said that the family is sort of an avenue for the author’s literary cuteness when he brings ... hipness, not cuteness: literary hipness. He does call on all of these Greek characters and recalls dialogue from other events and so forth.

Wilma:
Well, he even makes fun of himself. That’s what saves it, you know.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
If he were just going, “Oh, I know all of these literary things” ...

Bill:
Just dropping them in there ...

Wilma:
... I’d go ...

Bill:
... without reference.

Wilma:
... “Forget this whole thing.” But he doesn’t do that. He makes fun of himself. He talks—when Junior is speaking and he says he’s heard lots of nights when his father, the omniscient whatever, teller of the story at the beginning—he said, “I remember hearing my mother through the bedroom wall trying to talk him [the omniscient author] down from his witty, reference-laden, polysyllabic delirium.”

[laughter]

Wilma:
So he calls his own writing “witty, reference-laden, polysyllabic delirium.” So when the author calls his own writing that ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
... then you can hardly say ...

Bill:
That’s right.

Wilma:
... “Well, he was just trying to be too cute.”

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
As I said, he gets the idea of making fun ...

Bill:
What else do you have underlined there?

Wilma:
Well, it’s the next page, which means ... It means it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the page before.

Gabrielle:
Especially in this book.

Wilma:
But I marked some things here about Lexington.

Bill:
Or the sentence before.

Wilma:
The sentence before, even. It says—and I don’t know what I marked, so I am about to read something; I’ll stop if there is a foul word in here—but it says, “The pinnacle of social life in Lexington is to have second-row center-court seats when Kentucky plays Georgia Tech or Louisville.”

Bill:
Or Louisville.

Wilma:
“And there’s a lot of money in this town vying to purchase that right—horse money, tobacco money, coal money, restaurant-franchise money. Or the money that comes from subdividing horse farms and building luxury homes with cedar closets.”

Bill:
Now, I was going to mention this a few minutes ago, when you said that this was written in the ’60s and ’70s, when a lot of that stuff was going on, and the author knew Lexington at that time. But you take that sentence ... I’m so glad you had that marked, because that—that was written today.

Wilma:
It’s updated. Uh huh.

Lynda:
It’s true today.

Bill:
Sure it is. I mean, that’s still going on. I don’t know about Georgia Tech ...

Lynda:
Well, uncontrolled growth and suburban sprawl.

Bill:
Sure, exactly. Dividing of horse farms.

Wilma:
Dava made reference to all of the invocations concerning Lexington, and that’s one thing I found a bit fascinating. Because he did mention specific places, specific references, specific things that have to do with the social life of Lexington per se. And did you find that interesting?

Gabrielle:
Yeah, yeah.

Wilma:
Fascinating.

Lynda:
Kind of neat to know those things.

Gabrielle:
I liked it.

Dava:
He’s, like, using Anita Madden. Unless you’re from here, you are like, “Who?”

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Yeah.

Bill:
Does that work? Because I’m going to give you another example that you would not remember because you weren’t here at the time or in school at the University of Kentucky.

Wilma:
But we were.

Bill:
Like Columbia’s. Yes, we do remember the Columbia Steak House and the names of places where you would stop in and have refreshment. Even Lynagh’s is mentioned. You know, that sort of thing.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
So does that bother you, as someone who was not here 30 or 40 years ago?

Dava:
Even now most of these places are still there.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
Lynagh’s is still ...

Lynda:
The Mansion is not still there on Leestown Road, but I heard about it.

Bill:
What about the Red Lion? It’s no longer here.

Wilma:
Well, I think it takes nerve for an author to be so specific about place. And I kind of like that, and I suppose someone would get some of the references, because he talks about Adolph Rupp. Well, I mean, who wouldn’t get that reference? But I guess people from other parts of the country wouldn’t get as many of the references.

Gabrielle:
Right.

[Everyone talks at once]

Gabrielle:
I think the book still holds true. That’s why this story is still compelling, and it keeps you interested. It’d be OK, but it’s even more interesting because you go, “I know where that is.”

[Laughter]

Wilma:
And I guess he mentions things in the general enough way [that] even if you didn’t know what the Red Lion was, you’d know the type of place it was.

Gabrielle:
Correct.

Wilma:
Something like that.

Bill:
You mentioned, interestingly enough, a minute ago—because this also had come up in another discussion—The Sound and the Fury. Does it remind you of anything else besides The Sound and the Fury—another novel or another author or movie for example?

Wilma:
He also brought up Cass Mastern, and he was one of our characters in All the King’s Men ...

Gabrielle:
Right, right.

Wilma:
... that we have discussed, and Junior references himself as popping up like Cass Mastern, kind of out of Jack Burden’s head or something, and so I thought that was interesting. But I think overall it reminded me more of The Sound and the Fury than any other novel. Did some of you have some other thought?

Bill:
I described it from the modern movie genre as sort of a cross between, let’s say, a Moulin Rouge, a Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, American Beauty, and—I don’t know; throw another one in there.

[Laughter]

Bill:
We know it’s just so layered. Is it a novel about redemption in any certain way, do you think, Lynda?

Lynda:
Well, yes. Jean’s story in here is definitely the story of redemption and overcoming, and the story of Jean and Constance’s marriage, as well, has a story of redemption. They had struggled, and at the end they are still together. They’ve overcome many problems in order to still be together. But ultimately I think it’s a stretch to try to find a cohesive storyline through the story. To me, the real story is this playing with reality, so that you really don’t know whether what you are seeing is real or not real and whether that’s even important. It makes me wonder about life in general. How do we know any of life is real? What do we know? What touchstone do we have to know that this is real? And once you start going down that path, of course you drive yourself crazy.

Bill:
But, again, I think that’s what Johnny Payne, the author, wants us to do in playing with or thinking about or believing in reality vs. fiction or fiction vs. reality and how he ultimately makes that work, don’t you?

Lynda:
Actually, I do. And I didn’t think so originally. But when I read the book a second time, that’s when my understanding deepened. I have to say, a book like this, first reading you are not going to get all the different layers.

Bill:
Well, there are some interesting materials on our web site, too, about this, and it gives you a nice bio of Johnny Payne and the work that he is doing in Florida at the university, teaching, and I believe the other work that he’s done in literature ...

 

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