Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ten Tongues by Cyn Kitchen

Ten Tongues (2010 from Motes Books of Louisville) is author Cyn Kitchen's first book. The ten short stories in the collection explore the darker side of human nature through intimate relationships with characters reminiscent of Flannery O' Connor, James Thurber, and Cormac McCarthy.

The title story, "Ten Tongues" opens with Ruby Baird giving birth to her daughter at the altar of the First Penecostal Church of the Empty Cross. The major conflict of the story emerges immediately when the daughter, Lola, who is brought into the world with the sounds of the women "annointing Lola with their voices," cannot herself make a sound. The tension between mother and daughter is at once palpable since Ruby Baird perceives herself to be gifted at talking in tongues, described beautifully by Kitchen in these words: "Heavenly languages, quivering flicks of tongue on palate, primordial songs of celebration and lamentation." Like many of the best Flannery O'Connor stories, Ten Tongues features bizarre, sometimes disabled characters who sit in judgment of their fellow men and women. Some, like Lola, are guided by the influence of a quirky brand of fundamentalism while others are motivated by an edgy psychological force.

In the story, "Savior," an ex-marine named Paul does battle with a scatter-brained neighbor who cannot remember to keep her two dogs off of his lawn. The rage he expresses at stepping in the dog droppings and the revenge he verbalizes to his wife sets up the comic battle royale between the thoughtless bad neighbor who constantly invites him and his family to church and the tightly wound Paul, Described at the onset in these words: "Paul's marine training had filed him to a sharp edge." Like many of Flannery O'Connor's most colorful characters, Paul is intent on teaching the thoughtless neighbor a lesson, but in the process reveals both a most disturbing and human side. The beauty in Kitchen's characters is that they are so human and familiar, even in their edginess. We might not go as far as Paul in our actions, but who hasn't wanted to fling thoughtless behavior back at a clueless neighbor?

Other stories in this collection examine the war between men and women much as Thurber did with dark comedy and hapless struggle. "The Raccoon in the Wall" pits

a married couple, Faunda and Jerry, against an intruding raccoon who has set up housekeeping in their wall. I wriggled in discomfort while laughing at the escalating slapstick battle that becomes more about the marriage and less about the raccoon. Kitchen skillfully paints the opening volley of this martial warfare while giving the reader a snapshot of its ridiculousness: "Jerry appeared on the back porch wearing red flannel pants with a chaotic pattern of penguins on them, holding a mug of coffee. 'You missed a piece,' he called out to Faunda."

In the story "Settlement," the battle between men and women is carried out in the internal monologue of a woman listing belongings for a settlement agreement. Each object--printed in italics in the text of the story--brings with it a vignette about why the marriage didn't work. While Corinne cleans out her house and plans her move to an apartment, she categorizes the residue of her relationship as "pitch" or 'keep." A copy of The Thornbirds gets labeled "essential" when Corinne recalls how her husband, Tom, would never let her read it without interrupting. Again, all the stuff becomes touchstone for what didn't work in the marriage. The only comic battle in this story exists between Corinne and a loudly ticking clock, symbolic perhaps in its commentary on her need to get on with her life.

Sudden violence punctuates a few of the stories, reminding the reader of Cormac McCarthy scenes or the sudden turn of a Coen brothers movie. "How to Avoid Sex with a Man Who Weighs 300 Lbs More Than You" recounts a woman's temporary escape from her mismatched, sexless marriage. As she carelessly wanders into an affair with her seductive pastor, the pastor's wife tries to warn her why the grass may not be greener. In "Out on a Rail," Carl tries to piece together the last minutes of his former lover's life. He theorizes that it must have been an accident since someone who had survived the Iraqi War and a brutal husband would want to be there for her kids.

Last fall when Ten Tongues was released, Cyn Kitchen celebrated her book launch by gathering with friends for a cookout on her backyard patio. In what could easily be a plot line from one of her stories, a neighbor was banging the door noisily in the background and staring at the gathering of friends. Suddenly, the neighbor stumbled forward toward the fire and threw some paper in, wandering wordlessly back to her house.

Kitchen determined that the burned text was the story, "Diagnosis," a sad, beautiful account of a couple's struggle against breast cancer. The power of Ten Tongues lies in its effortless storytelling and in the fact that we can all recognize ourselves in the dark humanity of its characters. Sometimes too clearly.

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