Download PDF Here
Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, January 2024
Safe Colors, a novel in short fictions by Thaddeus Rutkowski
– book review by Mike Foldes
Cover art by Shay Rutkowski
Bridge on East Houston Street (screen print)
Author Photo by Hollie Rutkowski
Cover and Book design by Alexandru Oprescu
Published by New Meridian, part of the non-profit organization
New Meridian Arts, 2023.
Available at Amazon.com
I’m 76. Soon I’ll be 77. I live in the same town I grew up in. I didn’t always live here. I’ve lived other places: in the Midwest, cow country as we used to say, and New York City. I’ve traveled and was fortunate enough to live at a time when hitchhiking was still an acceptable form of travel. I hitched rides from New York to Ohio, from Spain to France, and to the port in France on the English Channel where I took a boat to South End and eventually on to London. I made a lot of notes along the way. And wrote poems. Most were not very good. I have many creative friends who tell me that it doesn’t matter if the poems are good or bad, that they all need to be saved. I’m not sure why, really, except, perhaps, that they’re like steps up sides of mountains to Buddhist retreats, or monasteries in northern Greece where Orthodox priests sanctify life in isolation with prayer.
I sometimes enjoy looking back upon events in my life that are reminders of where I’ve been, what I’ve done, family members I’ve not seen since I was a child, family members I’ve not shed completely, but with whom we share only childhood memories, such as walks through woods and the same grandparents. I don’t lay claim to having better memories than anyone else, or more of them. In fact, the leaps forward from those days to high school, college, weddings, divorce, children, work, and the rest of what keeps us going are a broken chain of important events that somehow stays in place around my neck as if it were tattooed there. And I can only see it in a mirror.
What I loved about Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Safe Colors is the boomerang effects of his vignettes from childhood to the present that brought back countless memories of similar events and circumstances, many of which are unique to the times and places where we each grew up. Thad in a Pennsylvania dairy-farming area and I in a relatively nearby Upstate New York industrial town where shoes and time clocks were manufactured.
Thad’s sketches detail his upbringing in Appalachia in a most appealing fashion. High times and hardships co-exist in easily styled and engaging literary pastorals. The book, titled Safe Colors and sub-titled “a novel in short fictions,” runs approximately 275 pages in three sections. The “short fictions” capture events and influences of events from the author’s childhood through various stages of life to the present. The stories project images easily recognizable from childhood, especially boyhood, as so many of them are about the relationships between son and father and the bonds between mother and son.
The individually enjoyable anecdotes create a mural of the mid-twentieth century presented as still lifes left to the reader to decide whether they are in fact fiction, memories, versions of memories, distortions of fact, or things that happened to a friend. Or even to the reader him or herself who appreciates a good read that can be taken in small doses and remain cohesive.
Rutkowski has mastered the recollection of events for retelling by turning what might appear to be small influences into something grand—but not grandiose. There is humility to be found in these small parcels. The wonder of earthworms in a cold wet lawn, the tug of a game fish on a handmade lure, the burning smoke of incense held too closely to one’s nose, honest answers given in school mistaken by a teacher for work performed by someone else, children playing with guns both toy and real. We get a taste of how an Asian-American sees himself as viewed by peers, how so-called liberal politics plays in a conservative community, and how black smoke from incense can connect one with the spirits of the dead.
Apply the same simple principles to nonessential elements of carefully drawn experience, mix in a bit of memorabilia and sufficient irony to make the canvas come alive, as it does with Safe Colors, and you have in hand a road map from childhood to maturity. Great to be along on the author’s ride navigating the juggernaut of time travel from backwater to oceanside in one of the largest cities in the world.
© Mike Foldes
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of eight books, most recently Safe Colors, a novel in short fictions.. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and Columbia University and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Michael Foldes (b 1946) is an American poet, publisher, author and businessman. He holds a BA in anthropology from The Ohio State University. Foldes’s articles, editorials, poems, reviews, interviews and stories have appeared in publications worldwide, some in translation into Romanian, Hungarian, French, Japanese and Spanish. Publishing credits include l’Oeil de la Photographie, Where is the Jazz Festival, Mobius, Southern Literary Review, the Village Voice, Hustler, High Times, The Seventh Quarry, Paterson Literary Review, CLH/Romania, We Are You Poetry anthology, From the Finger Lakes, and Folazil (France), among others.
His books include “Stopped Dead: The End of Poetry,” “In an Early Hour,” and “Sand and Snow”; “Sleeping Dogs: A true story of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping,” (Split Oak Press, Ithaca, NY, 2012); “Sandy: Chronicles of a Superstorm,” with artist Christie Devereaux; and “Fashions & Passions” and “End Game” with artist Christopher Panzner. His poetry chapbook “Original Sin” (2022) is available from Cervena Barva Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.
Foldes and his wife Margot live in New York’s Southern Tier a few hundred yards from the Susquehanna River, said to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world.