Robert Kloss, How the Days of Love and Diptheria, Nephew of Mud Luscious Press, 2011.
“Love & Diphtheria, yes: here Kloss does creation & destruction as it must be: in the same breath, a magnificent, unblinking act of remembrance & retribution, aimed at we who despite the skinless horses and burning bears would still go on, would deign to say anything at all with all this fire bursting out of people and the weird ground, and which from also comes a light.” – Blake Butler
"Let’s just get this out there: I think Robert Kloss is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from the indie world in the last few years, period. His language-heavy, seemingly-contradictory-but-it-works-perfectly-somehow-post-apocalyptic histories read like a tinted silent film: black and white with the faintest blush of something warmer, stranger. Read Kloss once and you’ll think him a pessimist; read him again and you’ll realize he’s a bit of a romantic, too. If not optimism, there is a certain bitter hope in most of his pieces, and there is almost always a mangled, broken, bloody, but very vivid kind of love.
How the Days of Love & Diptheria is Kloss’s first book, and love and hope are woven throughout its bleak nightmare-scape. Kloss paints a world ablaze, in which fires never really burn out. They just smolder on, reducing houses and families to ash. Our shifting protagonist, a boy and a kind of boy-golem are killed, rot, rise, travel, love, and mature in a way that almost seems to equate puberty with a kind of death and rebirth. This is a world in which the dead always return to trouble the living.
Surely it is no coincidence that the second father is blind: for this desperate attempt to save memories and dream them as people involves a great deal of willful blindness, eyes shut to the blackened skin, wasted muscles, clotted blood in the throat. Families start out as man and women, innocent as Adam and Eve, and end up slothful and rut-stuck as a sitcom family. But then those families give way, make room for new children, new families, and the cycle continues.
As I read Diptheria, I started to feel the same dread that I felt while reading On the Road, or Scorch Atlas, or William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”. Indeed, the sinister figure of death trailing and being trailed throughout the book (and boy as prey and preying) reminded me of the killer in Gass’s short story. Kloss makes brilliant use here of the long sustained note, this death-presence and the threat and the child-as-outsider all part of the taut note of dread sustained and sounded throughout the text, like the soundtrack for Eyes Wide Shut:
How the mother undressed and the shape of her figure, her pink brassiere, through the lighted window. How the boy thought she would taste. How she would look strewn. The way the family who was not his family would look cut and severed. How the boy watched from the hillside and considered the voices and what you would do to this house, erected in the flickering shadow of all he loved.
By the end you don’t know which you’re more afraid of: that the terrible thing will happen, or that nothing will happen after all.
Diptheria, like all of Kloss’s work, is primarily a language piece, with the long strings of doomsday words doing the work of prophecy for the reader. The gorgeous, edible phrases and sentences paint a vivid, shifting landscape in muted grey, sickly green, scarlet splashes and brilliant orange blazes. Frame-worthy sentences like these one abound, the mundane made sacred: “Now a woman vibrated into shadow. Now her fluids gone into steam.” Or this one: “The man gestured to the skies, Under the shadow of our aircraft, he said, a schoolyard of children become a river of tar.”
Kloss makes fantastic use of sing-song and repetition to give Diptheria a kind of fabled quality, the long-ago-and-far-away of fairy tales inherent in the action-through-description method he mostly employs in the book. Many of the sentences begin with “How the,” and yet even as this delivers us into storybook land, it simultaneously draws us closer to the tale and the characters, as though these events are our own personal recollection, snapshots of memory held close to the chest and examined from time to time in a different light.
Motifs of birth and sacrifice and rebirth run through the text, but distorted; birth in a broken mirror. The distortions of natural processes, of family and nature, reminded me of Aase Berg’s poetry a little. This prophecy-driven passage seemed especially a mirror to the nature-as-catastrophe:
How deer, skittish and blind, ran through shop windows and into cars while goats, half-burned, and herds of black sheep once white, lay smoking and blind. How coyotes seemed the hunched figures of bears, and how bears sweltered into deer, and how deer fell with tongues pink and burning, men tripping over them, lamenting the terror visited upon moose. How scorched kittens licked the charcoal bodies of dogs, beavers, goats. How these animals mewed into the vibrations, moaning and melting. How they wailed.
A personal note: everyone knows I’m insane for cats, so it won’t be too surprising that I adored the curve ball in the “dog-as-loyal-companion” trope that Kloss throws by making that a “cat-as-loyal-companion.” The cat is a symbol of loyalty, love, hope. But because it isn’t that known quantity, the dog, but the more mysterious, secretive cat, love/loyalty/hope become a thing of mystery rather than of comfort, of intense emotion rather than known feeling. And since the cat is still a bit of a portent of doom, that sense of the black cat, the unlucky cat lingers and hangs a big question mark over the loving feline’s head.
