Tall Tales in a Short Story
IDW’s latest offering, the one-shot Kodiak, scripted by the not inconsiderable talent of Joe Hill (the genius behind The Heart-Shaped Box and more recently the deeply-moving Horns), is a quick easy read. And simultaneously appreciating it fully is possibly one of the most demanding literary tasks you’re likely to encounter this year. Counterintuitively, its simplicity is the fertile ground for the layers of complexity the book eventually develops.
Not at all unexpected from the rising literary star, Hill has begun to establish himself firmly as the kind of writer who offers readers a headrush by deploying the ordinary, with the supernatural firmly locked in the natural world.
It would be glib to identify Hill’s writing, especially in Kodiak, as magical realist. But even this epithet does not completely do the writer’s work justice. In The Heart-Shaped Box, more notably in Horns and again in Kodiak there is a slow, steady piling up of realism. A solid-state reordering of the the supernatural as everyday.
It seems an unlikely opening gambit for a literary career. How easy would it have been for readers to simply dismiss scenes from the home life of a New England jazz trumpeter’s son in Horns as a thinly veiled screenshot of Hill at home with his parents Stephen and Tabitha King? It is an act of supreme skill and intense mastery of his craft that allows Hill’s literary realism to be so easily mistaken for resembling any actual event or situation.
What Hill so masterfully exploits and skillfully deploys is a vast array of genre detailing the wealth of the ordinary. In Horns he inverts Tolstoy’s famous formulation, suggesting perhaps that the unhappiness of unhappy families far from being unique, is woven from the infinitely recognizable, over and again. Hill is a literary Ozu or Fellini rather than a Tarantino or Rodriguez. Moms could easily once have been princesses, flighty airheads even. Pops could easily come to silently hate their sons for failing to develop compassion. And, as in Kodiak, boys will always be boys.
Kodiak starts with a framing of boyhood as a time of gathering tall tales. It is a tale of daring, of pushing and peering from the edges, or out from behind the curtains. It’s a story of getting caught after going just a little too far. Kodiak’s two nameless protagonists are brought before their object of fascination, Dominico the local Pub landlord, and told firsthand the tale of his encounter with a monster bear. It is a tale that has already swept through the village, one that has been added to with every telling, but one that the boys are just encountering for the very first time.
But the story itself is incidental.
What Hill offers instead is a deep and abiding meditation on the power of popular culture. Kodiak is Marlowe’s Faust rather than Goethe’s. The material Marlowe originally gathered from Der Faustbuch an earlier collection of folklore tales that offered various versions of the Faust tale. Kodiak is the story of the futility and the failure of the Faust character himself. A character predicted on the notion that superior learning would somehow produce superior achievements and high culture. As Marlowe proffers, this is a cultural project that necessarily ends in failure of the self, or as the early twenty century demonstrated, a cultural project that ends in fascism.
And Hill’s masterstroke? Kodiak’s piece de resistance? Casting Dominico as a juggler and tapping perhaps the most enduring of generic short-forms—the Tarot. In one deft strike, Hill recalls the Juggler in the 2 of Cups card, juggling on the shore, waiting for his ship to come in.
Kodiak stands out as a profound work. A quick and easy read that offers readers infinitely more than at first glance. Almost literally, a gift that goes on giving. It is 15 minutes of your day that will continue to reward you with each read. It deserves to be read, to be owned.