I find pleasure in idly gazing upon a book, whether it be one resting upon a table or the rows of books that line a bookshelf. For within those pages lay worlds conjured up in the confines of an author’s imagination. The undeniable uniqueness of literature as a storytelling art form is how the words or prose afford us the liberty of filling in the fine pictorial details. While it may momentarily seem that I have journeyed off on a wayward trajectory, this in itself iterates a moment in my encounter with Michael Loyd Gray’s Exile on Kalamazoo Street.
Following an early encounter with some of the amusingly titled chapters, I glanced at the picture that adorned the cover of the book. I had no prior knowledge of having regarded it and yet suddenly a thought occurred to me. An ambiguous beforehand image was suddenly transformed into an image plucked from the very pages of Gray’s text. However, this was not the pictorial impression I had formed in my mind from Gray’s description of his title character, nor the view from the window in which he stares out on the snow blanketed street. Although, if you were to ask me to describe or even draw the image as I had pictured it, I would have been forced to concede defeat.
As is the ontological definition of our interactions with literature, the pictures conjured up within our imaginations are like dreams that fade in the glow of consciousness. The opening of the book and the words that line the pages open up that world in which everything takes on a physical reality. But once the book is closed it is like a dream that slips away. It was in this moment I realised that I was taking ownership of Exile on Kalamazoo Street; I had connected with it perhaps without even realising, and even so early into this tale of one writer’s self-exile, I was under Gray’s spell. And I think it fair to say that there was no other place I’d rather have been than in the company of Gray and his lead protagonist, Bryce Carter.
This story of a self-exiled alcoholic recalls what is so pleasurable about the written form. Invariably, the use of words creates such a distinct intimacy compared to that of film. This is, of course, not to demean or criticize film as a means of storytelling. But when one reads line up line of Gray’s words, there’s a certain magic in which words in place of moving images afford a pleasure and interaction that is rewarding in and of itself. As aforementioned, it’s through this interaction that we stumble upon the liberty to create a unique looking world through our own imagination, an impression that no artist or filmmaker can replicate satisfactorily. The skill of the writer is to paint pictures in our minds, but to believe it ends there is a naïve proposition. Gray immediately sets about underpinning these pictures with the experience that the words come to define for us.
Exile on Kalamazoo Street is one of those stories that you come across every once in a while that fills you with a genuine sense of warmth. It’s not remarkable for Gray’s use of prose or complicated narrative plotting, but rather is comparable to taking a stroll in the park on a warm summer’s day. This analogy is, of course, an ironic choice, as Gray chooses for the stage of his story a claustrophobic setting. Yet out of this claustrophobia Gray creates a warm and intimate narrative that compliments literature’s ability to enter the mind of its characters, and to see the world from their perspective. So what we have is not Gray’s voice or perspective, but that of Bryce Carter the novelist who has exiled himself in his house to hopefully drop the curtain on his alcoholism.
The way metaphors within literary prose ring out and echo in our minds creates a melodic or rhythmic sounding structure, the writer therein becomes the ever present narrator. But in Exile on Kalamazoo Street, the novelist protagonist becomes his own narrator, as Gray becomes lost in the shadow of his imaginary creation. Written in a descriptive tone or with a surplus of metaphors, even the humor of these and the reflective nature of the prose is almost fitting to the author archetype, and the way in which he might see the world. So as Bryce Carter tells us about greeting a visitor or looking out of his window, we feel a sense that this is Bryce Carter talking and not Michael Loyd Gray.
The intimate and claustrophobic stage is offset by Gray’s use of prose. In his self-exile, perhaps Carter is talking to an imaginary audience of his world, or perhaps he is in reality quietly talking to himself. Regardless, the truth is that as we enter his world he is all we have, but we are not all he has. Rather, we are the lonely strangers lost somewhere on this dramatic stage, connected only via a one-way relationship that is not consciously reciprocated by the other characters.
While Gray can be enamoured with metaphor and poetic descriptions to infuse the narrative with life, there are moments interspersed throughout of a pleasant subtlety in which he creates an effective equilibrium: moments of poetic, melodic and rhythmic description offset by quieter and more subtle moments that intertwine with the claustrophobic intimacy of the story. Out of this simplicity of prose emerges the dexterity of structuring an immersive narrative within a confined space through time and interpersonal encounters.
Billy Wilder spoke of telling a story as the process by which you know what your key scenes are, and what follows is the task of creating transitional scenes that interconnect them. Exile on Kalamazoo Street reminds me of this in the way that Gray deftly uses past and present as transitional tools within the claustrophobic or restrictive narrative. But the comings and goings of the cast of characters who pass through Carter’s front door reveal the foundations of storytelling as being about interpersonal relationships; even for reclusive characters. Together, his isolated moments and his human interaction through a variety of encounters: — religious, personal, professional and artistic in nature — all offer a perspective on Bryce Carter that reveal the different shades of the protagonist to us. But perhaps Gray’s Exile on Kalamazoo Street in truth echoes in literature form the genius of theatre and opera to use a single stage to tell a rich and diverse story at the heart of which is the human character or characters.
Exile on Kalamazoo Street is one of those stories that comes along every once in a while. These are stories that have a pleasant feel to them, and yet the feeling of warm satisfaction they provide cannot be expressed in words.