“Language Arts” by Stephanie Kallos
Charles Marlow, an English teacher at a private school, dreams up amazing adventures in language for his students. The irony is that he is also the dad of a nearly-grown autistic son who has lost his capacity for speech.
In “Language Arts,” the latest work from Seattle novelist Stephanie Kallos, Charles finds satisfaction in his work, but his private life is moribund. With his daughter college-bound and his ex-wife moving on with her own life, Charles realizes that by comparison his own world isn’t very stimulating. Like his institutionalized son – he copes, but he doesn’t initiate.
He is forced out of his rut when Alison, his ex, reminds him that they need to make plans for Cody, who soon will age out of his state-funded home.
As Charles tours group homes and facilities with Alison, working to assure the future for their son, he realizes that it may also be time for him to do as he has advised in the letters he has sent to daughter Emmy, to start living his own story.
But that prompts him to reflect on the seminal events that have shaped his life up to now.
There was that momentous year in fourth grade in which he achieved the unlikely status as teacher’s pet, bonded with a retarded kid over Hostess Cupcakes, and took first place in a citywide writing contest.
There was the first time he met Alison, while he worked as bartender at a wedding reception.
And, of course, there was the most impactful circumstance of all: his son’s mystifying and precipitous decline from happy toddler to touchy kid who avoids eye contact and relies on a one-word vocabulary, “Gah.”
“Language Arts” putters along at Charles’ pace for some time – the story line seems to be tucked into a wheelbarrow full of detail that dwells on the distractions, petty habits and offbeat observations of a middle-aged man who has misplaced his ability to live purposefully.
Yet Charles is a fellow to whom many of us can relate. Who among us hasn’t been distracted? Who doesn’t remember having a retarded kid in class, and wonder now if we did the right thing by them? Who hasn’t visited some sort of care facility and thought, “there but for the grace of God go I”?
Because Kallos is such an engaging writer, most readers will be willing to hang in through the jumble of detail and the loosely related subplots featuring an Italian nun, a high school photographer, and the Palmer Method of penmanship.
And as it turns out, Kallos knows exactly what she is doing. Once she has lulled us into Charles’ haze of memories and regret and inertia, she delivers a revelatory one-two punch that knocks us upside the head and astounds us.
Perhaps there is one coincidence too many in the final pages, but never mind – this story brings us out of the fog with a bedazzling message about never giving up the quest for meaning, or for love.
The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.