A poet’s prose

August Kleinzahler has led an interesting life, and he’s a hell of a writer. This combination applied to nonfiction is bound to yield pleasing results.

And, mostly, it does. Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained collects nine essays Kleinzahler wrote for the London Review of Books, Berkeley’s The Threepenny Review and the San Diego Reader. Although Cutty, One Rock (shorthand for a tumbler of Cutty Sark whiskey with a single ice cube) is a quick read—only 168 pages long—Kleinzahler has cobbled together a generous, beautiful book.

Raised in New Jersey and now living in San Francisco, Kleinzahler has written 10 books of poetry. So, it’s no surprise that his prose in Cutty, One Rock comes infused not merely with a poet’s observations, but also with a knack for metaphor. He calls the butterflies in his stomach “chrome-plated bats,” and an especially cacophonous section of a film score sounds like “a Tyrolean yodeler in the midst of a colonoscopy.”

And even when Kleinzahler is merely describing his experience, such as in writing about the fog in San Francisco, he’s evocative. “I find it consoling, like the rain,” he writes. “It is another layer between me and the world. The light is softer. Sounds are muffled. It pushes one inward.”

Cutty, One Rock begins with a story about the family dog, Grand. It’s the funniest piece of writing I’ve seen in some time and similar to the work of David Sedaris, who also has written with great humor about his own family’s succession of dogs. However, Kleinzahler writes with more bite and less pathos.

“Grand was a boxer, purebred, but one of his ears was wrong; it didn’t set up properly. And his right eye dripped. He also had a skin condition, something like mange but untreatable. Father got him for peanuts, really: a treasure, if you looked past certain cosmetic flaws.”

Kleinzahler, who claims to have been raised by the dog, is convinced he looks like the beast, as well.

In “The Zam Zam Room,” Kleinzahler riffs on an old drinking joint in San Francisco and its iconoclastic owner and bartender, Iraqi-born Bruno Mooshei. “The Bus” simply describes a trip through San Diego on public transportation though Kleinzahler’s self-deprecation: “I myself resemble a dissipated accountant who worked some years as a hod carrier in his youth.”

“Eros & Poetry” is a more ponderous essay that investigates the concept of Eros in mythology and elsewhere with a generous helping of poetry by the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas and others interspersed throughout.

Although Kleinzahler has a deft, light touch when necessary, this collection is never frivolous. In the title selection and last story, “Cutty, One Rock,” Kleinzahler writes of his older brother, a handsome tough guy who drank too much, gambled too much, happened to be homosexual and took his own life before he reached 30. “A sweet, dangerous, hedonistic delinquent,” Kleinzahler calls him.

“From a distance of more than thirty years, it feels, in the writing, like fiction, hard-boiled fiction some of it. But it isn’t, none of it is,” Kleinzahler writes.

Kleinzahler tells his brother’s story without flinching and without worrying, it seems, whether he himself will come off as a sympathetic character. Although his love and adoration of his brother is vivid, Kleinzahler never falls into sentimentality.

“I’ll spare you the funeral and mourning rituals. It was pretty horrible. The spectacle of a parent grieving for a child is tough to watch, especially when it’s your own parent. There was an animal sound coming out of my mother, like a dog wailing, but softer.”