LITTLE ROCK "When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then - snap! - the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard.
- Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead
Welcome to Kevin Brockmeier's city of the dead, his waiting room for the hereafter.
The recently departed reside here as long as they are remembered by the living. The lives they lead are surprisingly worldly.
A former journalism professor devotes himself to recording the city's news. A husband and wife fall in love again after years of taking each other for granted. A man turns prophet, bringing the "Word of God" to the streets.
Elsewhere, a woman in the not-toodistant future finds herself alone in an Antarctica research station. As technology slowly fails her, she wonders what part her job as a "wildlife specialist" with Coca-Cola Corp., essentially a publicity stunt, played in her isolation. Meanwhile, a seemingly minor accident spells disaster.
Two mysteries eventually emerge: What is the fate of her fellow "researchers"? And what is her relationship to the city of the dead?
So begins Brockmeier's novel, The Brief History of the Dead, one of two new books from this 33-year-old Little Rock author. They join a growing catalog of work known for its inventive and sometimes disconcerting landscapes.
In Brockmeier's version of Rumpelstiltskin's story, for instance, the fairy tale character is split in half. Hence, his new name: Half of Rumpelstiltskin.
With innards showing, Half of Rumpelstiltskin spends his morning in the short story "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin" filling in for missing mannequins at a local store. In the evening, he cooks dinner, dances a jig and watches The Dating Game.
All the while he wonders what his other half is doing, finally realizing "it happens in this world that you can change in such a way as to never again be complete, that you can lose parts of who you once were - and sometimes you'll get better, but sometimes you'll never be anything more than fractional: than who you once were, a few parts hollow."
In another Brockmeier story, "The Passenger," a man lives on an airplane that never lands. There, people's futures are determined by the contents of luggage that suddenly appears in overhead compartments when they are born. And stewardesses coolly peruse the aisles, "representatives of the divine will, enacting sacred rituals and preserving the hallowed order."
"Sometimes I find myself thinking that I'm going somewhere, that all of this motion is indeed a motion toward, that into the trail we leave behind us, wrapping this world like a net, will fall our destination," the story's narrator concludes. "Sometimes I find myself thinking that I'm going somewhere, until I realize I'm already there."
A small man with a serious air that sometimes belies his sense of humor, Brockmeier has already earned critical praise for his previous works. They include the story collection Things That Fall from the Sky (2002), the children's book City of Names (also 2002) and his first novel, The Truth About Celia (2003).
He has also won numerous awards. Among them are three O. Henry Prizes, the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, the Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award and several Arkansas-based honors including the Booker Worthen Literary Prize and the Porter Fund Literary Prize.
But in many ways, The Brief History signals a turning point. It has already earned widespread national attention and is the first of Brockmeier's works to be translated into other languages. Editions will appear in Italian, German, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Hebrew and Castilian and Catalan Spanish.
Released Feb. 14, the book is joined by Brockmeier's second children's book, Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. Also published in February, it tells the fanciful story of a boy who learns, with help from a makeshift record needle and speaker, that the grooves in his jeans hold a message. It comes from an unknown person concerned that someone is "stealing the light from our eyes."
Although Brockmeier is still young, he enjoys support from many established literary figures. Donald Harington, a novelist who teaches at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, has long been a champion. He describes The Brief History as "a bold venture into what I call 'laterlit' - not science fiction and not fantasy but concerned with such eschatological themes as the end of mankind."
Marilynne Robinson, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel Gilead, is another fan. She was Brockmeier's teacher at the University of Iowa's prestigious Writers' Workshop and says he has "one of the most original minds I have ever encountered."
"There is absolutely nothing mannered or superficial about his originality, nothing facile or edgy about it," Robinson says. "It works at the level of world view, and it reflects a deep thoughtfulness. Kevin can, in fact, re-imagine reality, make it shine and float, and he does it by means of strength of observation, erudition, a rather courtly generosity of spirit and a grave joy in the workings of language."
Brockmeier does much of his writing at a desk in the living room of a modest apartment located behind a midtown shopping center. It is not a particularly literary spot in a town not always known for literary things.
(Of Charles Portis, author of True Grit and one of Little Rock's other notable writers, Brockmeier says simply, "I've probably seen him, but I've never met him.")
Writing is a quiet, demanding profession that Brockmeier tries to make "something like a 9-to-5 job."
"You have to be disciplined," he says. "At least if you're a writer like me, because I don't get much done no matter how much time I put in. No matter how many hours I put in, writing is really slow for me. I can spend an entire day working, and if I get a page out of it that's fantastic."
The print that hangs above Brockmeier's desk, a reproduction of The Librarian, a painting by the 16th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, might as well be a picture of Brockmeier. From a distance, the image appears to be a conventional portrait, but closer inspection reveals a figure made entirely of books.
In more than one way, Brockmeier is a man made of books. He reads deeply, as many as 170 books in an average year, and his modest apartment is filled with the evidence. He may soon have to move to make room for more books.
The volumes are arranged with exacting precision. Favorite fiction in one area. Favorite short story collections and nonfiction in another. And favorite children's books not far away. Even a bedroom closet has been taken over by the growing library.
A compulsive list maker, Brockmeier has created an account of his 50 favorite books and keeps his 10 most favorite on a special shelf, housed between bookends inherited from a grandfather.
