Review: At The Table Of Want by Larry Kimport (Malaysia 1980-82)

Reviewer Jan Worth-Nelson teaches writing (fiction, poetry, personal essay, freshman comp) at the University of Michigan – Flint. Her Peace Corps novel, Night Blind, was a top-ten finalist in literary fiction in the 2006 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year awards. Her most recent publication, “Ordinary Dirt,” was part of a Driftwood Review special issue featuring poems of exactly 100 words.  Her work in multiple genres has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, and many literary magazines.  She commutes between Flint and Los Angeles with her husband, Ted, who’s also an RPCV (Turkey 1964–66). She took time out to review Larry Kimport’s novel At the Table of Want that was published in October. Here’s what she had to say.

at-the-table-of-want-140At the Table of Want
by Larry Kimport (Malaysia 1980-82)
October, 2009
338 pages
$16.97

Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976–78)

Like Larry Kimport, I’m a self-published novelist. In the bitter wake of the failure of my book to sell through the New York agent I clung to for an exciting six months, I loudly decried the need for those East Coast blue stockings altogether. To hell with agents, to hell with editors, I muttered in the disheartening collapse of my mainstream hopes.

But reading Kimport’s second novel, At the Table of Want, I found myself thinking, If only he’d had an editor with an eye for syntactical speed bumps and distracting tics of diction. I had an extremely difficult time getting through the first three pages, beginning with this opening:

“Young Truman shifted in his seat, rehearsing bullying and clubbing his way through the family occupying the seats before his own, should the need arise.”

Please!  How can a reader build momentum on that potholed road, all that “ing-ing” complicated by the confusing and quaint “before,” that hair-pin turn to the subjunctive after-thought? It’s an opening as convoluted as a colonoscopy; readers deserve better.

Throughout, Kimport uses “amongst,”  “upon,”  “spoke of,”  “wondered of” and similar antique phrases repeatedly, making his main character sound more like he was born in 1921 than 1961.  These choices needlessly burden the flow:

“At five months, the scar upon the lawn of monuments stood out amongst two others, both adorned with flowers.”

But I plodded onward, hoping for smoother passage later.  Finally, in much the same way as one adapts to trifocal progressive lenses, my brain gradually adjusted to Kimport’s often-stilted style and I found things to admire.

The story, a familiar kind of Peace Corps “coming of age” tale, sets Truman at 18, fresh out of high school, in the steamy Malaysia of Kimport’s own 1980s Peace Corps service.  Without a clear job assignment, he carves out his own, drawn to a rundown home for abandoned “special needs” kids.  He has no training but finds the raggedy crew of Downs Syndrome, deformed, autistic and downright crazy children irresistible.  He moves into a shed behind the ramshackle depository, and cleans the place up, burning trash, painting, building furniture. Then he organizes a “school,” teaching them numbers, the alphabet, and how to play with toys.

Here’s a suspension of disbelief alert.  I checked with John Coyne to be sure:  back then and now, no 18-year-old without college or job experience would be admitted into Peace Corps — you have to have a college degree or five years’ experience.

But in the plot Kimport delivers, his guy needed to be naïve, in the way many of us will remember certain Volunteers, because the story rests in part on his cluelessness about women and his hunger for experience.  We learn that not only is he “the V word,” but he has never even been kissed.  He has never read a book all the way through, never knew his father;  he was orphaned at nine, thrown in with an aunt who loved him.  The kid has secrets and scars both real and emotional – we find out, for example, he was tossed into reform school for a year after beating up a bully with a baseball bat.

(Coyne affirms there’s a believability issue here, as well — as a long-time former recruiter, he says he never would have admitted a kid with a violent past, even if in understandable retribution. This is Fact Strike Two  — it’s true a writer shouldn’t let the “truth” interfere with a good story,” but violating certain details hurts credibility and leaves the wrong impression.)

Again, though, justifiable or not, Kimport is exercising character-driven plot technique.  There’s a reason for us to know about Truman’s violent past: in the story’s climax, he wields a heavy cane to save the day and rescue the damsel in distress.  That’s only after he’s COS’ed , fortunately, so we rest in the knowledge that he was not a PCV when cracking skulls in a Malaysian back alley.

Not surprisingly to any RPCV, there’s a lot of drinking, cussing and partying in Truman’s life, especially after he makes friends with the only other American in his village, the amusing John Singer.  He’s another familiar Peace Corps type — a cynical, brawling alcoholic with a romantic heart.

As Truman “succeeds” in his mission, battling snakes, filth, disease, discrimination and philistine bureaucracy as a “Pied Piper of the youthful lame,” he becomes a sympathetic character, and readers, especially RPCVs, are likely to acknowledge with appreciation his gradual ripening into maturity and the unconventional contributions he ultimately makes at his little “table of want.”

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  • We had at least one person who started training with us in Ghana VI (1965) who did not have a college degree. He was dropped from the program because Ghana required a degree for non-Ghanians to teach in secondary school. I do seem to remember that 18 was the minimum age at that time and a few people of that age did become volunteers. Perhaps the policy was changed later.

  • In 1962 we had several PCVs in our teaching program to Ethiopia who did not have college degrees. However, all of them had at least 5 years of experience working in some sort of trade and were in their early 20s. While 18 is the cut off year, the Peace Corps requires an advance degree and/or experience of at least 5 years for most, if not, all countries. Yes, there might have be some exceptions (however, I do know of any) and today the need for an advance degree and other qualifications has increased dramatically as (roughly) 3,500 Trainees go overseas every year and the Peace Corps is working from (approximately) a pool of 15,000 applications who fill out an application.

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