Brian Kiteley - A combination of a Kafka novel, Robert Altman movie, and psychedelic record album, this strange, dreamy little novel takes on themes of inversion, foreignness, and communications breakdown


Brian Kiteley, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, Simon & Schuster, 2002.       excerpt                           
mysite.du.edu/~bkiteley/

While exploring Cairo, Ib, an American, is taken up with by Armenian Gamal-Leon, who follows him by way of a practical joke during the Muslim Ramadan fast period, and humorous cultural misunderstandings ensue. 12,500 first printing.

Again demonstrating the facility he showed in his well-received debut, Still Life with Insects, Kitely here offers another entrancing miniature, which pairs two dissimilar outcasts in contemporary Cairo. Ib, an expatriate American historian and translator of the Sufi mystic poet Rumi, finds his easygoing lifestyle disrupted by Gamal-Leon, an Armenian-born theater critic and drama teacher raised in Cairo. Gamal spies on the rattled American, follows him everywhere and plays practical jokes intended to challenge Ib's preconceptions of Egyptians and the Middle East. Their friendship is a duet of mutual cultural misunderstandings played out during the last weeks of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holy period of daytime fasting and nighttime feasting. Kitely compellingly evokes the tensions of contemporary Egypt: its jarring juxtapositions of antiquity and Western pop culture; the million homeless refugees who camp out on the streets and in the parks of Cairo; the ubiquitous police informers who record ordinary citizens' conversations. His polyglot characters are complex. Ib is anguished at the recent death of his Dutch stepfather, whom Ib's mother divorced so that she could remarry Ib's father. Ib feuds with his sisters, who are jealous because he received his stepfather's entire inheritance. (Ib is a Danish name akin to Jacob, the biblical twin who persuaded his brother, Esau, to part with his inheritance.) Meanwhile, Gamal, an Armenian Christian, wrestles with his unhappy marriage to a Coptic Egyptian whose sister, a convert to Islam, married a Muslim terrorist now in jail. Kitely's motley circle of expatriates lends a cosmopolitan flavor to an exquisitely wrought mosaic. - Publishers Weekly

A combination of a Kafka novel, Robert Altman movie, and psychedelic record album, this strange, dreamy little novel from the author of the well-regarded Still Life with Insects (Graywolf, 1993) takes on themes of inversion, foreignness, and communications breakdown. Set in Cairo during Ramadan (the Muslim festival during which participants fast during the day and feast by night), the tale unfolds as an American known only as Ib is joined more or less purposefully by an Armenian named Gamal-Leon (who eventually deconstructs his own name: a "quick-change artist, a slippery tongued mimic who does not know his own voice or face") to visit playhouses, executive office parties, a prison. All these activities are overcast with a significance not totally apparent. Kiteley offers an elusive, hypnotic, even hallucinogenic novel about being as well as the mysteries of being. Highly recommended for literature collections serving sophisticated readers. - Robert E. Brown

Kiteley’s short novel takes place in Cairo during Ramadan. An American named Ib gets lost and wanders through an almost hallucinatory set of experiences. If you are a fan of Paul Bowles or Amitav Ghosh, you need to read this book. Also recommended is Kiteley’s masterful first novel, Still Life With Insects. - Matt Bucher

Michael Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College:
I Know Many Songs, but I Cannot Sing is set in Cairo on a night during Ramadan and follows the wanderings of a young American teacher and an Armenian actor as they wander through the city from dusk to dawn.  It is in many ways a very different book than Still Life with Insects—marked by a radical change in subject and setting, and also I think by an enormous growth in ambition.  Yet there’s continuity as well, for in each book Brian Kiteley is concerned with the taxonomy of experience, with the different ways in which it can be organized—no longer by insects of course, still less by conventions of linear narrative, but instead by the special arrangements of cities, of the Cairo that is the book’s main character.
Songs is written in a prose that is perfectly plain, absolutely clear, and yet richly enigmatic at once.  It hardly seems like an American novel at all, and it certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of novel that young Americans especially write about living in a foreign country.  In Kiteley’s hands the Cairo cityscape on this night of Ramadan becomes a carnival in which time seems to have stopped and all social roles are suspended, in which both the city and its inhabitants are perpetually changing their shape and their substance.  But what’s most remarkable about this novel is the way it makes vivid this hallucinatory reality without in the least exoticizing either Cairo itself or its people.  It is a bold attempt to deal with issues of colonialism, mimicry, and otherness that have engaged so much of the most important fiction being written today and that yet figure so little in most of contemporary American fiction.