Some of the selections are expected, like Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees. ("Calvino is a perfect example of a writer who keeps faith with the language, with his own obsessions and with the human experience, all simultaneously.")
Others are more surprising, like G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy ("nonfiction Christian apologetics") and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy ("really remarkable, very sophisticated children's fantasy that is every bit as deserving of an adult audience as it is of a children's audience").
Jeremy Jackson, author of the novel In Summer (2004) and Good Day for a Picnic: Simple Food that Travels Well (2005), was one of Brockmeier's classmates in Iowa.
"Kevin's world is books, and it's not just the books," Jackson says. "It's the worlds that are in these books, it's the stories. I think that accounts for his fetishisizing of the actual objects and his organization of them. I think it's that he truly inhabits that world. When he's not writing, he's reading. And when he's not reading or writing, he's thinking about reading or writing."
RAW AND ELEMENTAL
Born outside Miami, Brockmeier settled in Little Rock when he was 3 with his parents, now divorced, and a younger brother. His mother, Sally Goss, says he was a precocious child with a strong sense of humor.
"He started talking in full sentences when he was 2 years old and would rattle on," she says. "One of his first words was 'meatball.'"
Writing first became an interest for Brockmeier when he enrolled at Little Rock's Parkview Arts/Science Magnet High School. Judy Goss, a teacher there, was an early mentor.
"What was clear was his commitment to writing," she says. "He loved to write, and he was curious about everything. ... Kevin, even at that time, was an intriguing combination of confidence and humility."
In 1991, Brockmeier enrolled at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, where he majored in drama, philosophy and creative writing. During summers he returned to Little Rock, where a vacation job played an unexpected role in his development.
For three summers, Brockmeier worked at a Little Rock day-care center called the Lord of Life Learning Center. There, he often entertained the children by making up impromptu narratives. Later, he dedicated his first children's book to them.
"You never knew exactly what direction the stories were going to take, but they loved it and I loved doing it," he says. "I just missed it and that's how I ended up writing the first children's book. Some years had passed, and all of these kids were 10, 11, 12 years old, and I felt like I wanted to be able to continue speaking in some way to those particular children. So I sat down to write City of Names as a gift to them."
In the fall of 1995, Brockmeier enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There, his two main teachers were Robinson and the late Frank Conroy, a respected writer who had long led the workshop.
Thisbe Nissen, author of the 2004 novel Osprey Island, was a classmate and says her first encounter with Brockmeier came after reading "The Passenger."
"I was so blown away by it, and I remember going up to him in the hall and wanting to say, 'You make me want to cry,'" Nissen says. "Who else writes like that? It's so uniquely Kevin, this incredible inventiveness paired with such sadness. There's such a yearning and an expression of really deep striving for connection. There's such a loneliness that feels, I don't know, so raw and elemental."
Ultimately, Brockmeier spent two years in Iowa City.
"So far as I am aware, he was always appreciated here as someone with a very special gift," Robinson says. "In any case, he was so perfectly himself that discouragement, had he encountered it, would probably not have interested him. The work of his life was clearly well in hand when he came to us."
Completing his master's of fine arts degree in 1997, Brockmeier returned to Little Rock. Early on, he supported himself with part-time teaching at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Pulaski Technical College, while also working as a "gofer" for his mother's property management company.
"I thought at the time that I would pick up and leave again pretty quickly," he says. "But I didn't, and I got kind of settled into the place, I guess. It became my home, and at this point it would be really hard for me to pick up and leave. It's not that there's anything in particular that keeps me here. It's just that I feel very familiar to myself here in a good way."
About a year after returning to Little Rock, Brockmeier published his first short stories, including "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin." His first major breakthroughs, however, came in 1999 with the publication of the story "These Hands" in the Georgia Review and the appearance of "Apples" in the Chicago Tribune. Both were award winners.
Finally, in December 2000, Brockmeier was offered a twobook contract with Random House, which resulted in Things That Fall From the Sky and The Truth About Celia. Both were met with critical success.
Work on The Brief History began with a short story published in The New Yorker in 2003, also a winner of an O. Henry Prize. Writing the novel took roughly a year and half.
(A film option was sold to Warner Bros. and director Chris Columbus after the initial story appeared but has not been renewed. Brockmeier, however, still holds hope that a movie version may be made.)
Since completing The Brief History, Brockmeier has begun work on a new collection of short stories and finished a third children's book titled I Met a Lovely Monster. He also served as a juror for the O. Henry Prize and spent the fall semester teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There, he filled in for his mentor, Conroy, who died in April.
Presently, Brockmeier is traveling to promote his new books and avoiding reviews (he never reads them). He is also letting The Brief History and Grooves settle into a shelf in his apartment reserved for his work. There, they are likely to remain untouched.
"I could never sit down and read through any of my old stuff for pleasure," he says. "You just stand in a very awkward relationship to it. You are no longer the person you were when you wrote the book, and yet you're familiar enough with that person that you can't be a reader who is completely divorced from the book.
"You're in this really weird middle ground. You can't exactly appreciate it as the writer anymore, but you can't exactly appreciate it as a fresh reader either, which kind of leaves you unable to appreciate it at all."