No doubt How the Days of Love and Diptheria is not something book clubs across America are going to read. But I wish they would. After all, at its heart this is a gorgeous book about a simple and universal idea: the decay and destruction of love, and the weird thing that lingers on in its place. It is a book with a broken heart. And to read it is to break your own, in all the ways that pain equals love equals endings. Beware." - Amber Sparks
"Via the Facebook, I told Robert Kloss, "I am reading your book right now. It is goddamn beautiful. And I might have squealed 'oh my god now he gets a cat companion' at one point."
Kloss replied, "I don't think I could put 'love' in the title w/out a cat companion."
For me this cat companion is what Kloss’s How the Days of Love & Diphtheria hinges upon. Sure, the book is dark. Maybe a bit brutal. Disturbing in parts, you know, disturbing like that horrific scene from a movie you still remember and are frightened by even though you saw the movie ten years ago? The whole book is that feeling. That feeling of vomiting out of fear and then being forced to sit with your vomit. Spend time with your vomit. Maybe get to know your vomit and learn to appreciate it. A thing that’ll follow you everywhere and be disgusting and between your teeth and make you feel like shit.
But, you don’t have to feel this bad. You don’t. Because -- there’s a cat companion. A beautiful white mewling kitten that’ll sleep at your feet and understand you and keep you safe. I read this book much more comfortably once the cat companion was introduced.
I’ll admit I worried about the cat. I thought, What if Kloss kills this cat? I read sentences slowly. Each page, very slowly. I thought that if I read it slowly enough, the cat would remain safe. If I crept up on the words very quietly there’d be no way for Kloss to surprise me, killing the cat. I thought, if Kloss kills the cat, I am not going to be his friend on facebook. And I needed desperately for Kloss to keep this cat safe. I wish could have spoken to him while he was writing this book and told him how important this cat’s safety was to me.
I worried maybe Kloss would sneak into my house, skin my cats and then they’d be shamed, running through the house as pink-furless cats. Kloss makes me nervous, but I don’t have to meet Kloss in real life. We can be friends on the Internet, where my cats feel safe.
And I can assume and hope (from photos on the Facebook) that Kloss is also a cat lover and this cat companion’s life was important to him. I liked to think keeping the cat safe among such danger and ruin was hard work.
How the Days of Love & Diphtheria is a beautiful object composed of thoughtfully and artfully written sentences. It amasses to much more than its parts and though it’s small, just fifty pages, the motherfucker weighs a ton." - Brandi Wells
"Robert Koss’s HOW THE DAYS OF LOVE & DIPHTHERIA is the third installment of the Nephew imprint offered by Mud Luscious Press. It’s a right handsome little book weighing in at about fifty pages divided into four chapters. I feel as though there is a little less white space involved than I have become accustomed to seeing from Mud Luscious books, though overall readability is not negatively impacted. Oddly, I was not readily familiar with Kloss’s work prior to reading this book, nor was I very informed on exact details regarding the bacterial disease known as diphtheria. Though the former isn’t a necessity to enjoy the book, I highly recommend a quick overview of the latter if you aren’t up on your disturbing medical ailments, particularly the kinds that swell necks and leave gaping craters in the flesh of their victims.
As an unapologetic lover of the work Mud Luscious (and particularly Nephew) produces, I found HOW THE DAYS OF LOVE & DIPHTHERIA to be an extremely difficult work to take in at times. Don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t because the writing was subpar—it most certainly is not. Nor was it because the movement wasn’t there—on the contrary, it certainly is. Rather, the trouble was simply that HOW THE DAYS OF LOVE & DIPHTHERIA is a dense canvas of a particularly dark and intense kind. Its pages are rife with death and disease; with flesh and with fire; with ghosts and distrust; with the weight of destruction, longing, suffering, and absolute love in the face of all of this, coexistent on every page. Kloss is, as Blake Butler put it, “doing creation and destruction,” and he doesn’t hesitate to spill blood all over the text from the very outset:
“Few stories as old as the story of the boy whose family you killed. What authors of ruin, you with your black masks, your knives. Few stories so sorrowful as mother and father and how you left them strewn, cut apart and opened, how the birds and barn cats crawled within and slept, how they seemed under the wide light of the house you set ablaze. How your horses thundered the hillsides, clouds of dust and soot, the long green grasses gone black in your wake. How father was washing the car and then your knives slid into his throat. How father slept in his hammock and then before him, your black masks and long teeth.”
“How in those days we insulated the walls with hair, bones of children, farm animals dead, he said. Entire horse carcasses often warmed the children within.
