Reviewed: The Runaway Note
by Tyrone Jaeger
(Shakespeare & Company, Toad Suck, July 2012)
Life tasted of two rocks to one dirt, a bitter ratio tempered by the soft teats of cows, warm milk, and steaming shit. Days tasted of glue made from flour and cement used to bury the living with the dead. Boys wear sailor suits, and even in black and white, we recognize royal blue and yellow hair. We recognize the dead among the living. Here, this is ghost, and this is living, little girl.
Scientists say that people spend around two hours dreaming per eight-hour night of sleep. Of course, how many of us actually have the luxury of an eight-hour snooze? Still, brains devote an impressive amount of time to keeping the wheels turning beneath glossy, closed lids and wheezy snores. The Runaway Note—a newly released “lyric novella,” as author Tyrone Jaeger, the Writer-in-Residence at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, describes it—exists in a kind of dreamscape, or perhaps more aptly, a dream-escape. The Runaway Note—a meshing of prose poetry, flash fiction, and the epistolary novel, will fully immerse you in this world, leaving you with the feeling that you are dreaming while conscious.
The story is set in the foggy mirage of the Kaats Kills, a play on the Catskill Mountains, the author’s former home. The narrative voice is dominated by Tyro, a “heartless” boy ever accompanied by his red typewriter, but there is also Morisa, a badass, all-consuming, “invitation to sin” for Tyro, and Sailor Boy, the resurrected uncle of Tyro turned coltish and boy-like, who accompanies the pair. And there is the bad guy, Colonel Rip Van Scratch, a devilish, Evel Knievel-like predator who hunts the three voyageurs throughout their trans-dimensional adventures and is the owner of the jet-fueled van the “Sin Bin,” which graces the book’s cover.
The novella is told as a sort of travel diary as Tyro recounts his adventures with Morisa and Sailor Boy. It begins with newborn Tyro still connected to the umbilical cord of his mother, a kind of leash in which his mother is able to protect her son from Colonel Scratch’s prediction of the baby’s fate—the sign of the beast. The plot is intermixed with boyish pastimes—watching cartoons with Sailor Boy, sticking bobby pins in electrical sockets, role-playing captor and captive with Morisa. But death looms amongst these childhood activities. Tyro’s diary-like excerpts shouldn’t be compared to a teenager’s meaningless musings of the prom and running for student council. Instead, Tyro constantly jots small epiphanies: “I wonder if the living world is for the dead,” and, “When I leave this bodily prison, I will swim through the afterlife, stuttering without you, listening for your twangy lullabies that ease the seizures of tongue and time.”
This race through different revelations makes it difficult to describe what the novel is about. But I’m okay with that. Tyro weaves through his narrative so fluidly that you don’t need to know exactly what happens—the words are enough. After all, when can you ever remember exactly what happens in your dreams?
“Life tasted of two rocks to one dirt, a bitter ratio tempered by the soft teats of cows, warm milk, and steaming shit.” This passage is fraught with contradiction despite being Tyro’s attempts to rationalize life and logically equate the taste of living to his wild but desolate surroundings. But these paradoxical mind-fucks are all too appropriate in light of what Tyro and the other characters encounter—gasoline guzzling, treasure maps found in third nipples and stray hairs, butterflies emerging from nasal cocoons. The novella experiments with the intangible; it floats between dreams and consciousness, life and anti-life, into soul transmigration and all that falls in between. These dichotomies aren’t only experiments, but battles; existence is at war with fantasies, ghosts, hauntings, and demons. This war suspends death. The characters survive in a pseudo-purgatory—a time warp into a limitless world unchained from logic. The dead and the living both fight to exist as the barrier between them becomes transparent.
Tyro and Morisa’s break-ups and make-ups provide the story’s heartbeat. And, as Tyro says, “Love in the afterlife is like fog rising.” Tyro repeats this maxim throughout the story, a reminder of the episodic reality of being in love, especially in the chase and in the act of running away—wanting to be lost and found all in one breath.
Morisa laughs and laughs, for she knows that history is like a foggy dream that you try to write down in the morning but are unable to find a pencil and while searching in the couch cushions you come across a love letter addressed to someone else and smelling of a perfect stranger who you will perhaps fall in love with.
Potential readers of The Runaway Note might worry that the complexities between life and the thereafter could suffocate the narrative. Instead, the author’s genius with language creates a romance between the two that is often fresh and gritty, innocent and sexy. Jaeger weaves together the impulse, awkwardness, and excitement of what it means to be young, in love, and ready, into the violent rendering of an almost apocalyptic grave-land. I’m sure Jaeger would shy away from the use of “sexy” to describe the narrative, but hell, it’s there:
We draw on each other naked: flying saucer, clock, butterfly, vulture. And like that, the spirit overcomes us. Our hands move. We write dictation for dead. The sensation is like a velvet glove massaging your foot, like strawberry juice dripping off your tongue, like a tiny bell in the forest, like burnt ram upon altar, like words upon the page. We write until they have finished speaking.
To Tyro and Morisa, this magnetic duo, what is supposed to happen in a world of questions marks and maybes (maybe dead, maybe living, maybe in love, maybe hating)? Tyro searches for permanence in a life in jeopardy. He places his trust in his weapon, the red typewriter, and in Morisa. But Morisa, his gem, is a free spirit not only within the common definition, but also literally—she travels between unlimited regions of life, afterlife, and the existence that comes in between. The part of me longing for a happy ending was mesmerized by this love story, one entangled with cosmic descriptions so vivid they’re nearly touchable. I silently rooted for the lovers, and Sailor Boy, to dodge Colonel Rip Van Scratch’s clutches.
Half the pleasure of reading this story is in the finish, when you awake from the “foggy dream” of hanging on to Tyro’s coattails as he meanders, sprints, and dances through his sort of “coming-of-age.” And as I followed Tyro through his out-of-body voyages, I found myself wondering what Jaeger’s mind was like while writing The Runaway Note—a Jim Henson Labyrinth, a map of the stars and constellations and planets and moons, a Jenga game where at any moment the wobbling tower of blocks could collapse, or maybe just a single, red typewriter—quick fingers grinding at the keys, a manifesto of the imagination, of possibilities in the impossible.
Jaeger will be reading from The Runaway Note this Thursday, September 27, at 7 p.m. on the rooftop of Michelangelo’s in Conway, Arkansas. More information can be found here.
And you can purchase the book here!