Dan Cryer, Newsday, January 29, 1996:
BRIAN KITELEY writes the briefest of novels.  His first, Still Life with Insects (1989), came to all of 114 pages.  His new one, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, stretches the number to 190 by using lots of white space and a tiny page size.  But rarely has there been a novelist for whom each word counts for so much.  Kiteley's is a prose of extraordinary conciseness, precision and poetic intensity.  It is alive with resonant images and startling scenes.
Still Life forced us to pay attention to the mysteries of an ordinary man who would be derided as a failure, but Kiteley's second novel is more complex, more enigmatic.  It seems to be about the pleasures and conundrums of life in Egypt, about an American's being both at home and at sea while abroad, about the odd configurations of friendship and love, and, in its sly self-reflexiveness, about the art of storytelling itself.
Ib, the novel's unconventionally named central character, describes himself as "an American teaching Middle Eastern history to Egyptian students in an English-language university."  We know little more about him than that.  Kiteley's narrative strategy is designed to keep readers as off-balance as his protagonist.  "Ib still misreads simple images," the book begins.  "The shadow cast by a sleeping child is the family cat back home in Massachusetts...."
The story takes place during one afternoon and night of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day and feast at night, when "it's normal to be inside out and upside down."  Ib's peregrinations across Cairo seem disconnected and disoriented, as though he's moving through a Middle-Eastern Alice-in-Wonderland landscape.  "Everything that can happen," the author notes, "does happen in Egypt."  In truth, we gradually learn, Ib is reeling from bad news--the recent death of his stepfather back home and the savage beating of an Egyptian friend.  He fears his attachment to this woman may have imperiled her with her family, who do not look kindly on consorting with foreigners, especially men.
Equally disconcerting for Ib is the stranger who is intent on following him.  Though this Gamal claims to want to befriend him--and the nocturnal Cairo of Ramadan does have the spontaneous ebullience of New Orleans at Mardi Gras--Ib suspects he may be a government spy. In any event, Gamal seems to know everything that Ib is doing.  Before long, he has introduced Ib to his wife and in-laws, enjoyed some laughs and escorted him all over town.  Gamal is as garrulous as he is mysterious, eventually confessing to being "a quick-change artist, a slippery-tongued mimic who does not know his own voice or face."  He's also, he eventually reveals, an Armenian by origins and a theater critic by trade.
Kiteley's gallery of supporting characters also has a cosmopolitan feel.  Ib's pal, Lena, is the product of a Dutch mother and Egyptian father. Gamal's sister-in-law, Ruqayyah, is a Christian-born Muslim convert.  A political prisoner, visited by Gamal and Ib, quotes Salman Rushdie and Fred MacMurray.  Charles Mattimore, a British snob with starched collar and arch putdowns of the locals, seems a remnant from the age of empire.  Yet, he is also enthusiastically anti-American and pro-Palestinian.
Kiteley's richly evoked Cairo is a city where the dust storms (hamsiin) make you "taste the sky," where the odors of "unwashed bodies and donkey manure" are unavoidable. In the old sections, streets can't make up their minds which direction to go.  Amid skyscrapers, you can buy American potato chips, but the phones don't work.
"I know many songs, but I cannot sing”--Gamal explains to Ib that this is the traditional beginning for Armenian tales.  So as they wander from coffeehouse to marketplace to prison (to interview a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an anti-government group), Gamal is forever telling stories while Ib transcribes them.  Some are autobiographical, others allegorical.  All of them suggest that we are defined (inspired or imprisoned) by the stories we tell ourselves.  Something is always gained in the translation, as well as lost; so notes Kiteley's prisoner, paraphrasing Salman Rushdie.  This much is true for Ib, busy translating himself across national and cultural boundaries.  Lost for the time being, he's surely hard on the trail of finding himself.  Filled with quirky juxtapositions and odd changes of key, this is a novel that indeed sings--quietly, if assuredly.


Glen Weldon, The Iowa Review, 1997:Despite its slim size, Brian Kiteley's second novel finds time to let its characters sit in cafes and think—nay, muse—about foreignness, about mistranslation and misapprehension, about writing and storytelling and subjective truth, for God's sake.  It is Ramadan in Cairo; the faithful fast all day, feast all night, and shamble distractedly through the wreckage of their sleep cycles.  Kiteley captures this place and time in all its logy chaos, its pervasive and fitful fuzziness of mind, with prose that is rigorously lucid, wondrously clear.  He creates a Cairo at once vividly available to the senses and steadfastly elusive to reason....Kiteley depicts the shadowy streets, the genial diffidence of the people, but what sets his prose apart is the purchase it affords the reader on Ib’s perceptions.  In spare, economic language, he establishes Ib’s uneasy mixture of familiarity and bemusement, his affection for—and frustration with—his world.  We come to intuit the sense of hesitant isolation afflicting his life; he is at once home and not-home.  Despite his years as a resident, he is forever a foreigner in a city of inscrutable mystery.The author chooses to demonstrate this in a way which seems, at first, rather counter-intuitive—by doling out the expository stuff in an almost miserly fashion.  We see lb only at a great distance, through the scrim of his confusion and his (quite considerable) memory lapses; even at novel’s end, we know very little about him, and what little we have come to know derives almost exclusively from his dealings with others.  So, for example, when he meets Gamal, an Egyptian actor who teases him by playing various practical jokes over the course of the night, assuming different disguises and spreading rumors about Ib’s past, the reader gets the un mistakable impression that lb is also creating a character—himself—with every word he speaks.  The fact that this doesn’t matter, that we implicitly give ourselves over to lb long before we know very much about him, is testament to Kiteley’s deft, humane characterization...The triumph of this novel [is] that these characters manage to brush up against some pretty large abstractions like foreignness and narrative truth without compromising their roundedness and vitality.  This is not, luckily for the reader, merely a novel of ideas.  Kiteley’s people are simply too well wrought, too expertly achieved, to let themselves sit passively by, mouthing stories and theories and thought experiments.  And that’s important, because Ib’s Cairo is, after all, a dire, intriguing place.  Trusted guides vanish, only to reappear with different names.  Strangers accuse each other of dark crimes.  Personal histories come into doubt, truth is mutable.  Thankfully, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing has at its wise heart a cadre of strong, believable characters who remain compelling against even so exotic, and wondrous, a setting.

