Featured Literature: Knuckleheads, by Jeff Kass
Jeff Kass’s collection of short stories, Knuckleheads, is a valuable Michigan read for a couple big reasons. Firstly, it is published by Michigan’s own Dzanc Books, a nonprofit publisher that makes a strong difference in our state’s writing community. Dzanc brings writers into classrooms, publishes intelligent literary fiction, and also manages literary journals like The Collagist and Monkeybicycle. Secondly, Jeff Kass is a vital member of Southeast Michigan’s writing community, bringing tons of renowned writers to Michigan, teaching creative writing and poetry, and scheduling literary events. He is a board member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival, and has published chapbooks of both poetry and essays.
What makes this collection of short fiction truly esoteric is its general candid and unabashed nature. While many writers create short stories that can be terse and unexpurgated, Kass takes it a step farther by not being afraid to write characters that are easily unlikable. Knuckleheads presents a vast menagerie of douchebags and meatheads, failing fathers, adolescent punks, grungy grade-schoolers, self-indulgent pricks, and ruthless wrestlers. Although some of them are sympathetic, others are blatantly despicable. Many of them seemingly go out of their way to be undesirable. Building up these characters primarily allows Kass to attack the question of defining masculinity, specifically amongst young men.
My personal favorites of this collection are Parent-Teacher Conference, Mylar Man, Basements, and The Naked Guy Is Dead, however, there is not a weak story in the collection. Many of the characters seem to shift from story to story with different names and varying personas. Some of the main questions I think Knuckleheads specifically brings to surface are: How do we define masculinity? What constitutes bullying, and why is this a part of adolescent culture? What constitutes success? And perhaps most importantly, what constitutes failure? I think many of these stories relate strongly to young men, because the male characters are constantly unsatisfied and experiencing feelings of anxiety. There is a perpetual subconscious analysis of how each character has gotten to be in their current situation. They are always thinking about past transpired events and moments of youthful clarity.
Furthermore, Kass manages to capture a bizarre sort of erudite awareness of youth that is both genuine and reminiscent, without attempting to mimic a young voice. That is to say, there is never a point where one has to ask themselves if a character would remember a certain past feeling or use a specific adjective in retelling a story. Overall, this makes the stories articulate, while also giving most particular readers no sense of anguish over feigned adolescent voice. (i.e. Kass never tries to use the colloquialisms and vernacular of a prissy teenage girl or a laid-back surfer bum) Instead, he writes in a voice that is true to the title, leaving no one questioning what it is to be a Knucklehead.