By Andrea Kleine


Soft Skull
October 2015

Reviewed by Jerry McGuire


Andrea Kleine is a smart, insightful, risk-taking performance artist ("Screening Room," "The Separation"), and her first novel, Calf, is an interesting extension of the bridging of abstraction and immediacy that she's explored in her live performances. It creates a kind of tonal pas de deux out of the stories—at first independent of one another but gradually intersecting, both factually and thematically—of two mentally-ill persons, John Hinckley, Jr. and Leslie deVeau, one famous for his shooting of President Reagan as a means to impress the actress, Jody Foster, with whom he was obsessed, the other less well-known for the shotgun murder of her 10-year-old daughter.

This tonal play—alternating chapters are narrated in the first person by Jeffrey Hackney (modeled on Hinckley) and in the third person as an account of the lives of a tween-aged group of girls, among whom is the child who will eventually be killed—is the book's risk-it-all gesture of unbalanced perspectives. Half the novel tells the story, from the point of view of a quickly deteriorating but quite unaware mind, of its own process of disintegration; the other, third-person half, is immersed in a complex social community riven by matters of age, gender, economic status, and familial stress, deployed on the split screens of, on the one hand, one 11-year-old girl's emotionally overloaded consciousness, and, on the other, the emotionally evacuated mind of a woman drifting towards an unspeakable violation.

The risk this sets in motion is itself complex. It may suggest to some that an act of violence done by one disturbed person to one child is "just as bad" as a mass shooting, one of whose victims is the President of the United States. And it may just as well suggest the reverse, that the slaughter of a child is somehow less meaningful than the shooting of Ronald Reagan. Either perspective, on its own, will (and should) produce its share of outrage. Kleine's choice to stagger her points of view—not just between the two scenarios, but also between adults and children in the "domestic" scenario—keeps such questions constantly in play. But the specific points of view invoked, that of a sociopath of arguably sub-normal intellect, that of an 11-year-old girl in a damaging household and social environment, and that of a woman who experiences the dictation of angelic voices, conspire to produce a text whose principle stabilizing feature is irony. While one may, in particular circumstances, empathize with a sociopath, with a schizophrenic, or with a psychically distressed child, most of the time, I believe, most readers will recognize something like a more analytical sympathy based on the sense that they differ, more or less, from the character. This is the sense in which I am using "irony": Calf tends to keep us at a distance—varying, shifting, never quite comfortable—from the emotional devastations it describes.

Some readers have expressed just the kind of inability to get "close" to this novel that a grounding structure of irony would imply. This, in fact, is the abstraction (or Brechtian alienation) I indicated above. But it also points to the immediacy I mentioned, at least where the child Tammy is the principal focus. As a low-on-the-pecking-order member of both a peer group and a family group capable of terrible deceits and cruelties, Tammy is the existential anchor of the book. (Reading these domestic and peer scenes, I can't help but think of Joyce Carol Oates's young-adult heroines and anti-heroines, and of the bewildering personalities in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) The adults who stand in for the sociopath Hinckley and the (probably) schizophrenic deVeau no doubt express their own kind of victimage and deserve their measure of sympathy, but their horrific acts situate them beyond our empathetic response, in a place where our sympathy is largely political or clinical, not personal. Tammy's vulnerability is palpable and tragic, while events conspire to produce in her attitudes towards the world that are troublingly similar to those of the central adult characters. If we never quite feel part of her world, it is here that our emotional detachment is most likely to be forced to confront itself as a kind of failing. I'm certainly pleased to feel detached from Hinckley's axis of manias and obsessions; but I can't help but feel troubled to be put in the position of viewing this child's distress so closely, yet so helplessly.

This is what I mean by a balancing act, and by the risk taken by Kleine in telling her story this way. For these manipulations of emotional distance mean that while Calf may succeed intensely for readers who connect strongly with the world of the children, for those who feel that Jeffrey Hackney/John Hinckley must be central, there may seem to be something arbitrary about the equal time given to the domestic tragedy (which Kleine announces at the outset is based on her personal, real-life relationship with the murdered child). I find this unbalanced presentation very properly unsettling and admirable, and I also admire the restraint (which some may feel as abstraction) that marks Kleine's refusal to exploit a conventional contrast (innocent/experienced, simple/complex, pure/despoiled) between the world represented by the children and their parents and the world of Jeffrey and the unapproachable object of his desire. That refusal assures that the book never relents on its insistence that these worlds of unhappiness, abuse, resentment, and fantasized revenge are perfectly continuous.

I haven't been able to find, in the novel or elsewhere, any explanation of its title. If "Calf" was a nickname for the somewhat bovine Hinckley, I haven't found any evidence to that effect. There is only one hint I think I see—this is probably a mark of my failed attention, or else further evidence of Kleine's austerity—and if I'm right, it's a delicate gesture indeed. For after (in real life) shotgunning her daughter Erin while the child slept, evidently at the behest of "angelic" voices in her head, Leslie deVeau was held at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, where she became the girlfriend of John Hinckley, who is held there to this day. "Veau," of course, is French for veal, or calf. In English we tend to distinguish between the living creature and the piece of meat to be devoured, but in French, and in this book, they are the same. The book, in other words, is not about Jeffrey, or about Hinckley, or even about deVeau: it is a warning about the things we do to our children, and what follows from that—the destruction of worlds.