The Autodidacts, a novel by Thomas Kendall, reviewed by Dave Fitzgerald

There is a passage in what I have come to think of as, gun to my head, my all-time favorite novel—Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion—wherein a character complains to his therapist that he thinks he might be going mad, only to be met with the following response:

“No Leland, not you. You, and in fact quite a lot of your generation, have in some way been exiled from that particular sanctuary. It’s become almost impossible for you to ‘go mad’ in the classical sense. At one time people conveniently ‘went mad’ and were never heard from again. Like a character in a romantic novel. But now […] you are too hip to yourself on a psychological level. You all are too intimate with too many of the symptoms of insanity to be caught completely off your guard […] You may be neurotic as hell for the rest of your life, and miserable, maybe even do a short hitch at Bellevue and certainly good for another five years as a paying patient—but I’m afraid never completely out […] Sorry to disappoint you but the best I can offer is plain old schizophrenia with delusional tendencies.”

This passage is one of those likely to live on forever in a rent-controlled corner of my brain until whenever I finally kick off, providing both comfort and dis- depending on whatever circumstances happen to prompt its recollection on any given day. Kesey wrote those words all the way back in 1963, and if they were true then, then they’re almost trite now. The sheer glut of information available to us today—both factual and faulty—likely dwarfs anything the Merry Prankster could’ve conceived of on even his headiest trip—glowing inside our pockets, growing out beneath our fingertips, forever on call to help or harm us via whatever self-diagnosis we choose to pursue. All of which is to say that, even though we might all feel like we’re going crazy all the time here in the infinitely peaking information age (I certainly do), all we’re really doing is slowly, laboriously, redefining sanity. We’re not crazy. We simply know too much, and learning more has ceased to provide us respite. Kesey knew it, and Thomas Kendall knows it, for no book has brought that particular sentiment so keenly and hauntingly back to mind for me quite like his entrancing family almanac The Autodidacts.

The Autodidacts too is a font of exactingly observed information, and the lighthouse on its cover plays a central role in illuminating its narrative. Divided into two three-part sections, the first focusing on a fractious 1980s love triangle (or quadrangle) (or maybe even pentangle, depending on how you want to read certain characters) that ends in mysterious tragedy, and the second centered more around the nearly-grown 90s children of the first’s surviving (and still-messily-entwined) confederates. Though not quite yet in the grip of our modern information cyclone, they too have come to know far too much, about themselves and the broken promises of the world around them, and trudging daily against the weight of that knowledge, they each begin to chart their own disparate, but indelibly linked paths toward some vague, unrealized, and possibly unreal terminus—the lighthouse watching over them all the while with the menace of Sauron’s eye. Across the book’s 15-some-odd years, it both blinds them to their stasis, and beckons them away—a totem to their shared, traumatic history, and a guiding light toward some dissociative future untethered from same—and the longer Kendall traces their workaday wounded existence beneath its loom, the clearer it becomes that living outlined in its beam has turned them all to shadows.

There is more than a hint of wizardry to Kendall’s prose—the way he describes emotions that are somehow too specific name, but so intrinsically familiar that you immediately recall times you’ve felt them yourself; the way he builds characters by describing absolutely everything around them—the way their skin reacts to the very air—and in so doing, allows you to step into that excised space and inhabit them fully, every one, as if you too were caught up in the intricate playlets of their Platonic cave wall. There were lengthy portions of this book where I found myself floored by a metaphor or turn of phrase on nearly every page: a town “braid[s] the cliffside with property”; a jaw moves in and out “like a possessed set of drawers”; eyes blink into “scribbled stars.” The care with which Kendall spends entire paragraphs describing the way a person takes a drink, or walks across a room, or picks up a piece of paper—the way their faces feel inside their heads and atop their bodies—announces him early and often as a thrillingly original new stylistic voice. I could tell you how I cringed every time Lawrence opened his mouth to swallow his foot, or how I ached for Henry every time he got close to Evelyn (who, for what it’s worth, I also ached for, to get as far the fuck away from these people as possible), or how I wanted to wrap Fiasco up in a shock blanket and never let him out of my sight again, but you won’t know until you read. You just won’t know.

Even as we observe them by-and-largely stuck in their eerily patterned drudgery, nearly all of the main actors in The Autodidacts teem with a staggering, but dogged forward momentum, and especially once the children have grown up, and begun to piece together the shrouded lives of the adults that shaped their pasts, a propulsive sense of inherited dread begins to take hold. Whether they’re actually headed toward legitimate existential crossroads or not, they all think and behave as though they are—as though something new and different must be coming for them, any day now—be it a job or a relationship or a vital piece of news; an escape from their house, or their town, or their life. At one point or another, every one of them would likely cop to at least suspecting that they’re “going mad,” but for most of these characters, these big, foreboding ends prove just more of the same—cresting wavelets in a vast, unyielding sea. What they discover is that, short of snuffing your own candle, that wonderful/terrible/necessary/impossible thing you’re sure is just around the corner is likely just a variation on the theme you’ve been humming since before you even knew what tune you wanted to hear. That no matter how significant the past might seem, the future just goes on writing itself, and whatever certainty we feel toward our imminent ends is largely a byproduct of boredom, or fear, or a hope that never quite learns. Kendall traffics in this nagging sensation that there simply must be something—something next, something more—as well as any writer I’ve ever encountered, and in keeping with his aforementioned stylistic necromancy, it somehow informs every scene without ever being explicitly stated. Rather, as each of his characters grapples with it in their own time, and comes to terms with it in their own way, it billows through them all like a wave.

Indeed, with its unsolved disappearances, its chilly coastal ambience, and its unsettling notebooks full of not-quite-“mad” sketches and pidgin scrawl, it becomes tempting to discuss The Autodidacts in terms of its inherent spookiness—but there is simply too much of the everyday at play here to pin it all on the surreal. To me, the uncanny doubling between characters and events felt less reminiscent of traditional horror/suspense touchstones than they did the intergenerational, missed connection dynamics of American Beauty, or Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, or even the subtle, hand-me-down fatidics we might associate with Dostoyevsky or Virginia Woolf. For every odd, Lynchian moment of disquiet, there is a tender exchange between loved ones connected not just by their coeval darkness, but also by their persistent striving toward the light. The Autodidacts is, perhaps more than anything, a book about the deeply human struggle against solipsism; about the innate desire to truly know others in a world that, virtually every day, insists a little harder that we can, and maybe even should, work only to know ourselves. Perhaps this is the lesson that this scrappy band of autodidacts are teaching themselves (and against all odds, each other): that no matter how crazy this world might make us feel, we’re all mad here together, and only by continuing to grasp and try and believe in some unlikely better future—to reach out and fumble and miss each other in the dark, and try again by the flash and flail of some steadfastly searching light—can we keep the most vulnerable among us from slipping over the edge, and going out for good.

The Autodidacts, by Thomas Kendall. Whiskey Tit, May 2022. 464 pages. $18.00, paper.

Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to and, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.

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