This week's blog tour features two works by Kenneth Weene. Memoirs From the Asylum has just been recently released, so I haven't had a chance to read it yet. But I plan to because Widow's Walk was an excellent, thought provoking read. What I liked most about Widow's Walk was the different perspectives on religion from the various characters. Weene captured the way belief in God, the same God, can be an entirely different experience for different people.
Widow’s Walk by Kenneth Weene tells the story of Mary Flanagan and her search for meaning, life, and love. It is also the story of her Irish roots and her immigration to America, her marriage, her husband’s life and death, and the lives of her two children. And it is the story of her relationship with Arnie Berger, a man who is totally different in background, religion, and approach to life. Theirs is a deep and meaningful love that gladdens the heart. If only things could always flow along with such ease. But they do not, and Widow’s Walk becomes a powerful tale of human pain and emotional conflict.
Recently released, Kenneth Weene’s new novel, Memoirs From the Asylum, is a comi-tragic tale of madness and sanity, of desperation and hope, of possibilities and fate. Set in a state hospital, Memoirs From the Asylum focuses on three main characters, a narrator, who has taken refuge from his terror of the world, a catatonic schizophrenic, whose mind lives within a crack in the wall opposite her bed, and a young psychiatrist, who is dealing with his own father’s depression. This is a book that will have you laughing, crying, and discussing.
An Excerpt From Widow’s Walk
People like Danny O’Brien don't just wash their cars – they bathe them with deliberation. First they get ready, which starts with the right clothes. Danny always changes into his cutoff jeans, the last pair he has left from college. He has to suck in his stomach to snap them shut, and they have long ago stopped feeling comfortable, but they represent his youth so he won’t throw them out. He doesn’t tuck his Grateful Dead T-shirt in. He probably wouldn’t have anyway, but with it hanging out no one can see if the snap on his shorts has opened. His old tennis shoes go on his bare feet, and he feels like he is ready to go back in time and play Frisbee in Hollis Quad.
His equipment, too, is laid out carefully. Sponges, clean rags, a plastic pail, the garden hose, Turtle Wash and Wax, a Dust Buster, and finally cleaners for the glass, the vinyl, the leather upholstery, the chrome, and especially the tires – the car will not be to his liking until the tires gleam – not like new, but shining beyond newness. Even the placement of the car is – to his mind – just right. It is carefully parked in a specific spot so that he can get maximum efficiency from the hose.
His neighbor, Harry Brown, is tending flowerbeds. Not particularly a lover of nature, Danny leaves that task to the gardener. "Hey, Harry, how's it going?" he calls to the neighbor, who is busily weeding around the azaleas.
"Damn weeds just keep growing." It is a ritual exchange. The two men aren’t close, but they have as many rituals as any fraternity. That is one of Danny's special qualities; his every relationship has rituals built in: little sayings or a special piece of body language that makes the other person feel that theirs is a special relationship
Danny is aware of a change in the light. He looks up and sees Kathleen watching him. He smiles. “Hi.”
She half smiles in response. Embarrassed by his notice, she starts slightly as if to move away.
"Do you like cars?" He isn’t sure where, but he knows that he has seen her before. “She’s cute enough,” he thinks. “Might as well chat her up.”
Kathleen, not having really taken a step, feels she has to respond. She smiles shyly – not flirtatious but friendly. "Actually, I don’t know much about them. I’ve never even learned how to drive."
"Seriously?" Even while he is saying this, Danny is wondering if he shouldn’t perhaps take a more serious tone, one more appropriate to the classy young woman he perceives her to be.
"Why? Is there something wrong?" She can feel herself tensing, pulling back, becoming defensive. "I always wanted to learn, but I never had the chance."
He takes another look at Kathleen and decides that she might be worth his time. "I tell you what. You help me wash, and I'll give you a driving lesson."
"I don't even know you," Kathleen responds with hesitancy.
"Harry here will vouch for me. Won't you Harry?"
"Lady, I'd stay far away from that crazy Irishman. You should never trust a man who doesn't garden."
"I don't really think I should," her voice conveys doubt and a hidden wish.
"Suit yourself. If you ever change your mind, stop by any weekend. If I'm not home, my mother almost always is. I'll tell her if a beautiful woman named …" He pauses.
At first Kathleen doesn’t understand why he is waiting. Then she wonders if it’s ok for her to answer. Finally she stammers, "My name is Kathleen, Kathleen Flanagan."
"Pleased to meet you, Kathleen Flanagan. Danny O’Brien at your service." Danny winks at her, and Kathleen feels a rush of confusion – her face flushes. "We Irish folks have to stick together especially around a Brit like Harry." Danny’s sweeping gesture toward his neighbor sprays her with soapy water from the sponge he’s holding.
The cold tingle of the water makes her laugh lightly.
"Good. A sense of humor is the thing to have, but I am sorry." He offers her a clean rag.
"That's all right! I'm sure I'll dry before I get back."
"Subtle, boy," Harry comments.
"I live at the hospice, the one near the Star Market, in the staff housing."
Danny smiles broadly. "The freckles on his forehead seem to dance when he smiles," Kathleen observes to herself.
"Would the nuns be upset if I were to drop by some day?"
"That would depend on your intentions."
"Better than they were when I went to Saint Edward's."