Judith Caesar, North Dakota Review, 1997: At first I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing seems like an exotic, surreal, picaresque account of an American's night in a foreign city.  The plot pulls the reader forward; we want to find out who these people are and how to place them.  We want to know why they are acting as they are, and how they know what they know.  But what follows is a novel of ideas that explores the multiplicity of identity and reality.  The setting is not merely exotic because the novel concerns the the difficulties of understanding other cultures, other values, other realities.  The events that seem mysterious and magical have a plausible explanation within these other realities.  And yet Kiteley also explores the limits of human understanding, specifically one's ability to understand what is outside one's own direct experience.  In its sheer density and complexity, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing resembles that classic post-modern novella, The Crying of Lot 49.  And yet Kiteley's themes are all his own.    


Pablo Conrad, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, March 1996: Kiteley is not writing about enchantment.  For all its frustrating disjunctions and apparent illogic, this novel is strangely concrete.  His Cairo blossoms, not least in the heightened perceptions of food as the day's fast draws to a close: "two boys fly by shouldering hot metal pans of bubbling eggplant casserole...  The smell that lingers in their path briefly blurs the scenery."  Gamal engages [the narrator] Ib in a game of story-telling—joined later by others—narrating incidents and dreams that Ib copies down afterward.  The longest is a quietly frightening account of the accidental poisoning of Gamal's four-year-old daughter Annahid, and shares the novel's title.  Such intimacies draw Ib further and further into Gamal's circle; and at the novel's close they all gather outside the city, exhausted, just before sunrise.  The gentleness and elements of love in their stories echoes Kiteley's evident concern with small details of relationships and personal interaction.  However disconcerting at first, the effect is finally compelling.  In the acknowledgments to this slim volume, the author notes he "wrote this book in part on postcards to dozens of friends and family members," adding, "I appreciated everyone's forbearance."  This strange, rewarding novel is steeped in that sort of intimacy.        
A combination of a Kafka novel, Robert Altman movie, and psychedelic record album, this strange, dreamy little novel from the author of the well-regarded Still Life with Insects (Graywolf, 1993) takes on themes of inversion, foreignness, and communications breakdown.  Set in Cairo during Ramadan (the Muslim festival during which participants fast during the day and feast by night), the tale unfolds as an American known only as Ib is joined more or less purposefully by an Armenian named Gamal-Leon (who eventually deconstructs his own name: a "quick-change artist, a slippery tongued mimic who does not know his own voice or face") to visit playhouses, executive office parties, a prison.  All these activities are overcast with a significance not totally apparent.  Kiteley offers an elusive, hypnotic, even hallucinogenic novel about being as well as the mysteries of being.  Highly recommended for literature collections serving sophisticated readers (Robert E. Brown).- Library Journal

Things begin as Ib (a Danish derivation, one learns, of Jacob) returns to Cairo from Massachusetts and his stepfather's funeral.  It's the last week of Ramadan, when daylong fasting produces giddiness and a touch of the surreal—perfectly suited to Kiteley's narrative, where things often feel half true, are mentioned but then forgotten, or start and seem never to conclude.  Ib gets latched onto at the outset by a hyper-energetic actor and writer named Gamal, of Armenian background, who remains Ib's companion from first page to last—rushing through unknown streets, from one cafe to another, to a theater for rehearsal, to visit Gamal's parents-in-law, to a prison for an ''interview'' with a jailed fundamentalist, and finally to a country house on desert's edge, where, at dawn, the story ends, with symbols, incidents, and words fluttering down slowly in a pitch-perfect, exquisite close.  For some, patience may be needed in getting to that end through the interwoven uncertainties of this poetic and oriental tale, but to be enjoyed along the way are the amusing Tory, Charles Mattimore; the beautiful Safeyya and Ruqayyah, wife and sister-in-law of Gamal; Annahid, Gamal's four-year-old daughter, who eats a poison plant but lives to tell the tale; and, not least, the perfectly toned non-stories told throughout (as per title), mainly by Gamal, and written down by Ib, an activity appropriate to '''the holiest night of Ramadan, when the archangel Gabriel first whispered the word of God to Mohammad.'''  Not as surefooted at the start as toward the end: but, in all, a rare and lovely treasure of feelings and words from a writer who's very far from the ordinary indeed. - Kirkus Reviews

Brian Kiteley, Still Life with Insects, Pharos Editions, 2015. [1989.]

