ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME. KEVIN
By Kevin Keck
Bloomsbury, 228 pages, $14.95
A week before the release of his second book, a memoir titled Are You There, God? It’s Me. Kevin, the author made the bold move—a preemptive strike, really—of posting to his Web site (thekeck.typepad.com) an itemized list of the allusions in his book. It’s for the “laziest readers,” he wrote: critics. Aww, thanks!
To those at all familiar with Kevin Keck’s work—his first book, Oedipus Wrecked (2005), was a collection of short stories detailing, among other perverse and puerile things, his love of masturbation and the self-administration of anal sex—the names may surprise: Carver, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Roth, Kerouac, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Whitman, Cummings, Eliot—not to mention myriad references to the Bible (for starters, each chapter title is a “riff” on a chapter in the good book). But don’t be fooled: Despite the title, and the pedigree, Mr. Keck is still a gutter poet/storyteller, the red-headed stepchild of some unholy union between David Sedaris and a young Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint is on the list, natch), minus the transcendent insight.
The stories in Are You There, God? are funny and entertaining, yet suffused with a palpable melancholy. They achieve mixed results (an entertaining sex story, or any story, for that matter, is often just that: a piece of entertainment). But Mr. Keck (see: list of allusions) wants the reader to get something more out of his book, something tantamount to sharing in the joy of spiritual revelation and newly acquired inner peace. So this is a book about religion, right?
WELL, IT’S ONLY nominally about religion. It’s really about drugs—lots of them. The defining feature of his interactions with his friends and family—his bipolar mother, his preternaturally calm father, his stoic grandfather and senile grandmother and clueless brother, his girlfriends and the guys he likes to get high with—is not church (although many of the vignettes take place inside one or involve some mention of the deity), but weed and pills.
As a college student, Mr. Keck discovered marijuana, not God—though he went to Belmont Abbey, a small Catholic school, and considered being a priest for a while. Drug use would shape the next 15 years of his life: inure him to anxiety attacks in college and graduate school, help him bear a multitude of boring teaching jobs at small colleges and a bitchy girlfriend, mollify the pain of watching his grandparents die and having his mother attack him with a telephone. Controlled substances sustained him during the years between adolescence and real adulthood—that is, when he met his future wife, Patrice, and got her pregnant, when “the days of sweet intoxication faded into a sober shouldering of responsibility.” From high school in tiny Denver, N.C., until then, his life was about one thing: survival.
This is because the young Kevin was a barely functioning neurotic. “Doorknobs, polite handshakes, sick people, an obsessive fear of being stricken with food poisoning at any moment—these were the daily labors of my unquiet mind.” He plays it for laughs, never plumbing the depths of his condition. He offers few details about his hospitalization in college due to an anxiety attack or the lasting effects of his mother’s bipolar episodes. His revelations are mostly accompanied by a punch line.
While attending a late-night party in graduate school, Mr. Keck becomes involved in a deep conversation with a professor of theology, Charlie, a crusty old alcoholic, who asks him, “Do you know what your problem is?” Mr. Keck admits that he does not. “You don’t have any problems, motherfucker.”
Meanwhile, his therapist believes that not only does he have a problem, it’s rather pervasive: He’s suffering from the peculiar, if not universally middle- and upper-class, problem of not having anything of real importance to worry about. It’s the origins of all liberal guilt—and, apparently, suburban religion.
“YOU EAT THE blood and the body of Christ, you are baptized,” the therapist explains to Mr. Keck. “How is this different than washing you hands several times a day? In both instances you are repeating a pattern that is designed to keep you safe from harm. Religion is the antidote to madness, but it is a benign madness all its own.”
Cure your O.C.D. with more church! It’s unclear, though, what good this does or how meaningful this observation is. Sure, Mr. Keck’s life is full of religion—or rather he claims to go to church a lot, and swears it isn’t entirely about hitting on women—but he never offers a better explanation for his attendance than the therapist’s, and the reader is left to grapple with the sincerity of his commitment. Perhaps the church is just a useful narrative device, stringing together what would otherwise resemble a collection of short stories.
There are times when Mr. Keck’s prose suggests he hasn’t entirely given up smoking pot. About astronauts in the International Space Station, he writes: “I suspect that hovering above the earth, one ceases to be concerned about earthly things; the body begins to lose muscle mass when it’s in space: detached from the soil that holds us firm, we begin to disintegrate, to fade into the universe. I imagine the mind losing its sense of self, the disparity of fantasy and reality finally merging, until dreams sweep up the missing molecules of the body and the cosmos ripples as the surface of a still lake broken by the return of a stone.” Dude.
And sometimes the writing is just plain lame: “I’d been longing for a woman for quite a while—or at least a relationship that didn’t smoke and melt away as quickly as a witch doused with water.” Another Whitman reference?
Now that I think of it, reading Are You There, God? is not unlike smoking pot: While you’re in the thick of it, it’s entertaining, with a patina of meaningfulness; but afterward you can’t quite remember what seemed so important. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth recommending. It just means you may not need a list of allusions to get out of it what you want.
Jake Brooks is a deputy managing editor of The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this book review incorrectly identified Mr. Keck’s hometown. It is Denver, North Carolina. The Observer regrets the error.