Scorpio Rising: Selected Poemsby Richard Katrovas
Carnegie Mellon University Press
Culled from six previous collections, Scorpio Rising: Selected Poems, is the culmination of a thirty-five-year career. Katrovas's early poems reflect a harrowing childhood on the highways of America as his parents fled the FBI. They also probe the gas-lit backstreets of New Orleans's French Quarter where "the protean human heart/is nature's crime against us." Witness to Prague's Velvet Revolution while on a Fulbright Fellowship, Katrovas in his later poems meditates upon his own American identity as he raises bi-cultural, bilingual daughters. Katrovas's formal verse has an edge we do not usually associate with traditionally formal poetry. Understanding that all gendered identity is a construction, Katrovas explores, as few lyric poets have, the linguistic and emotional contours of "masculinity."
The Years of Smashing Bricks - An Anecdotal Memoirby Richard Katrovas
Carnegie Mellon University Press
The Years of Smashing Bricks is about sex, drugs and karate in Coronado and San Diego, California, in the early 70s. It’s a memoir in the form of interlocking stories, and reaches back into Richard Katrovas’ odd childhood on the highways of America with criminal parents, and into his teens in Sasebo, Japan, with adoptive parents on a U.S. Navy base. Having earned a second-degree black belt in Sho-bu-kan Okinawa-te in the late 60s, at the height of the mystique of the black belt, Katrovas gave private karate lesson through his twenties in Coronado and San Diego; at the same time, he lived a bohemian life of sex, drugs, art and ideas. At the heart of this utterly unique, lyrical memoir is a young man’s coming to terms with the cultural fictions of masculinity, and with his divided affections for a dying birth mother with whom he has lost contact, and an adoptive mother who is at once noble, deeply decent, and emotionally abusive.
“Richard Katrovas has become an indispensable masculine voice, by turns brash and strikingly tender. These short stories form a strong, singular narrative, but they are also individual pieces of beauty and insight. Maybe only a poet can write memoir with this kind of torque.” --Patricia Hampl
"The Years of Smashing Bricks is pleasantly unpredictable, departing from the formula of the standard memoir. It is strange and haunting, and often very funny. I found its grittiness exhilarating." --Tracy Kidder
Mystic Pig (Paperback)
by Richard Katrovas
"Beautifully written, strong characters and a powerful story" 20 Nov 2008 --By E. Pearce "Poppy Pearce" (Cambridge, UK)
The first half of Mystic Pig is rather contemplative, the themes of evil and violence are considered by the main characters each in their own way; the holocaust and racism are major motifs throughout. That is not to say that the first half is at all dry - we are introduced to a world of interesting characters living in New Orleans. Nat is the verging-on alcoholic restauranteur with a secret life, his restaurant is peopled with eccentrics - the Old Queens and Jack/Nick, a man who gets taken over by his own penis, add a dark humour to the novel. Willie, a black child prodigy uses his superior intellect to try and understand the senselessness of the hatred he sees around him every day, while being paid, like a prostitute, to listen to a dying poet's final epic. The philosophical musings in the first half are not at all heavy-handed, rather they are engaging and thought-provoking and a perfect introduction for what is to come.
The reader reaches the half way point in the book, with a vaguely ominous feeling that something bad will happen to one of the main characters. But when the bombshell is dropped, as gently as Katrovas can drop it, it is completely unexpected. The relationship between truth and reality slips, for us as much as for the characters, the reader is forced to re-evaluate the whole book. The Mystic Pig engages with the reader and forces them to ask the very questions that the characters have been grappling with, reminding us all of the frailty of happiness.
This is a really enjoyable, though-provoking book with strong, entertaining characters that definately deserves a second read. Thoroughly recommended.
"Quite simply, one of the best books you'll read. A siren-call to compassion." -- 2 Oct 2008 By J. Gifford
There are a lot of good and great reads out there but there a few that stop you in your tracks. This is a book that makes you reevaluate, and then reaffirm, your belief in people, friendship and love. New Orleans may be the location but the novel takes place in your heart. And although it's a story that deals with death and its immediate and long-term ramifications, it has a delightful vein of noir humour running through it. It's thought-provoking, immediately engaging and quietly affirmative in bridging the self-destructive barriers we create for ourselves. Really it's about acceptance, humanity and above all, passion. Written lyrically and simply in Katrovas's masculinely-poetic style that clarifies emotions and embeds empathy simply and cleanly, this is a city-break that you won't want to end.
"Love and loss - a gem" --3 Dec 2009 By J. V. Neal?