Originally published in 1989 by Ticknor & Fields, Brian Kiteley’s Still Life with Insects is the intensely focused chronicle of Elwyn Farmer, an amateur entomologist, who uses the field notes of his insect sightings to examine and reweave the tattered fragments of his life. In a series of visually powerful and emotionally breathtaking vignettes Kiteley distills the transient beauty of the natural world and lays bare the suffering and joy of one man’s life from his maturity in the post-war years to very old age in the 19809’s. His striking narrative technique aptly captures the experience we all have as we struggle to make sense of what it means to be human in the face of the inevitable passage of time.

In a series of spare, often lyrical vignettes spanning the years from 1945 to 1984, a Minnesota chemist and amateur entomologist, recovering from a nervous breakdown, records obliquely the circumstances of his life. - Publishers Weekly  

In this slight, lyrical novel, Kiteley portrays the quiet life of bug collector Elwyn Farmer by juxtaposing entries from his entomology journals with scenes from Farmer's family and business life. Given the structure, reading this work is much like leafing through a picture album and recapturing each moment in time, savoring its uniqueness, pondering its significance in the course of life. Unfortunately, the lack of plot provides little forward movement and even less sense of resolution at the end. An interesting concept, but ultimately unsatisfying reading.- Linda L. Rome 

Rod MacLeish, "Morning Edition," National Public Radio, September 12, 1989: It has been said too often that there are only seven basic stories and that every piece of fiction is a variation on one of them.  This is hooey.  There are as many stories as there are lives and the almost infinite variety of human beings who live them.  The clich� about seven basic stories probably derives from the confusion about the difference between plot and narrative style—the way of telling stories.  The common style is a sequential range of orderly chapters, which carry the main tale and its subplots and characters through the time frame of the story.  There are of course variations on the basic narrative.  Writers are forever struggling to find new ways of telling stories.  Most narrative techniques resemble most other narrative techniques.  But occasionally something brand new turns up.  A young man named Brian Kiteley from Northampton, Massachusetts has published his first novel this summer—a work of astonishing brevity—Still Life with Insects.  It's a vast, complex story of three generations told in 114 pages.  What's more, this tale about a man named Elwyn Farmer, his wife, sons, and grandchildren, stretching across a span of 35 years, has to share those few brief pages with a great deal of lore about bugs.  Farmer is an amateur entomologist.  Each passage in Still Life with Insects starts with a quote from this bug-watcher's journal—the first in 1945, the last in 1984.  The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive writing about the outdoors, light, air, beetles, terrain, a marvelous passage about a bee swarm.  And with a skill that any writer worth his salt will envy, Brian Kiteley manages to bring his people to brilliant eccentric life, especially Elwyn himself, struggling valiantly to get over a nervous breakdown and the effect it had on the people around him.  Still Life with Insects is to the generational novel what Padgett Powell's Edisto was to literary comedy—that brilliant reinvention by a young new writer of something that's been done many times before.

Padgett Powell: Still Life with Insects is unique for its oblique sentiment, its associative structure, its slow, lyrical welling of effect.  It is perhaps more a European book than American—Calvino and Max Frisch come to mind.  And the true daring: the novel is a still life—a quiet picture that slowly resonates and changes and keep you looking when you don't quite know, or care, why.

Eli Gottlieb, Elle, August 1992: Still Life with Insects is short and splendidly risky.  Its first-person narrative is built along the frame of a series of field notes from a Canadian amateur entomologist, Elwyn Farmer, whose job (chemist), outlook (narrow yet principled), repeated nervous breakdowns, and attainment, despite it all, of an amiable old age he presents with wry pleasure for our delectation.  The book is rich in slow, tableau-like scenes of family life and packed with minutely wrought observations of the natural world.  The narrator’s voice is folksy but works at cross-purposes to the daring formal structure of the novel, and produces that rarest of literary things, an original.  In the space of 114 dense pages, Kiteley, operating with the sympathy and patient method of a good surgeon, lays bare a life.

Sabine Durrant, London Times, March 15, 1990: Elwyn Farmer loves beetles.  He is as familiar with the habitats, markings, and mating preferences of the Kirby Backswimmer (Notonecta kirbyii), the Dainty Tiger (Cicindela lepida), or the Harlequin Cabbage Bug (Murgantia histrionica) as he is with the rows, relationships, and daily routines of his own wife, children, and colleagues.  His is a scientific eye, looking across from the bustle of his work place or kitchen table, to peer beneath damp leaves, scrutinize dusty corners, squint through stagnant pond water.  Still Life with Insects is his story, a volume as small, intricate, and delicate as the objects of his entomologist's fascination.  Within these 40 years of chance encounters with triffids, larvae, and maggots, though, are pinned flutteringly detailed incidents awkward exchanges with teenage grandchildren, tensions at the office dance, touching glimpses of marital intimacy.  Hold these up to the light and you get a clear sense of this self-effacing man (as detached from the trials and tribulations of domestic life as he is from cantharidin-secreting beetles and wasp stings ''I seem to be immune'').  It is a beautifully and humorously observed picture of American life collected, mounted, labeled, sifted.

