Uncanny is the first word that comes to mind after reading the self-described novel And Every Day Was Overcast: An Illustrated Novel by Paul Kwiatkowski. Reading perhaps isn’t an appropriate term given the abundant number of images in it. And calling it a novel is perhaps inappropriate too, as it’s length is more that of a novella or short story collection. Uncanny is spot on, however, as having grown up a few miles and three years behind Kwiatkowski many of the situations and people that he describes are those that I too experienced and met while growing up.
Upon viewing photos in the book I was immediately reminded of the cardboard box full of photos I have that were taken from cheap disposable cameras that my friends and I used to document our lives prior to the digital revolution. I was taken aback by them as his friends at the time look so similar to people I was friends with at the time. Furthermore, when I examine the photos of bedrooms I am taken aback as I see so many of the same band posters that used to adorn my own room. Marilyn Manson, Genitorturers, Jack Off Jill, Dead Kennedys, Rollins Band. While the latter two are nationally recognized acts the first three were – until Manson’s success – local acts with a strong local following by those growing up in South Florida at the time that did not identify with the pop, grunge and alt rock trends. Seeing this makes me wonder if Brian and I ever attended any of the same Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids concerts at the Button South or other shows.
Some details were different – the Miami exurbs have much more people than Jupiter – yet reading his book I learned that many of our experiences overlapped. We both lived on the underdeveloped edges of the urban core. South Florida’s organization around the automobile means that cultural paucity due to dispersion and segregation, the high rate of immigration into the state and within the state, the variety of social mores that could be confusing to navigate, especially when one is “coming of age” was the same there as it was further north.
These are just some of the factors leading many within the area to a general anomie that many within South Florida feel. It is a home in the sense that people live here, but their connection to it is almost inevitably very weak.
I recall at 16 the kids that would have their parents drive them 45 minutes to the nearest movie theatre to drop them off. I, who walked 45 minutes to get there but knew the area, would meet all of these kids that too felt so strange and out of place in what was presumably our “home town”. Strange, temporary friendships would form out of what could be called a strange desperation and we, like the people in Paul’s book, would try to score alcohol and go to secluded church or an underground parking lot that was partially flooded with water in once corner and the other with graffiti, broken beer bottles and junk food rappers and two mattresses that used to make me wonder how messed up someone had to be in order to sleep on it.
Back to the book – I decided to pick it up after coming across a wonderful review written by by Ira Glass. When I discovered that the author grew up relatively close to me and, after reading an except published online that made me feel that Paul Kwiatkowski was writing about something similar to what I am working on in Unraveling (a conclusion that upon reading it I’ve since revised) I decided to purchase it.
I checked Black Balloon Publishing’s and Paul Kwiatkowski’s website every few weeks to see when it would be available. When it was finally available for pre-sale, I ordered it immediately. When I first got in in the mail my excitement was short lived. After opening the package and flipping through the book I noticed that the book was primarily photographs. This disappointment, however, was short lived. It quickly transformed into disappointment that the book wasn’t longer as the writing was just so damn good. There is a visceral nature to the writing that brings a saccharine feel to the somewhat tragic accounts of teenage life in the morass that is South Florida. As a writer, reading this I found many instance where I found myself getting jealous. The turns of phrase and the descriptions are sticky and ought to be highly resonant with someone even if they didn’t grow up in the region. The photos, as I alluded to in the above, are not only compelling snapshots of what growing up in the alt-Miami scene in the 1990s was like but upon reading I found fits almost perfectly with the storytelling. Even if not directly related to the anecdotes or ex-post facto reflections they provide an accent that made me more drawn into the world that Paul formed via the book.
In my other reviews of books I find myself discussing plot points and character’s dilemmas and what not. While I could do that here as well I think I’m less interested in trying to categorize this as something within a school of literature or trying to unpack the themes than I am in just appreciating it as art. Though the thrust of the book is bored kids searching for fun in the places that adults don’t want them to look in and growing up via unexpected/undesired events isn’t particularly new, the format is. The interspersed pictures of notes, the short text-message length texts, the photos make it almost a collage/yearbook of times best not forgotten. Through prose that is intensely lyrical, the squalor, the perversity, and generally disassociating atmosphere for adolescents in South Florida is put on display. The frame, however, is not moralistic but, for the most part, descriptive. The abundance of aberration depicted takes on an almost irresistible quality.
As lately I’ve been surveying a number of books that could be described as “poetics of childhood trauma” – a strange turn of phrase as what childhood is not traumatic in some way – I found this a worthy addition to that cannon as well as a number of others (i.e. photojournalism, memoir, etc.). Thankfully here the troubling forays that can lead to some sort of immutable truth, depending on whether or not they repress or incorporate it into their consciousness, end for the most part ambiguously but in a manner that is also aesthetically satisfying. In this way, and because I so appreciate the photos and writing, I find this quasi-bildungsroman to be highly compelling literature and hope this is not the last I’ll read or see of Paul Kwiatkowski’s work.