Mystic Pig is astutely observed, tightly structured, and engagingly honest. Emotionally intense in places, it is written with great warmth, humour and above all a deep feeling of humanity and for family. It describes the closely interconnected lives of seemingly disparate and idiosyncratic people, many flawed (and who isn't?). Some of these are coping with tremendous challenges - even traumatic loss. While the book conveys the feeling and flavours of New Orleans (prior to Hurricane Katrina), the location is not fundamental to the story. Skilfully and subtly written, with gloriously well-crafted phrases that ring like a bell in the reader's ear - this book is a genuine pleasure to read. Don't miss it.
"Where to start.?How many books are there out there that bring you to a screeching halt? That make you stop and say 'wow' out loud when you read them??" --By Karl Elvis on September 30, 2004
The Mystic Pig by Richard Katrovas? One of -- and I'm not kidding -- the best books I've ever read. And no one's ever heard of it.
You know this book is getting ignored when you look at the reviews on that amazon.com page, above, and see only three users have reviewed it. Three. And one of those is mine. Tiny publisher, well-respected but largely unknown poet, first novel. I'm lucky someone mentioned a pre-release review to me or I'd not have bought it. A review I didn't read but only was told about.
And I didn't have any expectations. The descriptions on Amazon are vague. I expected a murder mystery, something like Tony Bourdain's novels, which are fun but not that good (though I love Bourdain to death, god how I'd like to party with that man, cook with that man, have dinner with that man, he's one of my few real culinary heros).
But Mystic Pig isn't a murder mystery. Not even close.
What is it?
Well, first, that name is weird and almost put me off the book. It's nonsensical and makes it sound like a kid's book with talking animals. I'd have tried to talk Katrovas out of that title if I were his agent, his publisher, his editor. And maybe they did. The title refers to an epic poem being written by a character in the book, in one of two major plot threads.
I'm not going to write a complete review. This is a paean, a recommendation, a plea that you go read this book. It's not a review because I'm no longer un-biased enough to do that.
But a summary, with no plot spoilers.
The book is set in New Orleans; it's got the sultry and vaguely decrepit, decadent feel that this city has in real life. A vague funkiness, an earthiness. The city has a 'done too much, eaten too much, drunk too much' feel, an 'all fucked out, but maybe one more' feeling. That's the real New Orleans. Not the over-written quality of an Anne Rice novel or the too-seedy, too-sleazy character it has in James Lee Burke's novels. This is a simpler New Orleans, one that ordinary people live and work in.
The protagonist, Nathan Moore (Nat), is a man sliding into what could be prosaically called a mid-life crisis. But that phrase is dismissive, in the sense that, for real, thinking, feeling people, it's not always as simple, as tidy as just that. This isn't "I need a new car", "I need to act young". This is "my life is at a cross-roads".
Two families, an ex-wife turned lesbian, two sets of children. A job he's committed his life to, which is the process of crashing and burning. A birth-mother he's just tracked down and made contact with. A secret life, the details of which are vague and sometimes confusing, contradictory.
Nat's life is his work in in restaurants; as waiter, cook, bus boy, and now as manager. And it's clear Katrovas lived this, he's not just a foodie, he's also an insider. A friend who read it, who spent years in the restaurant business, was sucked in by the opening scenes, the realness of the working restaurant environment. Food is Nat's life, his passion. Katrovas writes about cooking with an almost pornographic intensity. He also writes about the oddity of the people surrounding the business, from a kitchen worker with a gift for phallic ventriliquism to the shady organized-crime types who are always around the edges of the restaurant business. Eccentric characters, but real in a painful and funny way.
The second plot line is told from the point of view of a young African-american boy named Willie, who's something like twelve. The boy is a fantastic character, street-tough on the outside but clearly smart, more educated, more sensitive than he'll let on. In some ways it almost seems that the boy is in some way an alter-ego for Katrovas, clearly a tough-guy if you look at his picture, a man's man. A big, burley southerner, a boxer and athlete, yet a poet.
Willie, we gradually learn, is working as the assistant and gofer for a mad poet, a sick, crazed man who's drinking vodka by the jug and working on an epic poem which we gradually learn is the titular 'Mystic Pig'. We never hear the poem; we hear only Willie's internal reactions to it, his confusion and conflict. The poet sees Willie as the embodiment of his muse.
These stories intersect only late in the book, but where they connect is, in effect, the climax of the book. Though there's no great action scene, no chase, no mighty resolution. What there is, is a change in both lives, a hinge-point in effect. Both lives change from there, in one of those moments you never see when it happens, but may know later as a crucial point in your life.
