Cutty, One Rock Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained

August Kleinzahler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

208 Pages



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The essays that make up Cutty, One Rock take us on a journey from childhood to early manhood in the company of a New Jersey family in equal measures cultivated and deranged. We witness scenes of passionate, even violent, intensity that give rise to meditations on eros and literature, the solitariness of travel, the meaning of life in America (both West and East), and the poetics of place.

These pieces, most of which first appeared in the London Review of Books and won Kleinzahler an international cult following, are by turns "poignant, surreal, down home, and lyrical, a mixture of qualities that inheres in his language with uncommon delicacy and exquisite effects" (Leonard Michaels). Together they comprise an intellectual and emotional autobiography on the run.


Praise for Cutty, One Rock

"A deeply moving, unpretentious 155-page masterpiece. Readers of Kleinzahler's poems will be familiar with some of his themes and objects, his family, his travels, his heterosexual adventures, his tragic gay brother who died long ago (aged 27); but if you missed these prose pieces when they were first published in the London Review of Books and elsewhere, this collection, which constitutes a brief autobiography, will come as a rich surprise. Only a mature poet could have written as lyrical and limpid a book as this. One of the impressive traits of Kleinzahler's prose is the ease with which he engages with the language; he is totally comfortable, relaxed and in command, while at the same time energized and amply supplied with experience for his stories. From his 55 years of living, he has pared down the worthwhile topics to just a few. There are nine short pieces in the book, which is divided into three sections. As his subtitle implies, Kleinzahler is drawn to the odd and the eccentric, as best exemplified by his family . . . The longest and most unforgettable of the essays is the last one, 'Cutty, One Rock,' about Kleinzahler's brother. The young poet often accompanied his wild older sibling to gay bars in Manhattan, such as Julius's in the West Village. 'It was a merry, friendly atmosphere. We ordered drinks. My brother always ordered "Cutty, one rock." Then he introduced me to his friends, of whom he seemed to have many; all of them teased him about trying to pass off his latest trick as his brother. A couple already seemed aware of my existence, which I found flattering . . . They checked me out, up and down. But it was a bluff sort of lechery, all in good fun. Julius's provided the overture, the launching pad for my brother's evenings. He'd have a couple of drinks, or three, or four, catch up with his friends, survey the talent on hand, and after an hour or so head west, usually to the International Stud.' Suffusing the essay is Kleinzahler's eternal, glowing love, which must have been among the few good things in life for the writer's troubled older brother. The essay builds from there to a sad, raucous climax. Kleinzahler's brother was a self-destructive live wire who found it impossible to keep himself under control—he gambled too much, drank too much, took too many drugs, spent too many nights out wandering around the city looking for trouble. He may have killed a knife-wielding Mexican with a rock (he wasn't sure if the man was dead when he left the scene, but he was 'lying there very, very still'). He tried to make extra money by selling drugs but got caught and was given a felony conviction with probation. He killed himself in 1971 by swallowing 50 barbiturates he'd got from 'his friend Bobby, a cute younger blond guy he'd tricked with over the years.' Kleinzahler does not shy away from telling about any of this, but he does so without ever collapsing into sentimentality or bathos. 'I'll spare you the funeral and mourning rituals,' he says. 'It was pretty horrible. The spectacle of a parent grieving for a child is tough to watch, especially when it's your own parent. There was an animal sound coming out of my mother, like a dog wailing, but softer.' We can't argue with that."—The Washington Post Book World
"Kleinzahler is the ideal drinking companion, even if you don't drink, even if you're in another area code, even if it's Monday morning. His mix of comedy and heartbreak is sublime, and he can throw a sentence up in the air that will flip twice before coming down."—Luc Sante, author of Low Life

"This is a beautiful book—mournful, swaggering, bleak, hilarious—full of piercing and often loving assessments of life and art. Kleinzahler's low characters aren't the five people you'll meet in heaven, but meeting them in these pages is, for friends of feeling, a kind of paradise."—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Subject Steve

"Kleinzahler comes out of his corner at the reader like a veteran boxer: First there will be some jazzy entertainment and fancy stepping, then he'll send you a line that stings with nose-bleeding accuracy . . . [He] is good with unsettling, epigramatic flashes, but he can also be mellow, pursuing the syntax of place on a bus ride from San Diego to El Cajon in a piece that proclaims 'flaneriei, that's my thing,' or capuring his favorite bar, a depressing, cavelike, unfriendly joint called Persian Aub Zam Zam, in a profile that bears comparison with the best of Joseph Mitchell . . . High and low, crushing and comic, indelible as India ink."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Kleinzahler's poetry, most recently collected in The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, is kinetic, flinty, sly, and pierced by longing. But its edgy energy provides few clues to the stunning vehemence, caustic wit, and gruff pathos of his autobiographical essays. Here Kleinzahler strips bare his comfortless New Jersey childhood as the son of a mother who disliked children and one of few Jews among many Italians. Astute, audacious, and adept, Kleinzahler is devastating in his characterizations and lyrical in his evocation of place as he tells painfully frank and hilarious tales of family, Jersey machismo, and the Mob; reports on adventures in his adopted home, San Francisco; recounts various journeys; and dissects the concept of Eros. Each bravado essay is breathtakingly provocative, but the collection's soul resides in the title piece, a lancing portrait of his late 'born wild' older brother, who by day was a financial analyst and at night was a high-stakes gambler and bar-cruising gay partyer. Kleinzahler's unsparing essays glow with the threat and promise of the neon signs of all-night dives."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
"In these nine autobiographical essays, most of which first appeared in the London Review of Books, poet Kleinzahler writes from the perspective that an 'unfriendly room' is a 'sanctuary.' Kleinzahler was the youngest of three children growing up in a Mafia-ridden New Jersey neighborhood in the 1950s. His father had an 'unpredictable disposition' and his mother 'didn't like children, least of all her own;' thus young Augie was raised, 'in lieu of parents,' by the family dog. Such challenging beginnings have forged a complex voice, both bitter ('The entire nation sucking from the same teat, a teat with a Nike swoosh and dripping Diet Coke') and lyrically meditative ('the morning's first streetcar comes out of the tunnel before dawn . . . this is my rough carillon') . . . In 'Eros & Poetry,' he uses stunning examples, from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas, to prove how love and passion 'awaken us to the pulse of poetry and dance.' And the final, eponymous piece is a moving elegy to Kleinzahler's older brother, a gambling homosexual gangster, who, in the 1970s, shared his secret life with the author as if to gain witness to—and record—his brief but extraordinary life."—Publishers Weekly

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August Kleinzahler is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently The Strange Hours Travelers Keep. He lives in San Francisco.
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  • August Kleinzahler

  • August Kleinzahler was born in Jersey City in 1949. He is the author of ten books of poems and a memoir, Cutty, One Rock. His most recent book of poetry, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, was awarded the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize. He won the Lannan Literary Award in 2008.  He lives in San Francisco.
  • August Kleinzahler Laura Wilson