Men behaving sadly

In his debut novel The Infinite Tides, Christian Kiefer explores the final frontiers of space, love and dudes

photo by Jessica Eger

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In the beginning, Christian Kiefer gave his novel-in-progress an informal working title, Dudes With Great Longing. It was something of a joke—an explicit nod to the very guyness of the thing he was writing: male protagonist working in what’s considered, traditionally at least, a super-dude profession, and a story with masculine themes that centered on core ideas about modern man’s role in society.

Ultimately, Kiefer called his book The Infinite Tides—a title that suggests an endless, repeated movement and one equally appropriate for the story within.

“This is really a book about a guy who stops and is stuck in one place and he spins in circles,” Kiefer explains one recent weekday morning. It’s still early, and the Newcastle resident’s third-floor office on the American River College campus is quiet and serene—hardly reflective of the literary wave starting to swell around the English professor’s debut novel.

Kiefer, a former SN&R contributor, is also a musician known for collaborations with the likes of Califone, Smog and members of Wilco and Low. Not surprisingly, the writer’s music often takes a literary bent, perhaps best exemplified by the three-CD set, Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 Presidencies, a 2008 collaboration with J. Matthew Gerken and Jefferson Pitcher.

Across the universe

The Infinite Tides narrows its focus to just two men, chronicling the story of Keith Corcoran, a NASA astronaut and genius mathematician whose complex relationship with physics and numbers—he sees the latter as colors, a condition known as color synesthesia—makes navigating everyday relationships difficult at best. While in orbit, thousands of miles above Earth during a mission on the International Space Station, Keith learns of his teenage daughter’s death, and upon his eventual return to gravity, the astronaut faces a world completely unlike the one he left behind.

His wife has left him, moving out most of their belongings from the home they shared on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac and, plagued by migraines—not to mention the grief he can’t seem to even admit experiencing—Keith risks not only losing his job, but also any sort of tangible human connection that will tether him to earthly things.

The closest thing Keith has to meaningful human interaction, in fact, arrives in the form of Peter, a troubled Ukrainian immigrant with an impressive engineering résumé that stateside gets him nothing more than an entry-level Target job and a crush on his neighborhood Starbucks barista.

It was the corporate chain, of all things caffeinated, that sparked Kiefer’s initial inspiration for the book when, in 2008, he spent endless hours at a neighborhood Starbucks grading papers. As the nation slipped into an ever-deepening recession, Kiefer says he watched as unemployed men lingered in the coffee shop for hours, nursing a mocha and the morning paper. Anything to fill up the hours, Kiefer figured, after they’d told their wives they were looking for a job.

“I’d watch them go through the paper—sports page, funnies, business and then, finally, the front page,” Kiefer says.

At the time, he lived on a cul-de-sac in Rocklin—much like the street in his book—and noticed that the houses around him were going into foreclosure at an alarming rate.

And so Kiefer started sketching out ideas for the seedling of a premise.

“I had a bunch of characters outlined in various economic situations, but at some level, they were all at the same psychological vector,” Kiefer says. “It was meant to be sort of this comment on America and American men and this job-oriented self-identification we tend to have. When you first meet someone, one of the first things that you say is, ‘What do you do?’ When you don’t have a job, what do you say—‘I sit at Starbucks all day’?”

Initially, Kiefer found his protagonist difficult to characterize but eventually hit upon a solution during a conversation with his father about jobs and the economy.

“Everyone hates their job,” the elder Kiefer mused one day. “That’s why they pay you; otherwise you’d do it for free.”

Then he reconsidered.

Christian Kiefer&#8217;s debut novel <i>The Infinite Tides</i> inhibits a very male universe.

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“Well, maybe not everybody. Maybe not presidents and astronauts. They probably like their jobs.”

And so, 41 drafts later, Keith Corcoran the astronaut finally came to fruition, realized in a grieving, angry and confused man. As it turns out, for a man who makes his living as a space explorer, Keith’s gravity-bound existence occupies a very tiny universe—one that orbits a narrow, lonely path between home, Starbucks and Home Depot.

For research, Kiefer spent months interviewing his peers in the math and physics departments at ARC. He gave parts of his book to astronaut, Ronald Garan, for feedback on language and description and spent hours digging into astronaut autobiographies and NASA flight logs—“You can’t go into space, [so] it wasn’t really boots-on-the-ground type of research.” He also pored over books on topics ranging from death and dying, French philosophy and urban planning.

All that research, he says, translated into trying to understand some basic concepts about humanity and how we exist in any given place—be it space, a cafe or a near-empty suburban house.

In short, Kiefer says, it came down to something of an existentialist question:

“I wanted to see where my ideas sat with other ideas about space … and why we construct spaces like we do,” he says. “I wanted to see how that contrasted with Keith’s experiences in space and how … he doesn’t understand that the universe is just so beautiful.”

The masculine mystique

While there are certainly women in The Infinite Tides, they’re largely off the page, visible to the reader mostly in flashback, phone conversations or hurried encounters. The real story belongs to Keith, of course, and by default, also Peter.

(It’s a world that Kiefer is, perhaps, most familiar with after all. Married, he has five sons—and a sixth one due later this year.)

Yet, while this was, inarguably a tale of lonely, dissatisfied modern men—dudes with great longing, if you will, Kiefer ventured for balance, finding what he considers the book’s true voice in Peter’s wife Luda, who gently chides her husband and his friend for wallowing in what she considers incessant and unnecessary self-pity.

“Luda is the voice of the reader, saying, ‘Get the fuck over it already,’” Kiefer says.

Still, Anthony Swofford, an erstwhile Sacramento writer (Jarhead) and a friend of Kiefer’s, doesn’t think the book relies too heavily on XY chromosomes.

“I don’t know that to call it ‘male-dominated’ is fair,” Swofford says. “Sure, the main character is male, and he has made a mess of his relationships with females, but that is simply a point-of-view choice.”

What’s more important, he adds, is that novel makes for a compelling read.

“It’s special because of its earnestness in language and character—the book is a blessedly irony- and snark-free zone,” he says.

National critics are also praising the book.

Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, called the book “an astute, impressive, and ambitious debut,” and Kirkus Review described its narrative as “masterfully accomplished.”

In the end, Kiefer says, he wanted The Infinite Tides to relate a story that transcended place, time and even the person telling it.

“Keith is a Type A American Man—I could have told the same story in many ways, even if he was a stockbroker or Donald Trump or the head of Facebook,” Kiefer says. “I just had to knock him off the rails.”