Frederic Lindsey, Sunday Telegraph (England), May 20, 1990: There is nothing harder in fiction than the creation of a good man.  When the writer chooses to couch his narrative in the first person, the task becomes almost impossible.  Kiteley makes it work by recognizing that absorption in a science or craftsmanship or art can be a man's salvation even in societies that least value such disinterestedness.  As Farmer's regard turns from the natural world to himself there is no alteration in that tone of cool observation which leaves no room for self-pity or falsity.  It is possible, if there is some element of autobiographical homage being paid, that Brian Kiteley may not manage anything so perfectly achieved as this first novel.

Zoe Heller, The Observer (England), April 1990: Still Life with Insects  is a quiet, delicate, American novella about Elwyn Farmer, a quiet, delicate, American pest extermination researcher and amateur entomologist.  This may not be the most encouraging of summaries, but it is appropriate for a book that shies away from self-advertisement, preferring to spring its pleasures on an unsuspecting reader.  Interwoven with microscopic observation of strangers in roadside cafes, motes of dust in the sunshine, and the taste of cheese and ham sandwiches, there are spare but astonishingly vivid sketches of people and events—Farmer's wife, swatting flies and declaring plaintively that she is no longer pretty, or Whit Wheaton, Farmer's colleague, accompanying him on a bug collecting trip then returning home to commit suicide.  A portrait of Farmer emerges: sad, kindly, odd, but deeply dignified, and in his unassuming way, noble.  This quirky, beautifully crafted story avoids sentimentality and, in spite of its thoughtful sobriety, elevates the spirits.

Charles Simmons, Washington Post, August 6, 1989: After his friend's suicide Elwyn and his wife, Ettie, have the widow over to stay with them.  During dinner the phone rings. Ettie answers.  It is Elwyn's brother-in-law with the news that Elwyn's sister has killed herself with a barbiturate overdose.  Ettie keeps the news to herself until the widow goes to bed.  This is Elwyn's reaction: "I pieced together the delicate pattern of incidents . . . and gradually fell in love with my wife all over again.  Her heroic reserve throughout the night of talk about one man's life and death, while withholding her own painful knowledge, filled me with a strong longing for her."  What is curious, and yet curiously believable, about this reaction is Elwyn's lack of immediate feeling, or expression of feeling, for his sister's death.  This affectlessness, amidst all the detail, is what gives Elwyn, and the book too, an odd dryness—and gives the book's title, Still Life with Insects, its appropriateness.  A still life is inanimate, although I suspect a pun expresses Elwyn's escape from human things: Still, Life with Insects.

Dan Cryer, New York Newsday, July 10, 1989: This is a prose that avoids fads and tricks and becomes poetry in its resolute search for what lasts.  Still Life with Insects is a gem of a book, small in size, large in its satisfactions.  It has won a permanent home in my affections.

Peter S. Prescott, July 1989: First novels are more often possessed by energy than by finesse, but Brian Kiteley's Still Life with Insects is a rarity: a young man's book that suggests the serenity of age.  Its construction resembles a sequence of pastel sketches—glimpses from forty years in the life of an amateur entomologist—and its manner is taut and understated.  This novella is a lovely book, original and glittering in its appreciation of a humanity achieved from contemplating a subhuman world.

Dolores Flaherty & Roger Flaherty, Chicago Sun-Times, May 1993: A bug collector’s field notes seem an unlikely narrative device for a novel.  But Still Life with Insects, by Brian Kiteley, takes the mysteries of nature detailed in the journal of Elwyn Farmer to create a lovely, quirky story about a complex man struggling to live a simple life.  Farmer, a chemist for a Canadian flour company, had once hoped to study insects as a profession rather than a hobby, but his education came to an abrupt halt during the Depression, when a brother stole his savings.  He is a prisoner of corporate life, unchallenged and unrecognized.  His family is repeatedly uprooted by transfers and he is the victim of recurring episodes of mental confusion.  The novel begins at the close of World War II when Farmer, 43, has just returned to work after a nervous breakdown.  In a small stagnant pool at a dry riverbed he collects specimens of a swimming beetle that might be a metaphor for his own stalled life: “Underwater, it can stop still for hours at any depth, patiently awaiting gnats and flies that land on the surface.”  The ensuing 40 years bring recurring breakdowns and a growing collection of beetles with metaphoric meaning.  Farmer’s hobby and his family are his chief weapons to forestall episodes of confusion and to recover after them.  His wife is beautiful and devoted but often exasperated by his eccentricities.  He considers himself a failure as a husband and as a father to his two sons, who judge him less harshly.  Eventually, two grandsons share his interest in insects, and through one, Farmer gains insight into what the hobby has meant.  Comparing his grandson’s use of marijuana with insect-collecting, Farmer writes, “I often went into a sort of trance when I was out collecting, or even as I worked in my basement, mounting, labeling, sifting, building boxes.”  The reader suspects that the author might in fact be one of these grandsons, who is poring over Farmer’s notes at the end of the book, researching a planned novel about his grandfather.  The notion adds extra impact to the affection that rises from every page of this short, beautifully written novel.