This is not to imply the book is a reckless or gratuitously violent work. In fact, if it were such a work, one would likely find it much easier to remain safely detached. One could feel safe enough in knowing it is only a book. One could feel free to disengage, eat dinner, and forget the faces. Instead, Kloss’s sentences build and stack upon each other in such compelling ways that the reader is perpetually drawn deeper and more attached to the faces and landscapes as the story unfolds. And that’s just it: It becomes quite clear early on that neither the faces nor the landscapes will fare well in the end, and their chances are only diminished as the text plays out:
“How a light flashed and the horizon rumbled with animals. How the boy held his daughter on the back porch and how in that moment he knew what he had lost a thousand years before, and how only now did he ache for what had been. How the sky opened and hummed and the boy knew enough to say with his final sound, ‘I love you’ rather than what he knew, ‘I should have killed them.’ How she could not hear within the sky, broken into lights and impossible colors. How their ears popped and clogged with pus and they were forced to imagine the impossible roar.”
The reader is cast in the loathsome role of one who exterminates to cleanse, whose job it is to set fire to and destroy a town and people ravaged by terrible, incurable disease. However, as a reader, it becomes impossible not to invest emotionally in, and become equally, the boy, the mother, the father, the man, the woman, the son, the daughter, the husband and wife—the town and its eradicator, all at once. Our hearts become the hearts of the entire cast, of whom no one is spared, not even those in peripheral view:
“In those days our women died by childbirth or by the flames. How many women we found as if tarred, sprawled out on front lawns, within pantries. Yes, so often an unwed mother became a living wick, and her condition was cured by the long blue flames—.”
I should emphasize that I have not aimed to dissuade by any means. In fact, I highly recommend a reading of HOW THE DAYS OF LOVE & DIPHTHERIA, but I don’t recommend you do so lightly or without preparation for full engagement. Kloss’s words are wreckage and destruction; the kind that is beautiful, which resonates; the kind that haunts and uproots the very room in which it is read; the kind you don’t quite shake even after you’ve reminded yourself it is only a book. In Kloss’s scorched earth vision, even the reader becomes a ghost that leaves part of itself within the pages:
“How the boy said, ‘mama, I’m going to die,” and how she knew enough to say, “no you aren’t honey, no you never will.’ How this boy could only stare back at his father and mother and why they lied.”
Almost immediately upon finishing the book, I sent a note to MLP kingpin J. A. Tyler containing the words I feel summed my reaction up well: “Man, this book is disturbing. I mean, it’s amazingly well done. It just flows. It’s mercurial in that it reminds me of the tiny vials we used to find sealed in thermostats as children, the way it moves—grotesquely reflective, fast and heavy.”
Mercury in a tiny vial; beautiful and potentially poisonous. These are phrases I feel accurately reflect the words contained in Robert Kloss’s disturbingly exquisite work. How thin or how thick the barrier of glass depends on us individually as readers, though I won’t recommend it as a literary bedtime snack.
Hell of a little monster, Mr. Kloss, and one giant hell of a book. Your very words have affected me so." - David Tomaloff
We begin in the dust of the valleys, in the long days and the sounds of your generations, digging and constructing and fighting, the hollow slapping of their fists against the meat if the men they beat into the dust. The stray dogs that lapped their spilled blood, while flies hummed and flickered along their mangy skins, their bulged ribs.
So begins The Alligators of Abraham, the debut novel by Robert Kloss and his second release from MudLuscious Press, which is surely the coolest press of its size and kind. My favorite, anyway, and this novel is their best. Not only is it my favorite book by MudLuscious or even my favorite book released in 2012, but it is my favorite thing I have read this year by anyone, from any time or place.
How the Days of Love & Diphtheria is a verbal assault and one of the strongest pieces of prose I had read in a long time. I read it a few days after meeting Robert Kloss at AWP and then I read it again on the bus home. Before meeting Kloss, I had no idea who he was but after reading How the Days, I knew I was sold on just about any words he was planning on putting anywhere. The Alligators of Abraham does not disappoint. The prose is strong and poetic and grotesque but it is also very readable. Where How the Days’ prose sometimes built a barrier between me and the narrative, The Alligators of Abraham invites us into this surreal nightmare of an America that was and was not.
The Alligators of Abraham is historical magical realism set in the lead-up to the Civil War and carried on through Reconstruction and into the 20th century. Told in three parts, it begins with realism and moves towards a world where hordes of alligators swallow america. While this novel begins as a Civil War novel, it is so much more than that. It is a story of father and son, of man and country, of money and power, of love and death, of death and living, of love and disappointment, and the lengths a son will go to be a man the father will look at. Of all that is in The Alligators of Abraham, of all the glory and awesome that I want to proclaim on its behalf, where it hits deepest and hardest is its examination of family, of father, of son.
