January 14: “Kessler Has No Lucky Pants” by Jim Ruland

Sometimes there’s writers out there that you know about for a long time, but never get around to reading. Their names are names you’ve heard, you’ve seen them in the author lists on the back of lit mags, and people you know talk about them, are friends with them on social media. You might be friends with them, too, but you never interact, but did like that picture they put up of themselves at City Lights bookstore, or with a celebrity, or a selfie outside the original Kentucky Fried Chicken. If someone asked you about them, you’d say something like, “Oh yeah, good writer,” because they you’ve known their name so long, have heard good things, and know of their success; they have to be good. You make a mental note to pick up their book, or get to that story in Black Warrior Review you saw that time, but a lot of times, you don’t.

Jim Ruland is one of those writers for me, somebody I would have said I knew, or knew of, if you asked.  But if you would have also shown me a picture of the mayor of Tegucigalpa or one of the Wu Tang Clan and said, “This is him, Jim Ruland, right?” I would have nodded and gone along with you. “Yep, that’s him,” I would have said, not realizing I’d identified Ol’ Dirty Bastard as a white dude from San Diego.

I got to meet Jim Ruland and see him read at a small press reading in at AWP in Seattle in 2014. His charisma and showmanship were magnetic, and afterward, when I got him to sign my copy of Big Lonesome, we talked about baseball. He knew I was a Cubs fan, and if I’m not mistaken, he was wearing a Dodgers jersey, so we talked about our franchises and the opposite identities they had at the time, the Dodgers with the biggest payroll in history and the Cubs stalwartly rebuilding.

So I now had a face and a voice to put with Jim Ruland and had a book to read. But like I’ve said a bunch of times in this blog already, those AWP book purchases get more lost than any other books—I usually have an entire suitcase’s worth to ship home. I just got around to cracking Big Lonesome for today’s post. I’ve read several stories from the book—out in 2005 from Gorsky Press—and have chosen “Kessler Has No Lucky Pants” for today’s entry.

Ruland seems to write about middle-aged guys in crisis, though some of them might just be jerks. He has a story that furthers the adventures of Popeye, and also depicts Dick Tracey as an emigrant to the moon.  There’s a story about a guy called The Engman, who has to go to sensitivity training because of things he’s said at work (then, with a twist of serendipity, he finds out his lover is the sensitivity trainer). The hero of “Kessler Has No Lucky Pants,” Kessler, is just your run-of-the-mill average guy, one who—you guessed it—has had a lot of bad luck (much of it self-made). It’s my favorite story of the bunch, is the most fun of the titles to type, and best emulates the type of character Ruland favors.

The narrator of this story is a question-asker, not a flesh-and-blood person, but a metafictional voice. It asks, in italics, a series of questions, compelling another third-person narrator to answer—it’s these answers that give us the bulk of the text. This means the story is written as a dialogue between two third-person voices, neither of whom are actual characters. One voice is perhaps an interviewer, the other someone with intimate knowledge of Kessler’s life, as well as the lives and backstories of all the other characters, too. If I had to title the point of view this story is written in, I’d have to go with “third-person interrogative meets third-person omniscient.” I think I’ll add that one as a choice on the POV section of the final I give my intro students (just to see how many students guess it for “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”). It’s a neat trick, a compelling way to tell a story, the form contributing to the nobody’s-business aspect of what goes on here.

Kessler is the type of character who has a lot of pants, but doesn’t wear all of them. For the pants he does wear, he has a schedule. Ironically, it’s a particular pair of pants, a sailor’s black bell bottoms, worn only once, that prove unluckiest. Why Kessler has sailor pants, why he only wears them once, and what they cause, I’ll not say, but it’s funny and clever, plus it explains why the title and the narrative focuses so acutely on pants. Ruland also exposes a nasty, selfish side of Kessler, making him an anti-hero, or at the very least, morally questionable. That’s Ruland’s type of protagonist.

With AWP in LA this year, I hope to run into Jim Ruland again, talk about baseball, about the Cubs’ resurgence, the Dodgers losing Greinke, get his predictions for the upcoming season (by the way, the Cubs open in LA, vs. the Angels, two days after I fly back to Missouri … ugh). I’d love to see him read again, pick up more of his work, if Big Lonesome is any indication what this author can do.

Jim Ruland