Brian Kiteley, The River Gods, Fiction Collective 2, 2011.

The River Gods is a novel in fragments, a mix of fact and fiction, in which various inhabitants of the area around what is now Northampton, Massachusetts, from the eleventh century through the 1990s, speak of their lives and of the community, a place haunted by the pervasive melancholy of extinguished desire.

Each of the voices--including a character named Brian Kiteley and his family, the original Native American inhabitants, the actor Richard Burton, Sojourner Truth, Richard Nixon, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jonathan Edwards, and many nameless others--ruminate on a past that is startlingly present and tangible. The main character, though, is the world of Northampton, irrevocably woven into the fabric of Western history, yet still grounded by the everyday concerns of health, money, food, love, and family. It is a novel of voices, the living and the dead, that illuminate the passage of time.

"Brian Kitely, a writer of great delicacy, perspicacity, and guile, has in The River Gods presented us with a cornucopia of bittersweet vignettes: glimpses of the lives and deaths, the loves and larks and sorrows of a New England town, told outside chronology and inside the vision of several centuries interlaced. The book may have its precedents, but it is in essence strikingly original, and it deserves to become a classic, for all its sophistication a very American one: it tells us who we have been, in a way we never could have guessed."--Harry Mathews

Matt Bell, American Book Review: Kiteley is at his best when he’s channeling the members of the novel’s presumably autobiographically based Kiteley family, including his mother and father, his grandfather, his siblings, and of course some version of himself.  In a book mixing fact and fiction at this high a level, it’s perhaps fitting that the facts Kiteley is presumably closest to are also the ones that produce the richest fictions: Kiteley’s family’s story begins with his mother in 1962, shortly after the family’s arrival in Northampton, and ends in 1993, with his brother Geoffrey’s death from AIDS.  One of the book’s most affecting passages comes in a section narrated by Kiteley’s dying (or perhaps dead) grandfather, who tells Kiteley’s fictional self a story about seeing a train stopped upon a set of railroad tracks in the woods years earlier, only to realize he’s remembered all the details wrong.  “What was the purpose of these easily recognizable flaws in the story?” he wonders, before Kiteley’s persona supplies both the answer to the grandfather’s question and a key to unlocking the pleasures of this book: “Maybe you wanted to know it was a dream, so you could enjoy the experience more.  If it were a pure return to that time, how would you be able to savor the sensations?”
The grandfather narrates his response, saying that
My grandson continues talking, despite having exposed this lovely revelation to me....  He is telling me stories from my past, which he does well now, although he has difficulty keeping straight the fictions he is writing and the facts he has gleaned from my own probably inaccurate stories. 
Of course, this “difficulty” in keeping fiction separate from fact and telling accuracy from inaccuracy is part of what’s so enjoyable about reading a book like The River Gods, which offers its own well-drawn sensations above and beyond the dry assertions of history.  It’s worth remembering that even the best histories are a selected story, a greatest hits list of events and places and peoples complicated by varying levels of truth and verisimilitude.  Kiteley’s researched, remembered, retold Northampton is just as likely to be true as any other, especially because, as the grandfather in the above-mentioned section notes, Kiteley “is still among the living, and this gives him a certain amount of authority,” an ability the author assumes so as to raise fiction and history to equal levels of seeming truth.  It’s this authority that makes The River Gods so compelling, and watching Kiteley claim it for himself in the fiction is as illuminating as it is empowering.

Andy Stewart, in Rain Taxi:
[A] key element of The River Gods is that it presents a mystery in its very form and loose organization--not one to be untangled via an unfolding plot, but a mystery of personal lineage, ancestry, and geography that gets revealed through self-examination and reflection.  Kiteley truly puts something of himself in this novel.  He invokes the voices of his family members as characters: his mother, Jean; his father, Murray; his grandfather, Eric, who is always armed with bug-collecting nets; his brother, Geoffrey, who is dying of AIDS.  Kiteley even includes his own personal narrative from different points in his childhood and young adulthood.  Self-examination happens via reenactment, through the rehashing of pivotal moments and memories in Kiteley's and his family's lives.
The River Gods poses a question that good literature often does: Where do I come from?  Kiteley tries on several different hats in an attempt to answer this question, and to understand the history of the place in which he was raised.  This sort of examination culminates in an irresistible and stunning piece of thought-provoking fiction.  In his storytelling, he makes myths of them all--presidents, murderers, passers by, brothers, grandfathers--and, in the mythmaking, he imparts a deep respect.  All characters exist as equals on the same lofty tier in this novel.  They are, all of them, River Gods.

