“Elation and Hollowed-Out Sorrow”: On K.L. Cook’s Marrying Kind

K.L. Cook’s newest book, Marrying Kind (Ice Cube Press, 2019), delivers the quintessential variety expected of short story collections—an array of tonal perspectives and settings from Vegas to Virginia—while also building the recursive depth of a novel. The collection’s novelistic complexity stems primarily from its constant depictions of events, characters, themes, and obsessions from multiple angles. We savor repeated glimpses of characters like Laura, a small-town girl from the Texas Panhandle, or Hartley, a history professor turned dean. We witness these characters’ promising beginnings and violent, unfinished ends: wedding days and honeymoons, heart attacks and domestic violence. Cook’s stories revisit similar obsessions—happy but imperfect marriages, struggling academics, a love for the southwest and its dry, desert heat.

But the true reason this collection feels so masterfully novelistic is its three-act structure—a neat nine stories partitioned into three parts. The first part chronicles tremendous beginnings, characters full of either idealism or cautious doubt at the prospect of their futures. The second part focuses on haunted pasts. Characters encounter old lovers, cope with missing fathers and not-so-innocent childhood incidents, and must reckon with perhaps ill-advised life decisions that have momentous consequences. Grief dominates the third and final part, as characters attempt to find replacements for dead or missing loved ones. The collection tracks the natural flow of life—from childhood through marriage, careers, and child rearing—until the slow crawl of time’s end. Marrying Kind is an excellent example of how thoughtful structuring transforms a series of stories into the heart-wrenching narrative arc of a full collection.

The first story, “Portrait of a Shakespearean Actor as a Young Man,” depicts a teen’s theatrical awakening when he attends an outdoor Shakespeare festival. This coming-of-age narrative transcends its self-proclaimed sentimentality thanks to a fresh retrospective narrator, whose adult self has the mature panache and insight necessary to evoke his teenage self’s emotional experiences of live theatre. Through this retrospection, a style of narration that begins this collection’s interest in investigating moments from more than one angle, Cook successfully transforms his readers into audience members. We too feel the “genuine mixture of elation and hollowed-out sorrow” that the narrator experiences from Othello and that so aptly characterizes Cook’s own work.

The mood of Cook’s stories often reflects that mixture, leaving us with a mix of elation and hollowness. Even in deceptively quiet moments, when characters are content—lounging by the pool, going on a work retreat, or blending daquiris—there’s always an undercurrent of tension, of something askew, a dark force waiting to pounce. In the eponymous second story, Laura and Neil go on their honeymoon to Las Vegas, where Neil learns that Laura is pregnant only after he gambles away all of the money from their wedding gifts. As the story ends, Neil jumps from the high dive and catches a glimpse of Laura as he falls, “the horizontal slashes of her black bikini cutting across the cream of her vulnerable flesh.” In this moment, and in “Barbarians,” the second story that features Laura and Neil, marriage is never simply a carefree and easy arrangement. Marriage makes characters vulnerable or else barbaric, as characters often exist between “a buzz and obliteration,” as “latent violence” lurks in their inner lives.

The collection reaches its artistic peak in the final story, “Puppy.” The third part of the collection, a trio of stories about Hartley, leads us toward this exquisite, final blow. “Retreat” follows academic colleagues Trevor and Lee as they go on a work retreat that Hartley has to miss. The story opens with this guiding question: “Could Trucha, Trevor’s eleven-year-old mutt, replace their colleague Hartley?” The answer is yes, or at least, maybe. Trucha delivers slobbery, snuggly love in a way no man could, and Lee and Trevor get up to their normal work revelry and drudgery without Hartley.

“Day of the Dean,” the penultimate story of the collection, follows Hartley through an entire day as dean of an honor’s college, from his dream-drenched awakening at dawn to the end of his night. Hartley contemplates his recent urge to write about his own history in his home of Arizona: “the urge to memorialize requires dislocation of some kind… A natural catalyst for historicizing, mythologizing. An impulse toward elegiac mourning and celebration.” This moment, and indeed the whole story, prepares us for the celebratory but heart-wrenching elegy to come.

In “Puppy,” Hartley experiences what might be a second heart attack, and he and his wife cope with his possible demise with a joke about how she might replace him with a dog named “Two.” Trucha, the playful dog proxy of “Retreat,” lingers over this dark joke—readers understand that this way of coping embodies the loving and laughter-filled sensibility husband and wife have built together. As the story cuts from its first section labelled “one” to a section labelled “two,” Hartley’s death becomes obvious in its absence—a move that induced tears in at least this reader. The death would not have been nearly as successful had it appeared explicitly on the page, but the formal ingenuity to evoke his death by sectional transitions generates fresh emotion. Cook leaves us both devastated and hopeful—elated and hollowed-out—as his wife grieves but moves on from her beloved husband’s death. The collection ends with a definitive bang, and demonstrates how, in an excellently crafted story collection, the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.  Cook’s Marrying Kind delivers just as much complexity and nuance as any novel, while providing readers with nine standout stories to savor.