I simply cannot say enough good things about this novel. Kloss is descended from the Faulknerian line of American prose rather than Hemingway’s, which is the rarer and infinitely more interesting one. This novel, The Alligators of Abraham, it will swallow you and take you and you will be knee-deep in this fever dream of America’s past and you will never want to let it go. Even when it hurts. It is the King James Bible dreamt by Cormac McCarthy, written by Faulkner, edited by Terrence Malick, and set in America’s tragic brother war.
This is the first of its kind by a man whose name will be a part of the American literary canon. You probably do not know who Robert Kloss is yet, but you will, and you will wish you could have been there at the beginnings, with the alligators and the Civil War. - Edward J. Rathke
E x c e r p t:
Now this boy and how he lived under the soil while you—. How he mewed and dreamed under your hooves and vibrations, how he lived and slept under the burning house, the sirens. How he lived in a land blacker than your blackest masks, blacker than the sky you built from the soot and ash of his house. Now this boy, pale and ribs and trembling. How he dreamed his father’s heavy voice. How he dreamed his mother, the rip of her hair pulled, the clumps of skin dangling from roots. Now this boy and the cool damp of their world of soil. How he clawed and dug and buried and tunneled at the sounds of horses rampaging and snorting. No rivers but rivers of worms below the only world he ever knew. Now no women in robes the way he dreamed, their hands cold along his groin, the way he dreamed their dead-blue lips against his neck. How he dreamed them in gowns, amorous and rigid for the fumes. How no women but the flesh of the dead he dreamed beneath the ground. How you hunted for him with your horses snorting and kicking at the soil. How your long teeth dripped for the boy you could not find. How the blood of his mother, the blood of his father, on your knives and teeth. How the vibrations of your rampage shook his skin. Your horses and their wild greased hair, their dripping slather. How this boy and a world of soil and the excavations that followed. All the trucks and men with shovels. All the shirtless men, their burned skin flaking like sheets of Bible paper. How they dug with shovels and spades and their blazing knotted muscles, their sharp dried throats. These men and how they dug trenches. How they called the boy’s name into holes. How the house burned white behind them. All the grasses of the valley gone black and the sky filled with soot and smoke. The rumble of trucks digging into the soil. The boy who would not be found."
Interview by Tara Laskowski
Birds of Prey blog
PLUMB: A Cultural and Arts Blogazine
Robert Kloss, The Alligators of Abraham, Mud Luscious Press, 2012.
“In this amazing, collapsed-time text, I’m led along dark alleys of American history by an all-seeing voice-over narrative that reports on things from a great height and in an ultra-factual way. Familiar events of war, sorrow and struggle are seen anew, as if on a slide under a microscope.” – David Ohle
“In The Alligators of Abraham, Robert Kloss drops us into the darkness of the Civil War, showing a culture perpetually on the edge of extinction. Yet out of that murky world, hazed and fogged, rise the clear and distinct shapes of a people not ready to surrender to their own haunting. A novel as lyrical as it is precise in its depiction of the struggle to maintain dignity.” – Adam Braver
“Robert Kloss’s words gnaw into the collective-dark-underbelly-unconsciousness of the 19th century which, in many ways, we’ve never entirely gotten over in America. They get how the ‘you’ of America is both masculine and tender, how it’s powered by craziness and wounds, and how it longs to liberate and yet remains enslaving and enslaved. They understand how war roils in the guts. There is a terrible, terrible movie in which Shirley Temple meets Abraham Lincoln. This book is a gristly bloody opposite of that; it reeks of the truth. Thank you Robert Kloss.” – Rebecca Brown
Now a voice spoke low from the face of the deep.
Rarely before have I read a first sentence from a book that so adequately set the tone for everything to follow than this opening sentence from Robert Kloss’ Alligators of Abraham. Of course the great openings we’ve all come to know so well spring to mind, if I might so bold as to make the comparison. And who’s to say this one may not well join those in time?
This voice from the “face of the deep” takes you by the ear and sits you down in the gloom of an ancient campfire and never eases its grip, and never, not ever, spares both the beautiful and the brutal details.
You could say this book is about the Civil War in part, about family relationships in part. But as Harry Crews so famously said, this is what happens in this remarkable novel. Crews would lean in close and perhaps say, yes, but what is this book about?
And the distinction is one of the most important aspects of truly effective literature. It seems Kloss has a unique understanding of this concept, giving us a historically-grounded novel that presents the “Brothers War” in superb prose and a three-book structure about loss and resurrection, about history, true history told from a timeless, all-seeing narrator who dares you to look away while the story rolls out in a series of “Ands” that never becomes labored.