Alan Cheuse, on All Things Considered (National Public Radio):
River Gods such as Israel Williams, 70 years old in March of 1779, alternate chapters with members of novelist Kiteley's own family: his grandfather, his parents, his gay brother, and various other inhabitants of Northampton.  They speak in monologues, opening their minds and hearts to the reader as might, say, spirits at a seance, with the novelist as the inspired spiritualist.  The result is an intense and beautiful collage of speeches in time about events in this one place from the familiar in every day to the divine.  A 16-year-old Christian boy in the spring of 1738 says, Molly and I do not deceive out of fear of discovery, or because it pleases us to, because we do no one harm, and because we enjoy accumulating venal sins.  Jump forward to 1989, and the novelist himself chants the names of Northampton Streets: First Square, Florence, Young Rainbow, Old Rainbow, Locust, Myrtle, Maple, Elm, Audubon, Evergreen.  By this method, Northampton, Massachusetts, in this unlikely and memorable tribute to one writer's hometown, becomes everyone's location.  "The River Gods" conjures up a local habitation by means of aesthetic magic.  It's a meditation, a celebration, an investigation and an elegy.
Dika Lam, in The Nervous Breakdown: Brian Kiteley first came to my attention via The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, his wonderful book of writing exercises.  A professor in the University of Denver's creative-writing program, Kiteley advocates improvisation and play, urging storytellers to free themselves from the constraints of literary labels: "There is and should be no real difference between fiction and nonfiction.  The distinction between the fictional and the fact-based world is overrated and the distance between the two is shorter than most critics imagine." 
The professor practices what he preaches in his novel The River Gods (FC2, 2009).  In 65 first-person portraits of the residents (both real and imagined) of his hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, Kiteley's narratives span the years 1064 to 1995 in a triumph of ventriloquism.  The River Gods is a supernatural version of NPR's StoryCorps, a mash-up of historical fiction and on-air confessional—it's a wonder the book isn't outfitted with an antenna... 
In the death scenes, the writing is poetic and unsentimental: A young man describes the event as "Life leaps athletically out of me."  A man felled by a thunderstorm in 1813 says "… a blue light seeped from my mouth, as if it were smoke, but it was denser than smoke, crackling, almost like handwriting."  A WWII soldier says, "When I solved this problem of dying, it was as though my body, which moments ago had been a large complicated knot, was untied with a single firm tug.  Then my body seemed to buzz, tapping into a low galvanic current.  Then the current was switched off." 
In a recent Time Magazine cover story, Lev Grossman set up a dichotomy between the big-canvas writing of Jonathan Franzen and the fragmentary scribbling of miniaturists, implying that expansive 19th-century novels are the best way to convey big ideas about society: "The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm." 
But Grossman and his fellow Franzenfans would be wrong to assume that you can't get a picture of the larger culture by focusing on the little details: the "enormous radio" that is The River Gods manages to touch on religion and politics, love and loss—and you can't get any bigger than that.
Harry Mathews: The River Gods presents us with a cornucopia of bittersweet vignettes: glimpses of the lives and deaths, the loves and larks and sorrows of a New England town, across several centuries interlaced.  Strikingly original, it deserves to become a classic, for all its sophistication a very American one: it tells us who we have been, in a way we never could have guessed.
Brian Evenson: The River Gods is a subtle portrait of the way the ripples in the human pond complicate one another.  It tenderly examines the filaments that connect individual to family and family to town and town to nation and nation to world, and shows how rupture, love, death, and memory shiver their way up and down these filaments to create a delicate whole.  A beautifully rendered investigation of joy and loss, and of the way in which longing and desire and regret can lap over the divide between life and death.


Eli Gottlieb:  In The River Gods Brian Kiteley masterfully employs his patent narrative method of uncanny subtraction, removing the ligatures of conventional fiction the better to provide a field of implication in which the historical mysteries of America can resonate to maximum effect.  In response to the postmodern insight that everything is happening at the same time, he brings demonstrable proof of the fact in this luminous, perfectly sculpted novel whose sentences flow as easily through the mind of a nine year old boy in 1960’s America as they do that of an 18th century Puritan divine.  The River Gods is one of the most searching portraits of our country I’ve ever read.

