WHAT A PIECE OF WORK I AM
“Poignant. Dizzying. Wise. Mr. Kraft has created a heroine as complex as his narrative. [He] is a master at illuminating the shoals and shallows of a young person's heart. [His] work is a weird wonder, successfully mating tales from the kind of small-town life that hardly exists anymore with a never-ending examination of what it's like to create such a world.”
Karen Karbo, The New York Times Book Review
Augustus John, Grace Westry (1897, detail)
“Beguiling. Vibrant. Kraft cooks up another treat.”
Timothy Hunter, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Complex. Ambitious. It is a book that succeeds at two levels. It explores the delicate boundary between life and make-believe. Yet it is also a straightforward tale of a woman trying to break away from the trap that society and her own inertia have set for her. The delicate line between art and truth has never been more entertainingly explored.”
Roger Harris, Newark Star-Ledger
DURING THAT TIME in Ariane’s life, when she was working at Captain White’s and hanging around Corinne’s and living up to Tootsie Koochikov’s reputation, I stopped spending afternoons with her at her house—her parents’ house, that is—ending a practice that we had begun when I was eleven. I missed those afternoons. We would sit in the dark room where the television set was kept, and we would watch the afternoon movie together. I would try to snuggle up to her while her attention was focused on the screen. Nothing much happened between us—nothing physical, that is, but my little preadolescent heart beat faster as the distance between us diminished each afternoon, and I developed a keen sense for the signals of cinematic structure, with my longing and eagerness growing as the film approached its climax. I developed an especially keen understanding of the anticlimax, because in that part of the movie, while the loose ends were being tied on the screen, her interest in the story would fall away, she would yawn and stretch and look around, and discover, with amusement and mock annoyance, how close to her I had inched, and she might, if it was a very lucky day, give me a playful punch, or a wink, or even throw her arm around my neck and squeeze me in a momentary headlock to show me how well she understood the desires that I thought I was managing to hide.
In the long cinematic hours that I spent trying to get close to her, she wore, most of the time, a look that I remember as soft. I saw a gentleness and something like serenity in her face, her cheeks, her eyes, but sometimes, when she was displeased, she would turn on me a look that was harder. There was an edge to her then, and sometimes, in her eyes, I thought I saw something flinty, almost nasty, and sometimes I thought—I feared—that she might be laughing at me, even mocking me, toying with me. She may have been, but I don’t think so. I think that she was cursing her fate. Consider the circumstances. I was just a kid, content to be defined by my context rather than my self, and she was beginning to try to think of herself as someone, as a personality that was portable, strong enough to resist its surroundings and remain almost constant wherever she might take it. Just what that personality might be, who that someone might be, she wasn’t sure. At that time, I think, she was trying to become a sophisticated young woman. She watched the movies to discover potential selves, but when the movie ended she would yawn and stretch and look around, and what would she find beside her? A little boy. Me. Six years younger. A child. Grinning. Inching up on her. All but drooling. What did I expect of her? What did I think she was going to do for me? Did I expect her to treat me like a boyfriend? I had my fantasies—as she must have known, as she must certainly have known. Surely they showed.
That was when, and why, I would see the softness leave her. I could see her face harden, like the clay I left on the windowsill of the art room to dry before I painted it. In a remarkably short time, that softness was completely gone. I stopped going to see her, to watch television with her. We were no longer suitable companions. . . .
“Basically,” she said, “I wanted to get it over with. I knew there would be quite a scene when I announced that I was going to be working at the Seagull’s Perch or the Bayview Resort Motel—or whatever they were going to call it.”
“I suppose your parents might have felt awkward about the idea of your working at a place that would be catering primarily to tourists, to outsiders. You know—I can see that it might have seemed belittling to them, as if their girl were becoming a servant, serving the rich.” She gave me a puzzled look. “It might have seemed a debasement of the dignity of the family,” I suggested, “a class distinction imposed upon them.” She looked as if she wasn’t sure whether to take me seriously or not. “The have-nots waiting table for the haves, the proletarian workers once again getting screwed by—”
Her eyes lit up and she pointed a finger at me. “Now you’re getting warm,” she said. “I knew that my father was sure to think that no matter what they called the place, Sunrise Cove or Moonlight Bay, it was a motel. And as far as he was concerned a motel was the functional equivalent of a whorehouse.”
“Still,” I said, “you stepped right out—”
Yes, I did.”
“—walking with that handsome stride, whether you were eager to deliver the news or just eager to get it over with, and since the outfit you had made for yourself was snug, closely fitted to your firm young body, and because the nylon fabric you had chosen was stretchy and slippery, your determined and eager stride made the dress cling, with each and every one of those eager strides, to the musculature of your youthful nates and thighs.”
“Wow! Do you actually know any of this, or is it all just wishful thinking?”
“I know! I do! I was riding my bike to your house that day, to see Raskol, and I saw you walking along. You had never looked more desirable. Oh, you were an adolescent’s dream! I ached from the lack of you.”
“Don’t you remember my being in the kitchen when you made your announcement?”