If you’ll indulge me a somewhat lengthy series of quoted paragraphs, allow me the pleasure of sharing Kloss’ use of “Ands” to create a rolling thundertrain of storytelling.
And we begin in the miles of their construction, of digging with peeled backs and brows, with spades and pickaxes and shovels, and the lines of wagons obscured for the dust they inspired, the clouds that seemed a warning or a foreboding and arrived with tins of peaches, of beef and ham, of beans and beets, with shovels and beams and guns and tarpaulin and miles of wire, spooled.
And those men were called brutes when they worked with vigor, and they were called dogs when they lagged. Those men lashed until their backs striped with blood while the others stood by with sullen eyes. “Let this be a lesson to you men,” it was said by officers who spat into the blood pools, “I will not indulge your idleness.” Those lines of bloody sneering men, those men of your generations, those men of your father’s generations, and those generations long prior, and those generations ever after.
And when the distant smoke spiraled and flickered in the waves of heat, there was a man who told your father, “The bastards are smoking us out” and by this he meant the natives would burn them to death. Your father who obscured the sun with his hand and saw nothing but smoke, and yet he felt wise in those moments, saying, “New life is born from the fires of the plain.”
And in the dust of once mountains and the ashes of prairies fled the dusty figures of your fathers, their marches along those smoldered roads and valleys, your fathers tanned by the dust as if men of leather, their eyes alone, winking and alive.
This energy Kloss has caught like bottled lightning never lets up over the course of the entire book. A combination of what must have been exhaustive period research and then the level of deftly executed prose, sentences so carefully crafted, is this novel’s heart, the conduit through which Kloss unfolds a tale unlike anything I’ve yet read and rarely enjoyed so thoroughly.
At times, I thought of my father, a Civil War buff who kept pictures of Robert E. Lee (we are from the South after all) on the walls of his bedroom and countless books on the subject scattered across his bed, on nightstands, the floor. I went into Alligators of Abraham wondering if there could possibly be a story, fact or fiction, which could engage me considering the level of exposure I had been subjected to from my old man.
Those concerns were put to rest as the novel unfolded and became, among other things, about a father and son, and a tragic father at that, fallen from some grace in the distant past and transformed into a grieving shadow of his once strong self by loss and the search for eternal life in the most fascinating means imaginable. I related in the most profound way possible.
Alligators of Abraham is an ambitious novel that does not disappoint, with Kloss stripping the paint from the canvas of history with a fluid but respectful hand to somehow retell the story of us all anew and with an honesty both refreshing and entertaining. - Sheldon Lee Compton
Robert Kloss, The Revelator, Unnamed Press, 2015.
Conquistadors arrive in the new world, slaughtering and enslaving all those in their way. Centuries later, Manifest Destiny continues to drive American expansion westward, building an early 19th century society with genocidal brutality. This is the context that frames The Revelator's protagonist: a young orphan named Joseph who escapes certain death and arrives in a new town. Reared on nights spent carousing with drunks and con men, after days spent loitering near the traveling preachers' tents, the young protagonist dreams of something more, even as he is taken in by a well-meaning merchant who loves him like a son.
He begins to preach, and abandons the merchant. Soon he takes a young wife, to the horror of her father, a butcher. They depart for the wilderness where Joseph's visions, haunted by a dark Beast - take hold of his life. Husband and wife nearly die of exposure, and upon their return, Joseph begins to build his congregation, built on the discovery of the golden plates that deliver the Almighty's message.
As his congregation grows, Joseph builds a settlement, takes multiple wives, and negotiates multiple betrayals and intrigues with his followers, his wife, and even his suspicious and distant son. Persecuted by society at large, and on the US government's watch list, Joseph takes his people further and further west to meet their destiny, and to satisfy the dark Beast that never never stops following him.
Written in the second person, author Robert Kloss's prophetic voice functions as 'revelator,' demonstrating the macabre and gruesome consequences of 'manifest destiny' and the conflicted motivations behind the creation of a religion that boasts 15 million members today.
