Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Book 30: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Kavalier and Clay, the two gorgeous title characters of Michael Chabon's sprawling masterpiece, discovered a cousin kinship that set their artistic aspirations free. The book came out in 2000 and by the time I got around to reading it that year, my cousin Timothy was back in my life for the first time since we were kids.

Timothy grew up in Maine. I grew up in Rhode Island. I was born in July of 1969, Timothy in March of the following year. Timothy's father Joe was the youngest of the O'Malley clan and by all accounts he was an imp of the highest order. While staying with an Aunt at a house that was next door to a convent, he would wait until the nuns were out on the lawn and then climb out an upstairs window and hang from the gutters until the poor sisters saw him. He was 5.

An uncle tells of hearing that a crowd had gathered in a soda shop across from the school. Joe was bragging to a crowd about his report card. It was all F's.

Hilarious, rogue, with movie star looks and perhaps a bit of an over-developed taste for illicit chemicals, Joe would show up at our house with a backpack, having hitch-hiked down. In one of my earliest memories he drove me around Boston in a school bus one weekend. I couldn't believe that I had the bus all to myself and I played with my toy cars up and down the aisle.

Joe got leukemia and died when I was 8, Timothy 7. By that point, he and Timothy's mom had divorced. She'd remarried an amazing man who I have come to think of as my uncle. As Timothy has said, "I won the step dad lottery."

Point being, the O'Malley closeness that the rest of us shared was denied Timothy and his sister Marianne. They were around but not as much as the other cousins. We saw them less often and by the time I was in high school they were not regularly at the family functions (Uncle Jimmy's on 4th of July, Thanksgiving at Mummy Gina's, Christmas somewhere).

Long story short I saw Timothy at my grandmother's funeral and then a random time in college when we were both finalists in the Irene Ryan Acting Competition. Then at weddings and one random time when he came to New York to see my band play. This was when he first showed me the now infamous "P-Leg Funk", a dance done by a man with a prosthetic leg.

I tell all this because it dovetails perfectly with the reunion of Kavalier and Clay. Reunion being a deliberately funny word because they'd never met. Kavalier flees the murderous Nazi regime and treks halfway across the world, winding up in Brooklyn staying with his cousin Sammy.

This is how it felt with Timothy.

We began to communicate a bit more in our twenties, and when I was going to spend 8 weeks in North Carolina I went to Timothy for advice on how to get into shape quickly. I knew he was a fitness nut and could give me tips and pointers. He did and they worked like a charm.

In early 2000 I moved out of the condo I shared with Maria and Cashel. I moved into a basement apartment as close to them as I could. A lucrative freelance writing job fell through and the rent which had seemed doable suddenly seemed impossible. Timothy came barreling through the city on tour demonstrating how to use digital cameras to K-Mart nation. He was going to be on the road for the next year and had no fixed address in Maine anymore.

I asked him if he wanted to move in with me, the idea being that he could store everything with me and hang out in New York when he wasn't traveling. He immediately agreed, a moment we relive over and over.

Needless to say his job also fell through and voila. Instant roommate. I had a 4 track recorder (using CASSETTES bitches) and we immediately began passing time with it.

Timothy and I had polar opposite taste in music. My high school years I was a musical outcast for delving into hardcore punk, Timothy got sucked into the early rap genres and never looked back. The offshoot being that we each had been writing songs in opposite genres for over 10 years.

We put the two together.

Here's how it worked.

I'd head into the city and audition. Then I would pick Cashel up from day care and hang out with him at Maria's place. When I got back to my apartment Timothy would have been fiddling around with the drum machine and the 4-track all day long.

The first thing he ever recorded in The Basement was called "Cot In The Corner", which was where he was sleeping, in my kitchen/dining/living room. It was only months later that I realized he was talking about the literal cot. I thought he was describing himself as being "Caught In The Corner" which is just as good.

In quick order after that we began churning out songs. Some called for me to sing, some called for a little electric guitar, I did whatever he asked. I was so used to playing three chords on an acoustic that it was as if I'd been given a license to kill. Suddenly all that mattered was the sounds I could make. This transformed my guitar playing in a flash.

'Kavalier & Clay' reminds me of this time, but not just because it is when I first read it. It is evocative of a new blossom from a forgotten flower, a meeting of the minds, a freedom of expression that cannot be aimed at, merely released.

So here's to Michael Chabon for giving those fictional men real weight. Here's to Timothy for injecting a sense of humor and play into my music. Here's to his alter ego Pimp Fu who makes some of the sickest beats I've ever heard. Here's to Bomer-B who had no right to rap but did it anyway.

Here's to cousins. Here's to Kavalier and Clay.