Martin Riker, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2010: The River Gods is a soft-spoken novel, filled with history and nuance and contemplative space.  Told as a series of first-person accounts by historical characters in or around the town of Northampton, MA, the book effectively pulls about 400 years of that town’s history into a collective narrative portrait.  The form is spatial rather than linear.  Kiteley moves forward and back through time, allowing each speaker his or her specific contemporaneity, so that the town’s identity emerges not as a palimpsest—its present-day streets and houses and inhabitants “written over” its deep historical past—but rather as a kind of historical simultaneity: these people may have lived at different points in history, but they are all speaking right now in this book.  These were real people, often famous ones (Jonathan Edwards, Sojourner Truth, William Carlos Williams), yet here their primary contribution to the identity of Northampton is not their historical relevance, but rather their assumptions, quirks, flaws, joys, walks, deaths, and all the other elements that composed their experiences of the world.  The past comes to us with the same precision as the present, in the particular qualities of the people who lived here over time.  
This insistence on individual particularity is what allows for The River Gods’ central dramatic gesture, which is also its most profound: the melding of cultural and personal memory.  For in addition to being a town thick with history, Northampton is also where Kiteley grew up, and his own family features largely among the narrators, providing the closest thing the novel has to a narrative arc.  The stories of his father and grandfather and his mother and himself develop throughout the book, but foremost is the story of his brother, whom we watch proceed from a precocious intellectual child to a mild-mannered homosexual man, through to his death as an early victim of HIV.  These were real people, too, equally distinct as individuals and equally a part of the history of this town. 
B. J. Hollars, Colorado Review, Spring 2010: Kiteley's novel explores the battle between time and space and declares space the victor.  He reminds us that humans are all afflicted by time limitations; space, however, is beholden to no one.  Near the end of the book, Geoffrey Kiteley, the thirty-eight-year-old version of the author's brother, accurately depicts the book's style while speaking of a particular film.  Geoffrey notes the film director's "cutting and pasting location shots with no regard for geography or progression through space, working more like the way a dream does."  His words resonate, causing the reader to rethink Brian Kiteley's grand experiment.  We wonder: Is this, too, a dream?  Has Brian Kiteley conjured the impossible?  While the novel retains a dreamlike quality, it's evident that the author (unlike the director Geoffrey references) actually does hold the highest regard for geography, blending history with literature, while maintaining an allegiance to both.
Edward Shanahan, the former managing editor of Northampton's newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, in Downstreet.net: Novelist Brian Kiteley, who grew up in Northampton, has pulled off a daunting literary feat in his recent book The River Gods.  With an amazingly large and celebrated cast of characters and a loving recollection of his hometown, Kiteley, 53, has offered up a blend of fact and fiction that plumbs the heart and soul of his Northampton and views it through the prism of the last 350 years.  Much of the story is narrated through the voices of the author, members of his family, including his precocious brother, Geoffrey, sister Barbara, and his parents, Murray and Jean, along with Brian’s Canadian grandfather, Eric Kiteley.  Hordes of Brian’s school chums and neighborhood pals also make appearances.  His parents reside these days at the Lathrop Community in Easthampton, but theirs and by extension Brian’s and Geoffrey’s stories begin in 1962 when the family arrives in Northampton where Murray has joined the Smith College faculty, fresh from a teaching post in California.  On arriving in Northampton, Jean, early in the book, offers this reaction: “We moved into the Smith College faculty apartments on Fort Hill Terrace, a large horseshoe-shaped set of one-and two-story buildings … there are about a dozen families at Fort Hill … everyone welcomed us with open arms, but I worry this is too easy, an uncharacteristic experience in what I know is usually stuffy, cold-shouldered, aristocratic New England.” 
The Kiteleys are joined often in the narrative course of The River Gods by many figures recalling the city’s rich historical past, the earliest being 60-year old Gideon Child, a member of the original Nonotuck settlement in 1654.  Others who have supporting parts and the dates of their appearance, are John Pynchon (1675), Joseph Hawley (1777), Joseph Parsons (1678), and Sojourner Truth (1852).  Let’s not leave out Ludwig Wittgenstein (1949), Newton Arvin (1955), and his lover Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Ben Bradlee , Richard Nixon (1969) and his daughter Julie, poets William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, writer George Washington Cable, and Mike Nichols, director of the 1966 movie “Who’s Afraid  of Virginia Woolf,” along with its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  You get the picture, a novel as extravaganza, as well as a novel as history, memoir and, most of all, place.  In bringing in these players from the distant past, the author, in an afterword, says this: “Historical figures, especially those whose recorded utterances I’ve used, are as historically accurate as I could make them, although much of the presentation of these ghost is also necessarily phantasmagoric.” 
As a relative newcomer to Northampton (1971), I can attest to the impact living in this city has had on our family as well.  The longer we have been here, the deeper our roots and the greater our affection for Northampton, past and present.  It is a singular place, no doubt about it.  It is easy, thus, to relate to the Northampton summoned up in The River Gods.  The overarching tone of the book is nicely established by Brian’s boyhood and coming of age, and his lasting affection for the town.  Yet there is no heavy-handed effort to sanitize or idealize Northampton.  Those of us who know the city and something of its history, understand exactly how he feels. 
Finally, I was particularly moved by the portrait that emerges of Brian’s brother, Geoffrey.  He seemed so perceptive beyond his years and his outlook on life so liberated, only to die at such a young age, a star burning brightly but too briefly.  In any case, I can’t recall a book that deals with the Northampton experience that I have responded with more enthusiasm.


Fiction  Samples
A video link to a reading I gave from the Crete novel (at 30:37)
A chapter from my Crete novel
An audio recording of a reading I gave
An excerpt of The River Gods in Downstreet.net
An excerpt of The River Gods in Segue
An excerpt of The River Gods in Double Room
A sample of The River Gods
A sample of Still Life With Insects
Opening of Songs..., in The Washington Post

                                                                                                             
Non-fiction Samples
Conversations about My Books and Interviews with Me
A retrospective Steve Himmer did of my novels for Necessary Fiction
Alan Cheuse and Rick Kleffel talking in part about The River Gods (at the halfway mark)
An interview Matthew Kirkpatrick did with me for FC2
An interview on WFCR, the Amherst, Massachusetts public radio station
An interview for the radio show Writer�s Voice
                                                                                                                                                                                                  

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