"I'd be hard pressed to think of a young novelist I admire more than Robert Kloss. An heir of Melville, Faulkner, and McCarthy, Kloss stands unflinching before conventional history, rich with ambition and aesthetic daring. To read one of his books is to be thrilled anew with the possibilities of contemporary fiction."—Matt Bell
"THE REVELATOR leads us through the life and times and beyond of its title character, from orphan to prodigal to itinerant preacher to prophet (and purveyor of dirty jokes), in a narrative that reads like the gospel of an alternate universe, but as awash in fury and carnage as our own."—Eugene Marten
"THE REVELATOR is the sort of book that leads to troubled sleep and haunted dreams. Kloss channels the spirit of American brutality and cunning in this dark tale of a 19th century conman turned preacher named Joseph and his multiple wives (starting to sound familiar?) while rewriting the myths of our collective past and questioning the legends we tell about ourselves. I was sucked in from the very first page."—Emily Ballaine
In his second novel, Kloss (The Alligators of Abraham, 2012) chooses an unusual style—second-person narration, biblical language—to tell the story of an orphan born to a savage wilderness, his wanderings as a young man, and the visions that resulted in him leading people to what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kloss riskily re-creates, in grisly close-up, an atmosphere of blood-soaked desperation that is his vision of the settler’s life in early America in order to show how its hardships and horrors might lead to religious fanaticism. That he succeeds to some degree does not make this novel pleasurable reading. It opens in a bewildering horror show of violence, which is like starting Heart of Darkness at its climax. And it goes on from there, with babies dying and bodies rotting beneath suicide ropes, using language and imagery that evoke Cormac McCarthy on an absinthe jag. The second-person narration is difficult at first but becomes appropriate as you slowly realize you’re in the bedazzled mind of a religious fanatic who believes he is hearing signs and being spoken to from on high, so “you” makes sense. But it is also relentless and tiring. When Smith’s story begins to emerge, the remembered outlines of that narrative propel this story forward, but it gets mired in uninteresting relationships (like Smith’s with his associate, Harris) and repetitive scenes with Smith’s long-suffering, faceless wife. There are many passages of powerful writing, but in other places the prose is marred by poor grammar; e.g: “unmoving in the snow you laid, hearing only the sound of her screams.” It's hard work to stay with this narrative.
Fans of McCarthy and filmmaker Terence Malick may enjoy Kloss’ stylistic and tonal experiments here, but for nearly everyone else, this novel is tough going.—Kirkus Reviews
"Robert Kloss writes with the passion of a young Cormac McCarthy, fearless in both scope and the possibilities of language, and blessed with an innate ability to parse the light from any darkness. It's rare such an eagle eye emerges among Americans. He should be savored."—Blake Butler
"Robert Kloss is quickly building a blazing reputation as a literary perfect weapon: He is a sentence-architect like Gary Lutz, yet at the same time, he’s also able to spin intimate, oddball yarns in the vein of William Gass and Shelley Jackson. THE REVELATOR showcases these unique skills. Go all in on Kloss now before he’s buffing his Pulitzer."—Joshua Mohr
"The Revelator carries traces of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, and the rattling bones of Bill Faulkner. I'm serious. I felt transported mind, body and soul to some weird liminal space where a prophet can emerge from the dirt and speed of things, from the darkness in us all brought forth by a ready-made zealot who can turn on a dime. Read it and weep--because this novel turns us inside out in the best way."—Lidia Yuknavitch
"His new novel THE REVELATOR takes as its central character a man who graduates from assorted low-level crimes to founding a religion in the mid-19th century. Here, too, are surreal visitations, violent clashes, and the rise of fanaticism–it’s a searing and often phantasmagorical work."—Tobias Carroll
In 1842, Adolph Peter Adler, a pastor living in Denmark and onetime friend of Søren Kierkegaard, claimed to experience a divine revelation commanding him to burn his previous books and promising that God would dictate to him a new work. That new work, published in 1843, was titled Several Sermons; in 1844, Adler was dismissed from his post as a minister and afterwards wrote that he had been mistaken about his revelation, that perhaps revelation was “too strong an expression.”
Kierkegaard visited Adler following his supposed revelation, and Adler read to him from his work, using a strange, whistling voice to indicate that certain passages were divinely inspired. Kierkegaard concluded that his former friend was almost certainly mad. But the whole affair raised a difficult question for Kierkegaard: what does it mean to have a revelation? What is the difference—if any—between revelation, genius, and madness?
The same year Adler was dismissed from his post, a young man named Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was killed by an armed mob while imprisoned for treason in Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith, too, had experienced a revelation. In 1823, he was visited, or believed he was visited, or claimed he was visited, by the angel Moroni, who revealed the location of a book of golden plates containing revelations written in an ancient language. The translations of these plates, dictated first to his wife and later to a man named Martin Harris, became the Book of Mormon—a history of the people who predated European settlers in the Americas, and a continuation of the Biblical Old Testament.
The protagonist of Robert Kloss’s novel The Revelator is not that Joseph Smith, although there are enough similarities that you’d be forgiven for thinking so. This Smith also claims to be the owner of a set of ancient golden plates, revealed to him by a messenger of God; this Smith was also aided early on by a man named Martin Harris, who like his namesake was responsible for the loss of a large portion of the original translation. This Smith, like the other, rises to power as the head of a new church. This Smith and his followers are run out of one town after another; this Smith, like that one, dies at the hands of a mob in a jail cell somewhere in the Midwest.
