It was a classmate who introduced me to Chad Kultgen. She and I would engage frequently in those obligatory conversations students have before class to break the silence and mutually shared boredom. On one of these occasions we ended up discussing literature. I was at the time reading Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. She was reading some required literature for a class, but she made it a point to ask me if I had ever read Kultgen; I had not. I have avoided most literature printed after the 1960‘s, and prefer to stay with the classics. The fact that she is–I assume still is–an English major and an aspiring writer, and, I’m sure, the fact that I found her attractive, had an influence on my decision to read one of Kultgen’s novels. It wasn’t until months later, while at Borders, taking advantage of their going out of business sale, did I acquire one of his books. The cover of the novel makes an immediate statement. It typifies post-modernity with the cover’s text in Helvetica font, no capital letters, and a minimalist color scheme–black, with white and silver text. Already this novel had set itself apart from the drudgery that fills the new fiction shelves of bookstores, all of which are over marketed and over produced. One other thing that makes this novel stand out is its dedication page. Occupying this page is a quote from Carl Sagan:
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
As an admirer of science and an atheist, the choice to use a Carl Sagan quote resonated with me. References to Carl Sagan recur frequently throughout the novel, as well as references to Noam Chomsky.
The first paragraph, the first sentence alone, took me aback. As I read the first paragraph I knew there was no way I wouldn’t finish reading this book. Few authors are able to engage a reader so quickly. The novel opens with Don, a sexually repressed middle-aged male, fantasizing about having anal sex with Kelly Ripa, as he hurries home to masturbate during his lunch break. This obviously has a shock value that grips hold of the reader, but it also has a human quality. It also speaks to the era in which we live. The second chapter transitions to Don’s middle-school son, Chris, and his friend Danny Vance, the middle-school star quarterback. The novel continues to transition between the middle-aged adults and their middle-school children. As this transition continues, one begins to see the parallel the author is trying to convey. The novel is about coming to terms with growing older and how one deals with life’s changes. Each character is learning how to deal with new occurrences in their life. The middle-school children struggle as they are learning how to discover their own sexual identity, and look back fondly towards their earlier childhood as a simpler time. They feel lost, uncertain of the future and their place in the world. Their parents as well, look back fondly at their early adult years, viewing this time as a simpler one. What we are left with is that both the adults and the young adults struggle with adulthood. For both, the innocence of youth is slowly ebbed away.
One could write this novel off as smut, but to do so would be unfair. Anyone who does is either a lazy reader, or one who is vapid and nearsighted, rendering them unable to pick up on the nuanced palimpsest of this novel. The characters are real. We all know, or are similar to characters in this novel. Many of the experiences the characters have in this novel have relatable; such as divorce, anorexia, depression, overbearing parents, falling in and out of love, and a topic that is prominent in the novel: sex. Either we have experienced them or our friends have. Kultgen pushes the envelope, and pushes you to the edge of your comfort zone as any good author should. His novel is a snapshot of American culture at this time. For this reason you cannot criticize Kultgen for being too brash. He does as any author should, he writes about the era in which he lives.
I urge you to put down your commercialist, jejune pseudo-Christian books based on pagan characters such as vampires, werewolves, etc., and pick up this novel that lives in reality. (Men, Women & Children: A Novel)