He grins again, and Kathleen is struck by the sparkle in his eyes. She waves as she walks away.
"That's a nice girl, Danny." Harry remarks as Kathleen leaves. “Not a bad looker either.”
"That's for sure." Danny turns back to the car, but his mind is following Kathleen down the street.
Words of Praise for Widow’s Walk
“Here is a story whose breadth of vision is exceeded only by the depth of its characters.” (Jon Tuttle, author, The Trustus Plays)
“This story includes the passions of everyday life that will touch you in a special way.” (Abe F. March, author, To Beirut and Back, They Plotted Revenge Against America, and Journey Into The Past)
“Written in the present tense, Widow's Walk achieves the difficult balance of urgency and character-driven action possible with this technique. With deft humor and unexpected turns, universal dilemmas and unique perspectives, I believe Widow's Walk captures all the elements of great fiction.” (Jen Knox, author, Musical Chairs)
An excerpt from Memoirs From the Asylum
Arthur and I are pacing up and down the dayroom. That way the aides don’t notice. As long as we look agitated, they don’t care about our conversations. They figure we must be ourselves: the simply crazy. If we were to sit down on the bilious green Naugahyde and chrome chairs and couches that have long since deteriorated to junkyard quality and talk like normal people, then they’d get pissed off. They count on us to be psycho, to appear nuts. It’s like the cops and the criminals. The criminals might not want the cops around, but the cops need the crooks so they have jobs. And, if the cops disappeared then everyone could commit the same criminal acts so there’d be no payoff for being a crook. So, bottom line, the staff needs us to keep getting their paychecks, and we need them to keep getting our rubber-rooms, straightjackets, and butts full of Valium.
But, the numbers are changing. The psycho drugs have reduced the size of all the hospitals. The staffs have shrunk; now they’re resisting every discharge. No normality here! Nobody should get out. That’s the rule.
So we are pacing and discussing the alleged newest member of our very nonselective club. Of course, it is all rumor and conjecture. The rolling TV never plays the news; it’s considered too upsetting.
Newspapers and magazines only make an appearance when an infrequent visitor happens to bring them, which is always well after they’re better suited for wrapping fish. Visitors are few and far between. We who have survived the medication boom and still live on the wards have few family members interested in us. The aides and nurses do bring gossipy magazines that they share with each other and then leave around for us. We always know the latest tittle-tattle from three weeks ago. We can always tell that our bleached out castaway clothing isn’t the latest from Paris.
“Maybe. But, then what’s to stop them from frying every nut case,” I pause for effect, “including us?”
“Would you do something like that?”
“Well, neither would I.”
“Of course not, but you did attack those people.”
He giggles nervously. “God told me to.”
“I know, but maybe God told him.”
He raises his voice, always a foolish thing to do, but theology is always a hot button in the day room. “God would never tell him that – not something like that!”
One of the aides looks up at us. I catch her out of the corner of my eye, the one that I always keep directed at the nurses’ station.
“Sshhh,” I hiss at him. But he is way too far-gone. God’s prophet is on the pulpit, and nothing else matters. It only takes a minute before they drug him, wrap him, and carry him off to restraints.
They might decide I should get it, too, that I have been provoking him, that I might get others started – that I might be the “King of the Crazies” – and they talk about our paranoia. I walk away as fast as I can.
Too late! They have grabbed me and wrestled my ass to the floor. I’m not resisting. There would be no point. They still rough me up. One aide, this big hulk of an idiot, a sadist too afraid to take on anyone who can fight back, smacks me in the face – no reason, just his pleasure. My nose starts to bleed. They hold me down so that I’m coughing and choking on my own damn blood. One of the nurses brings the syringe. The big V to the rescue.
I wake up the next day on the medical ward. There is a hole in my throat where they inserted a tracheotomy tube. The bastard has nearly killed me. God, is my throat sore. I get to suck on ice chips and suffer. The bastard got to go home for his dinner.
A day later I am back on the ward. One of the women patients sidles over to me. “We heard they had to give you shock treatments,” she hisses.
“No,” I croak back pointing at my throat.
“I thought your brains were up here,” she says pointing to her head.
I try to laugh and then think better of it. I pat my ass. “No, down here,” I tell her.
She is still cackling as one of the nurses came out from behind their counter with the medication tray. My pills are different. I look at them and then at her. “Take your meds,” she commands firmly.
“They aren’t right.”
“The doctor changed them.”
“Come on, at least tell me why,” I plead, afraid of the side effects.
“We want to make sure that you behave yourself. No more incidents like yesterday.
I want to cry, but I just nod. I try to hold some of the pills in my cheek to spit them out once she has gone, but she checks my mouth and makes me take a second cup of the horrible juice they use. It tastes like a combination of the bug-juice they serve at summer camp and some powdered fruit drink straight from the army, and filled with saltpeter.
“Be a good boy,” she says as she walks away. I feel like I’m a dog being patted absentmindedly on the head by a totally indifferent and unfeeling clerk in a department store. “You really shouldn’t have your dog in here, mister; but keep him under control and we won’t shoot you full of meds.”
“Yes, ma’am; yes, ma’am, three bags full.”
No matter how fucked your head, you’ve got to hate the drooling and the shuffling. I try to control the tics and that damned unending pill rolling. I try, but I fail – failure is in the chemistry.
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