And yet they are not the same. As in his previous novel, The Alligators of Abraham, Kloss takes as his material historical events and remakes them to suit his purposes. The result fits comfortably neither in the genre of historical fiction nor alternate history: it is unconcerned with portraying the facts as they were, but neither is there some primary difference that can be pointed out to separate the book’s reality from our own. Rather, there are numerous, tiny modifications to the world as we know it, like little scratches on the mirror. Some deliberately estrange, such as the burnt offerings offered by the churches opposed to Smith, and work to make Kloss’s dark American landscape a little more alien. Others, such as Martin Harris’s early death or Joseph’s childhood as an orphan, might easily pass unnoticed by readers unfamiliar with the details of the historical Joseph Smith. In more than one case I discovered afterwards that something I would have sworn was the author’s invention was, in fact, historically accurate, such as Smith’s early career as a treasure seeker, during which he attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to find lost items or buried money with a divining stone.
In the early, brutally violent America of The Revelator, Kloss has found both a subject and an approach that lets him explore a language deeply indebted to the rhythms and sentence structures of Melville and the King James Bible, while still allowing postmodernist moves that would be at home in the work of John Fowles or William Gaddis. This productive aesthetic tension is evident from the novel’s first paragraph:
They drifted for months aboard a ship they called the Spotted One, locked between the vast, merciless blue and the withering sun. Their faces blistered and their minds bleached and weary. They conspired in the shadows, drew plans in the sawdust. They grew confident and foolhardy. Finally, the Admiral consulted his god and ordered them shot through the skulls, their bodies weighted with lead and dropped to the depths, with neither forgiveness nor prayer.
The Spotted One is one possible translation of the Pinta; the Admiral, of course, both is and is not quite Christopher Columbus. Columbus’s story, which bookends the narrative, seems to indicate that Joseph Smith’s prophecy and violent life shares something fundamental with the history of America itself, a land that has always marked itself off as exceptional, sacred, a revelation.
The Revelator’s Joseph is a cypher: he is at various points a drunk, a gambler, most likely a cheat, unquestionably a bigamist. But is he a prophet? Whenever this question is raised—whenever the book touches on the revelation itself—the narrative is staunchly indeterminate, answering, perhaps infuriatingly: both. Joseph is prophet and con-man; the Creature of God that speaks to him is at once epiphany and delusion; the plates exist and the plates do not exist. When Harris takes a sample of Joseph’s “holy symbols” to a professor of ancient languages, we are told:
And there are those who say this professor marveled over the ancient script, soon issuing a certificate . . . And there are those who say the professor ‘guffawed himself red and tearful’ before proclaiming the language to be ‘insensible squiggles’ and ‘mere stupid illustrations of plants and animals.’ And there are those who insist the professor told Harris, ‘I worry over you, man,’ for he was convinced your ‘plates’ were little more than a confidence game.
Joseph is always referred to, as in the above quotation, in the second person, a narrative device that creates a Joseph-sized hole that stretches tunnel-like through the course of the story. Though he is the protagonist, he is nevertheless in some important sense missing. We have no direct access to his thoughts or experiences. He is not contained within the book; instead the book indicates something beyond: you.
Of course, this is exactly the point. Revelation is by its nature a kind of absolute gap in our common knowledge. It cannot be reasonable. If there were any way to reason from some set of real-world premises to the substance of the revelation, then there would be nothing divine or miraculous about the revelation, and it would remain, however brilliantly, within the realm of possible human insight. David Hume understood this when he argued that to believe in the truth of a miracle, even if one has experienced it oneself, is irrational, since any miracle must oppose the combined weight of human experience.
And Kierkegaard understood this when he confronted his former friend, wild-eyed, whistling as he read. Kierkegaard could conceive of the possibility that Adler had experienced a revelation. But if Adler had, he had subsequently forsaken his responsibility towards the revelation, disclaiming it once the demands it made on him were too great; and if he had not, he had either lied or was the victim of delusion.
Kierkegaard concludes that he cannot judge the truth of the revelation itself, but only what comes afterwards. The Revelator leaves us with the same question, as regards not only Joseph but American exceptionalism as well: what has come afterwards? - James Tadd Adcox
The problem with using words like mesmerizing, outstanding, and powerful to describe a novel is that a few generations of lazy reviewers have rendered them almost meaningless. That being said, if we go back to the dictionary and apply their original meaning minus the damage caused by overuse, they perfectly describe Robert Kloss’ The Revelator. At once a poetic exploration of religious fervor/madness and a fictionalized retelling of Joseph Smith’s life and the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Revelator is an impressive, hyperviolent, emotionally gritty narrative that drops readers in nineteenth-century America and then drags them through the mud and blood that Smith and his followers went through and spilled.