Not very much actually happens in this book. Much of it is about the characters lives hitting this point of transition. Nat's feelings of dread, fear, angst, his pain. Willie's growth and maturation, his recognition of his own feelings. Both of them dealing with mortality and pain.
So why is this book so good?
Well, simply put, it's incredibly well written. The prose is simple, clean, masculine. Not in the exaggerated way Bukowski or Fante are masculine, but there are vague similarities, particularly to Fante. Maybe Ray Carver is a better writer to compare to though. There's something to prose written by poets that I love, as if they manage to pour all the word-play, all the flourishes, all the cleverness into poetry, and what's left is simple, clean, the essential core of good prose. Katrovas is this kind of writer. The narrative matches the characters, so there's a distinctly different feel to the prose in sections with Willie's PoV (Point of View) than the sections with Nat's PoV.
Then there's something that impressed me personally; an email dialog between Nat and his birth mother, a tough, scholarly feminist, an academic. The dialog is more true to real-life email dialog than anything I've ever seen. I've done this for most of my adult life, intense, personal email dialog. Katrovas captures this; the two characters feeling each other out, presenting a face, adjusting. It's part dialog, part fencing match, part confessional. It's brilliantly real. Brilliantly. This is subtle; people who have not spent hours in communications just like this might never see it. But those of us who've done it, it strikes home with an almost audible impact.
There are three books that I can recall ever shedding tears over. One is Lord of the Rings, and it gets me every time. The movie got me there also. The scene at the Gray Havens, the last line (Well, I'm back). That's one. The second is a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, Lord of Emperors; the ending had such beauty.?This book is the third. I'm unable to say why; there's something to raw, so wrenching about the emotions these characters are feeling, so true. I was left with tears running down my face.
Please. Go read this book. Buy it. Get it from the library. Put in on your Amazon wish list so I can buy it for you (Ok, wait, not everyone at once now!)
Mr. Katrovas, is you happen to run across this, thank you, and please, god, please, write another novel. You must.
When I picture writing that novel I've so long meant to write, it's work like this that inspires me. Books like this that make me say 'that's it, that's how I want to do it'. Writing that sounds like it's so easy to do, but in fact, it's not. That's what I want to do some day. If I could be half, a quarter as good, that would be enough. That would be more than enough.
Mark Folse: The Last Book I Loved, Mystic Pig
It is a novel, not a cookbook, but my sister the full-on foodie insists that the recipes all look workable, and what could be more perfect than a story about New Orleans that incidentally teaches you how to make white chocolate bread pudding and jambalaya?
It’s difficult to improve on the original publisher’s description– “This is a novel about sex and sexuality and race and madness and violence and fine dining. Not necessarily in that order”—but I’ll try.
It seems there are as many great books about New Orleans as there are bad movies, but I am mystified at why this one did not immediately claim a place in the canon. Katrovas manages to transform the mundane into the fantastic with ease, makes his primary characters as reflective and natural as any of Walker Percy’s philosophical protagonists, and sets them in New Orleans viscerally real and stripped of its superficial backlot romance.
This is New Orleans without its carnival mask, in which Mardi Gras is simply an inconvenience to the restaurant trade, a New Orleans in which the French Quarter hardly makes an appearance, and yet everything you expect from the city is given without resorting to the easy or predictable. There is food of course but also sex and a bit too much booze, a tragedy worthy of Tennessee Williams hidden in the middle, and in his descriptive powers and a story as compelling as it is ultimately fantastic, he conveys much of what Percy once called “the savor of the genie-soul of the place which every place has or else is not a place.”
Mystic Pig is the first novel of poet and diarist Richard Katrovas, published in 2001 by Smallmouth Press but it quickly disappeared and was forgotten except perhaps by students and other faculty of the University of New Orleans’nascent writing program, of which he was a founding faculty member. Most of the literate New Orleanians I know have never heard of it. Katrovas is better known as a poet and translator and as the author of several (quite good) autobiographical works.
In 2008, Jon Gifford of Cambridge’s Oleander Press read a reference to the work on the Internet. Curious, he secured a copy and decided to republish it. I only discovered it because of a blogger I know (TheRumpus.net contributor Ray Shea). It was discovered by Shea’s girlfriend, taken up by the fellow who hosts his blog and then by Shea himself, who has turned any number of his friends into fellow travelers by simply insisting: you must read this.