“Well, you were preoccupied, I guess.”
“Maybe. I may have been worried about my family’s reaction, but I was determined. I wanted that job.”
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“Sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, and always diverting.”
Mark Munroe Dion, Kansas City Star
“I HADN’T been in any of the guest rooms since those nights when I had visited the place before it was finished. It was a queer feeling, to be in those rooms. It got to me. When I was in someone’s room, alone, with someone else’s aura all around me, I felt—don’t laugh at me for this—I felt influenced by the other person. I even felt attracted to—him—her. There was something about entering the room, slipping into the room, that was like putting on someone else’s clothes, even—I know this sounds mystical and spooky—but there was something I felt that was a little like trying on someone else—period.”
“Did you—like it?”
“Yes. I did. And that was not at all what I had anticipated. I had expected to find the whole experience repulsive. I mean, when I was at home and had to help my mother with the laundry, I could hardly stand to enter my brothers’ room—and the worst thing was having to touch my brothers’ clothes. Sometimes even my own dirty things disgusted me.”
“Oh, yes. I’m tempted to say, now, that the dirt on my clothes—”
“—the exfoliated flakes of skin, the dried sweat—”
She turned the corners of her mouth down and stuck her tongue out: a comical look of repulsion, of offended sensibility. I laughed.
“I’m tempted to say,” she said, “that my own dirty clothes repulsed me because the me who was being repulsed wasn’t the me who had soiled the clothes.”
“You heard me. I don’t know. I’m not sure about this, but it’s something I’ve begun to think about—the idea that I’ve been leaving a trail of old selves behind me, people who used to be me, strung out behind me in attitudes that are no longer mine—”
“—like pages in one of those flip books you used to get, where a little cartoon character is in a slightly different position on every page.”
“Or like people left behind at turnings in the labyrinth.”
“Yeah, that too. Anyway. I don’t want you to think that I’m getting too weird. I’m not sure that I believe what I just said. I’m still thinking about it. So. There I was, standing alone in a room that someone else had soiled. That was the way I felt about it. I thought of it as soiled, like dirty clothes. But I hadn’t anticipated that I would also find it fascinating. I hadn’t given any thought to the fact that people’s things would be there, that their lives and their selves would be so completely on display.”
She smiled. She stood. She walked to the end table and took a cigarette from her pack, lit it, took a drag.
“On display,” she said. “An interesting term. An interesting concept. It’s the backside of privacy—to be on display. That was the feeling I had about these people whose rooms I slipped in and out of, and from my point of view it was accurate. Their things and their secrets—some of their secrets anyway—were on display, for me to see. No. No. Wait. I forgot. I have to make a distinction here. For some of these people, most of them, their secrets weren’t on display, because I didn’t count as an audience. I was nobody, so nobody saw their things, so their privacy was preserved. These people would leave a great deal of themselves out and on view—and never even thought about it. They kept many things hidden, too, of course, but that was more because they thought I might steal them than because they didn’t want me to see them. If they could have been sure that I wouldn’t take anything, they probably would have left everything out, where they could see it, where I could see it. Then there was another group. They surprised me. Perhaps they won’t surprise you. These were the people who left things out so that I would see them.”
“Oh, yes. Women who would lay their best dress out on the bed for the maid to see. Men who left their underwear lying on a chair for the cute little maid to see. Men who would leave a package of condoms on the bedside table for the maid to see. But I don’t want to talk about that now. Let me save it for later, if I get to it at all. I want to go back to that first day, the first time that I was in one of the guests’ rooms, alone.”
SHE SWUNG the door open and looked in. The light coming through the venetian blinds cast sharp shadows on the bedspread, shadows that slipped over the edge of the bed, fell onto the floor, and vanished. Somewhere, perhaps in the bungalow next door, a radio was playing. Ariane had her cart of cleaning products and supplies with her. For a moment she stood in the doorway, beside her cart, not moving. She had no particular desire to do anything. She felt that nothing had worked, and nothing was going to work. She had begun to suspect, on the way from the storeroom to this bungalow, that Guy had no real interest in her, that he had maneuvered her into working as a maid for the good of the resort, for the sake of his own position.
She walked into the room and let herself sink onto the edge of the bed. She tried to will herself not to cry. Then, something on the mirrored vanity caught her eye. It was a pair of earrings, left there, apparently carelessly. They were reflected in the mirror of the vanity top and again in the mirror on the wall. They seemed enormous.
Ariane got up and crossed to the vanity and picked them up, hefted them in her hand. She brought the back of her hand to her brow and held it there, limply drooping, with the earrings in it, and checked herself in the mirror.
“We are — as we have come to expect from Eric Kraft — in the hands of a master.”
Michael Z. Jody, The East Hampton Star
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 1994
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“One reacts to [What a Piece of Work I Am] on a personal level, delighting in the concreteness of its complexities, the evanescence of its construction, and in the playful purposefulness of its prose.”
Frederic Koeppel, Memphis Commercial Appeal
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“A flight of deeply imagined fancy.”
Double Dealer Redux
(Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, New Orleans)