The Revelator kicks off when Joseph is a young orphan growing up on the streets, where he spends his time among drunks, prostitutes, and con men before finally being taken in by a butcher. Despite seemingly enjoying the nights and vices that came with these wild days, he dreams of something better, so he begins to preach. As his small congregation works, Joseph marries the young daughter of the butcher with whom he’d been working and living. The young couple runs away and enters the wilderness, where Joseph’s bizarre visions, especially one where he sees and hears a dark Beast, soon dominate his thoughts and give him a sense of purpose. When they rejoin civilization, Joseph once again begins to preach and builds a relatively large following of people who believe the golden plates he claims to have are delivering the Almighty’s message to him. From there, the preacher’s followers multiply, he builds a settlement for them, convinces them that taking on multiple wives is the what the Lord wants, and deals with varying degrees of success with the individuals and groups that rise against him until the violence becomes too much.
The first thing that makes The Revelator a standout novel is the mixture of brutality and the sense of proximity that comes from the second-person narration, which is something that was risky to begin with and Kloss somehow pulled off brilliantly. The biblical language gives the narrative a strange beauty that brings to mind Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, but the entire novel is full of a viciousness and gore that McCarthy only delivered in short bursts. Furthermore, Kloss keeps his story at the verge of surrealism via the visions of the Beast and the mysterious black mountain that can always be seen in the distance. This makes everything that happens simultaneously very real and slightly tinged with something impossibly darker and more menacing:
You woke alone, as a cold wind blew through the opened tent. Your wife laid before the tent, bloodied and nude from the waist down, lines of soot drawn across her throat, her chest, while her eyes glazed with a child’s simplicity and confusion. Her clothing slashed away and cast to the snow. You gathered her into your arms and you did not scream and you did not sob. Inside the tent you wrapped her in blankets and skins. And she cried for her child, so you returned to the snows, and there the cord, shriveled and cut away, coiled in the red-soaked snow. There you dug until your hands numbed, raw and blood dripping. And you saw no bloody tracks of man or animal. And no wailing cry did you hear, and no child did you find.
Having a religious zealot as the main character was a move as risky as the second-person narration, but it works just as well. Joseph is an unlikeable character whose flaws are constantly on display. He’s a mediocre father, an awful, misogynistic husband, and a man who seemed to embrace much of what was wrong with the society he was brought up in. In a way, he embodies the vilest characteristics of the desperate hunger for expansion and ruthless thirst for domination that came with adhering to Manifest Destiny. However, the gruesome events he has to endure and the small victories he enjoys make him bearable even when all of what he preaches against were the same things bigots preach against today:
And you preached against all other preachers and prophets and teachings. And you preached against those who worshipped the trees as gods. And you preached against those who shook and foamed and refused His commandment to multiply. And you preached against those who preached in churches and in temples and you preached against those who called for the liberation and elevation of women, and you preached against those who called for the freedom of the African slave.
In a way, Kloss frames the life of settlers in harshness and the kind of blood-soaked desperation that makes religious fanaticism almost understandable, as if it was the only option other than suicide or madness. In this context, Joseph is a figure that doesn’t differ much from those around him except for his visions and talent for preaching. This last element is what ultimately turns The Revelator into one of the best novels published in 2015:
There will be earthquakes and fires and there will be plagues, and bodies will swell fat with blackness and cough blood as thick and putrid as oil. And whatever man has domesticated will turn against him and assault him. Now man will fall against the gnashing of his hounds and his horses and his mules and his oxen, coughing blood and broken teeth beneath the furious trample of their hooves and teeth. And the creature of the Almighty will sharpen its horrid sickle. And bodies will fill the streets. And ships and will drift with the dead weight of entire crews. And mothers will forsake their children. And wives will denounce their husbands. And entire populations will be sought out and murdered as scapegoats. And men will lash themselves with iron-spiked whips, spreading the ground with their blood, crying out, “Mercy! Mercy!” and “Peace! Peace!”
Despite doing many things right, The Revelator is not an easy read. Pervasive brutality, dead babies, bloated corpses, and the plethora of instances in which humanity is shown at its most unflattering, animalistic, cruel moments can make this a tough read, but those uncomfortable moments are a very small price to pay for reading such an outstanding novel. -
Violent Histories: An Interview With Robert Kloss, Author Of The Revelator
A Polar Wind: Robert Kloss and Matt Kish in Conversation
Novels Don’t Lie: A Conversation Between Robert Kloss and Colin Winnette by Colin Winnette & Robert Kloss