May 5: “Thieves I’ve Known” by Tom Kealey

Story366! So today is Cinco de Mayo, and I didn’t think of that, in relation to this blog, until I started writing this post just now and was looking for an entryway to the story. I don’t think I’ve ever “celebrated” Cinco de Mayo before, mainly because this is usually a really busy week for me, always the last week of classes (as it is this year), or finals week, and I can’t just go get drunk on margaritas on a weeknight. The neighbors across the street—college kids in a rental—are having a huge party right now, and it just dawned on me as to why. So, not a holiday with which I have a huge history.

Connecting this point to Story366, I’m wondering now (though it’s too late to read a different author than Tom Kealey), if I should have picked a Mexican author for today’s post. I mean, that would be celebratory, right? I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure. I know that I picked a Polish author, Leslie Pietrzyk, on Casimir Pulaski Day, a commemoration; in spirit, that would have been why I would have chosen a Mexican (or Mexican-American) author today. But would that have been looked upon or possibly construed as racist? Even a little bit? On President’s Day, I wrote about a Jerry Gabriel story that had a president’s name in the title. On Mother’s Day, I’ll at least write about an author who has kids, and that author will likely be female (not that I subscribe to gender roles all that rigidly). And on the day the world celebrates Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla, why not pick a Mexican author? This evening, I saw people on TV at the Cubs game, white people wearing sombreros and zarapes and big black curly mustaches, and I know that shit’s straight-up racist. I know that the shitty article printed in The Antioch Review this week (sorry, no link to that—that hatred’s been spread around enough) is foul. I have a couple of books on deck by authors who would have fit the bill, too, and easily could have gone this route. But why do I have the feeling that pinpointing an author, of a separate racial identity than mine, on this day, because it’s this day, would be wrong?

The fact is, midnight is approaching and I didn’t choose one of those authors. Instead (without having thought about any of this), I read from Tom Kealey’s excellent collection Thieves I’ve Known, winner of a Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and put out by the University of Georgia Press. I got to publish Tom in Mid-American Review almost twenty years ago, a story called “Leaving,” and to this day, it’s one of the five-ten things at MAR that I truly, truly remember, one I still pass out in my classes to this day. Tom even came to MAR after that as a Consulting Editor, and he teaches fiction writing at Stanford, has ever since he got one of those fancy Stegner Fellowships. He’s just a really good writer and I’m glad I spied his book on the pile.

“Thieves I’ve Known,” the title story from Thieves I’ve Known, is my focus today, the story (of the three) that I’ve read that has stuck with me the most (despite it being the first I read).  “Thieves I’ve Known” features three protagonists instead of one, is cut into thirds, Kealey employing alternating, woven narratives like a thick braid. One protagonist is Helen, a young girl training to be a boxer. The next is Omar, a young man whose shrinking family has been ravaged by heroin abuse. The third is Winston, who is on the run from the law with his grandfather (also named Winston). All three characters are savagely desperate and react to situations with rage and physicality, but also with heart, with bravery, with conviction.

Each character, of course, has their own hurdles to overcome. Helen’s trainer is riding he hard. Omar’s mom has become lost in their world, and Winston’s grandfather seems hell bent on going down in a blaze of glory. There’s not really enough plot in any of the stories to go much further than that with any of them—and this is a pretty long story, over twenty pages with tiny type—as the grace and beauty of Kealey’s work is his pretty prose, eloquently executed via interior third person dialogues. The characters working their way through their problems, growing, coming of age with decisions they have to make, is what makes this story, and others by Kealey, so good.

I also admire Kealey’s restraint in not bringing the three kids together. There’s one reference at the end of an Omar passage, where he looks across the Hudson River and wonders if there’s a kid like him looking across and wondering the same thing, and Kealey uses that as a transition to Winston, on the run in the Midwest. Otherwise, I was glad that the characters were just thematically linked, that, for instance, Helen didn’t cross paths with Omar on her way home from the gym. Or Winston’s grandfather didn’t turn out to be the man who killed Omar’s father. I think braided narratives involving multiple protagonists too often feel indebted to bring everyone together like some sort of Robert Altman film, which is fine, but not necessary. That might have taken away from each story, might have been forced. But Kealey didn’t do that, and I think it was the right choice.

In “Thieves I’ve Known,” Tom Kealey takes three different people, so different but with a few things in common, and threads their stories together to form a powerful examination of just how fucked up it can be to be a kid. In high school, I was busy not studying for the ACT, not asking girls I liked, and pinpointing new places on my body to find pimples, all while my loving mother and father gave me whatever I needed and asked for. I don’t think that’s what Kealey is saying in “Thieves I’ve Known,” some kind of public service message about taking middle class privilege for granted.  He’s just found three unlikely heroes in these three teens, and wrote a killer story about each, then made it all one story.

Tom Kealey

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