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Book Review: Thaddeus Rutkowski's Safe Colors

Thaddeus Rutkowski's new novel in fictions Safe Colors asks if perhaps all of us aren't in some ways living in Nowhere wishing we were Somewhere—or at least knew The Man who could get us there.

About Thaddeus Rutkowski 

 Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in Central Pennsylvania and is the author of seven previous books of prose and poetry. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers' Workshop's members' choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won an Electronic Literature award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and Columbia University and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has been a resident writer at Yaddo, MacDowell and other colonies, and has been a sponsored reader in Berlin, Hong Kong and Singapore. He lives with his wife in Manhattan.

Rutkowski travels a chronological line in this novel from childhood to adolescence and "escape", and on to adulthood. It's divided into three parts and by part two the hero is a college freshman, finally free of his parents' home. By the end, he's a father, though still very much with one foot in his youth.

I didn't actually write this about Safe Colors, but about Rutkowski's previous flash fiction novel Haywire. In this sense, readers are on a familiar path with Safe Colors. We revisit the hero's childhood in Nowhere USA and his journey to Somewhere. Everything you loved about Rutkowski before is still there: the stony-faced comic thread that winds its way through his work and his ability to write so little and to say so much, mostly because of the wide gaps in his intensely relatable prose. The meaning in Rutkowski is found between the lines rather than what many of us have come to expect: within them. This is the recipe—clean, lean prose in miniaturized form and always that ribbon of comedy underneath—that gives this book its power.

While I was riding, I felt an intense nameless fear, though

it wasn't really nameless. It was a common ordinary fear, the

kind I felt to a lesser degree most of the time.

While we are with the hero in his despair, whether it is about his lack of connection in his small USA town, racism, his insecurities, his seemingly inability to please his inexplicable father (an artist who is not an artist or is he?), his musical mother (a musician who is not a musician or is she?) and his own unrecognized ambitions (or are they?), the undercurrent of Rutkowski's deadpan humor is more than arm's length away.

While riding my bicycle, I saw a man step into the

street in front of me. I steered around him—I didn't

slow so he could pass. He saw me roll close, and when he was

within earshot he said, "Get a light." Either that, or "Get a life."

While Rutkowski's hero fumbles forward, struggling to make even the most basic connections, the author succeeds in connecting him to the reader in his own blur-the edges-style. This is a character/location driven work; the peel is slowly removed—in bite-sized chunks--to reveal the author's heartfelt message about childhood, family, growing up and growing old.

Full Disclosure: I was given a PDF copy of Safe Colors in exchange for a review. 

Cover illustration by Shay Rutkowski, daughter of the author.

PUBLICATION DATE: November 6, 2023, New Meridian Arts,

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