Poet Ann Neelon teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Murray State University and edits New Madrid magazine. Here she reviews The Baker’s Boy by Barry Kitterman — winner of the 2009 Maria Thomas Peace Corps Writers Award for Fiction.
Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)
In reading Barry Kitterman, I find myself rediscovering the pleasures of reading Dostoyevsky — admittedly an extravagant claim in response to a first novel. Like Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot and/or The Possessed, The Baker’s Boy constitutes a powerful work of moral imagination. Brothers Albert and Junie and their cohorts-including Broke-hand, Mouse, Snot, Milkboy, Corky, Cowboy, Whiteboy, Redboy, Bigboy, Leeboy, and Blackboy-are no choir boys, as Tanner Johnson, their teacher at the New Hope School, duly notes (this despite the fact that Albert and Junie’s mother took a knife and deformed Junie’s face because she wanted him to stop singing). They fight. They steal. They prostitute themselves. Yet their essential innocence stalks Tanner for twenty plus years in the wake of the tragedies that ensued during his Peace Corps stint in Belize.
Nearing 50, after having wandered for years from job to job and state to state, Tanner is still trying to find himself despite his three-year-old marriage to Katherine, a children’s librarian, and his status as an expectant father. Even on good days, he tells us, he has “enough sorrow to patch up the ozone layer.” His aspirations to go back to school go up in flames when he witnesses a classroom shooting on his first day back, at which point he begins to wrangle with much darker forces than his ambivalence about his wife’s pregnancy. If Tanner has been afflicted all these years with Peace Corps post-traumatic stress syndrome, he’s been suffering passively, and he begins to suffer actively in the wake of the shooting. He drops out of his marriage. He checks out of his job in a sporting goods shop and checks into the wee-hours-of-the-morning shift as a baker at The Unreformed Temple of Caffeine, a café owned by one of his wife’s friends. Stacen takes him on partly out of the (skeptical) kindness of her heart and partly out of her desire to seize the opportunity to keep reminding him that he is “seriously screwing up his life story.” The café serves as a sort of holding tank for Tanner. After two months of working there, he still can’t tell the difference between a mocha and a latte.
The key to the novel’s power of moral imagination lies in the ghost of Albert, the baker’s boy from Belize, whose job it was to help Brother Constant bake 50 loaves of bread twice a week in the reform-school kitchen. The ghost is thin and black, its arms always covered with a light dusting of flour. It has become as familiar to Tanner as his own shadow. “Raise your hand if you still want to save the world,” Price Donelly, one of Tanner’s fellow volunteers, quips during Peace Corps training in Miami, but saving the world turns out to be difficult business in the context of the New Hope School. The ghost of the baker’s boy signifies at once that the search for the good can turn very, very bad and that the search for the good should be undertaken anyway. “This one is not the other one,” the driver of the bus to Belize City says, in an attempt to distinguish Tanner from his predecessor Hobson, an alcoholic cynical to the core and cruel enough to dangle a street boy by his ankles twenty feet above a river and let him go. The distinction is crucial.
It is in telling his own story that Tanner finds the courage to transform himself into something more than the “deadbeat fly-by-night voluntary-sperm father” he fears doomed to become. An ice storm and the exigencies it imposes turn The Unreformed Temple of Caffeine into a sanctuary for the human heart. “We all take a turn,” says Mr. Liu, who emigrated from Shanghai and runs the Chinese restaurant across the street. “Provide some fun for the others. No radio, no TV. Everybody join in. Like communism.” In this amateur-hour setting and among these motley ordinary extraordinary people and in the nick of time before his wife’s water breaks and his son is born, Tanner finally tells his story, exposing the secret ruins of his life in Belize. In its pitch-perfect equilibrium between happiness and sadness, this scene is reminiscent of Ilyusha’s funeral at the end of The Brothers Karamazov. With Dostoyevsky, it’s grief and then pancakes afterwards. With Kitterman, it’s grief and then scones.
I highly recommend The Baker’s Boy both to those who have served in the Peace Corps and to those who haven’t. It breaks out of the realm of “Peace Corps novel” into the realm of the great book. It qualifies as a great book because it wrangles, in a deep way, with the problem of suffering. Dostoyevsky, the son of a military surgeon, observed suffering by disobeying his parents and wandering out into the garden of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow to talk with sick patients. Kitterman observed it by joining the Peace Corps and serving in Belize. Like Dostoyevsky, Kitterman concludes that even minor actions can have profound ethical effects. The humor in The Baker’s Boy leavens this moral truth as yeast leavens bread. Once I tasted that bread,” Tanner says of the bread Albert brings him from Brother Constant’s kitchen, “I didn’t know if I could live without it.”
In November Ann Neelon will read with Virginia Gilbert (Korea 1971-73) and Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91) at a special session of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference devoted to “Peace Corp Poets and the Modern World.”