The book is firmly rooted in the routines of mid-life restaurateur Nathan Moore and twelve-year-old Willie Singer, a man and a boy each at the cusp of a change of life, their coming-of-age accelerated when the two collide over a dying poet, scion of old Uptown wealth, writing an apocalyptic epic in anticipation of his own death by alcohol. Nathan wrestles with the everyday of running of a commercial kitchen and a moderately complicated personal life, including his current spouse and children, his ex-wife and her gay lover who are raising his son, and a long-term and mysterious affair with a woman kept just off stage almost the entire book. Much of Nathan’s internal monologue is carried out through an extended and philosophical email correspondence with his recently discovered birth mother, as he attempts to explain his adult life.
Willie confronts coming-of-age as an exceptionally bright and perceptive child in a city where exceptionally bright and perceptive dark-skinned African Americans are not particularly valued, confronting the casual racism, the loss of his Uncle (a particular friend of the mad poet) who was his male role model in a mother-only household, the danger of inner city life (he buys a gun from an unsavory relative to protect his mother after wounding a burglar who escaped, fearing retribution). He succeeds his Uncle as the poet’s muse, fetching him liquor from his mother’s store and listening to him read the epic poem Mystic Pig for $20 a sitting.
There is one Rabelaisianly funny character that puts Nathan in a place much like finding oneself the employer of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces’ Ignatius Reilly. And his own attempts at reforming that character’s peculiar maladjustment causes as much havoc in Nathan’s life as Reilly does in that of everyone around him.
Katrovas weaves this rather complicated tapestry with great lyrical aplomb, and his long gracefully flowing sentences show his poetic roots and reveal the scene like the practiced strokes of a masterful French Quarter street artist painting a Creole cottage from muscle memory. He ably tackles the challenge of rendering a believable (even to natives) New Orleans, in a novel with characters as compelling and deep as Percy’s and John Ford’s, with moments as comic as Toole’s and as tragic as Williams. These aren’t accolades a tradition-bound Orleanian gives lightly, but with the same consideration reserved for commending a restaurant or selecting Rex, King of Carnival. By this book Katrovas deserves to stand beside these great chroniclers of New Orleans, the South and human nature.
This book is a New Orleans feast you won’t be able to resist once you catch a whiff of it. I’ll be mystified if you don’t find yourself pushing this book on friends, then talking about organizing Mystic Pig dinners, and perhaps babbling to strangers on the bus deep in their copy of The Moviegoer about why they have to read Mystic Pig.
"A striking debut..." --ALA Booklist
"Dithyrambs (is a)...quirky, spectacular monument." -- Sydney Lea, Georgia Review
"Highly recommended..." --Publishers Weekly
"Richard Katrovas is the best of the new poets." --Denis Johnson
"This poet is, as they like to say in the South, "Doing business." Katrovas is real!" --Dave Smith
"Richard Katrovas improvises the moment as if poetry itself were a survival skill, and in his capable and caring hands, it is." --Stanley Plumly
"Richard Katrovas is a fine writer...He makes the (reader) feel gratitude, and, in addition to illumination, friendship." --James Dickey
"As Hemingway portrayed Paris of the twenties, Katrovas portrays...post-revolution Prague. Katrovas is a talented and honest writer who captures the unrenderable, sees the invisible, and makes the truth into poetry." --Arnost Lustig
"Tough, direct, gritty, full of wonder...there is nothing meek about Mr. Katrovas...He sings with an authority that is guided by compassion, by an unblinking eye for what is beautiful within what is not." --New York Times Book Review
"Originality of this kind is rare...large and ambitious. Katrovas's Dithyrambs (are) bold and fascinating..." --Donald Justice
"Our true poets begin their poems in the place "past weeping," (and) that's where Richard Katrovas is. Katrovas's Dithyrambs remind me of a contemporary Auden...They are funny, passionate...They are intense emotion locked in musical boxes, singing while exploding." --Gerald Stern
"Katrovas revives the choral lyric form of Bacchylides and Pindar, and following Dryden as the single modern precursor, bravely explores the forms possibilities for late twentieth century verse...(These poems) never forsake the pathos of genuine desire." --Carolyn Forche
"The Republic of Burma Shave is masterful. It is partly Mark Twain, partly Henry Miller. It is ferocious, tender, original." --Gerald Stern
"The Republic of Burma Shave is an addictive, guilty pleasure...Katrovas is, as always, observant, outrageous, and completely original." --Valerie Martin
"This is a fierce, wickedly funny, unguarded and utterly engaging memoir." --Patricia Hampl
"Not since Walker Percy's The Moviegoer has New Orleans been treated with such delicacy and elegance...Mystic Pig is a fine and forgiving book." --Frederick Barthelme