K.L. Cook’s Marrying Kind (Ice Cube Press) is a short story collection concerned with masks—what mask do we wear to veil our true selves from the world? And, importantly, how might life’s endless rehearsals lead us closer to our understanding of ourselves? In nine expertly crafted stories, we witness a range of characters that are either literally engaged in the theater world, or figuratively preparing themselves for life’s stage. Mirrors are an important symbol in this work. In the first story, “Portrait of a Shakespearean Actor as a Young Man,” a young actor travels to Colorado for a weekend-long Shakespeare festival, which ends up serving as an initiation into adulthood, into his calling as an artist. With the accrual of more plays under his belt, the teen, in an almost ecstatic sense of self-discovery looks into the mirror, seeing himself clearly:
"Mars put his cloak around me, too, the wig atop my head, and hooked his false beard around my ears, and in full-length mirror, voila, I was Shylock. The adults laughed. I could see in the reflection my mother’s genuine pleasure at the sight of me. Already, I’d developed my first theatrical crush (on freckled Jessica), seen my first Shakespearean play, and now had worn the star’s costume… I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep, with Jessica’s song playing in my head and the image of that fat-suit, cloak, beard and wig on me, the person in the mirror no one I knew but somehow so utterly familiar. That is what it is like to see your future unfurl before you. You know it, even as you don’t."
In this story, the theater, the masks and mirrors, aren’t devices that pull the protagonist away from himself, but rather are what brings him closer. The landscape is another means from which we witness the young novice evolve: “The night was cool, cooler than the Texas panhandle at this time of year…my attention was split between what was happening on the stage and the theatrics of the sky and beautiful surroundings, a pine forest sloping downward from this high-altitude clearing, the Rockies off to the west…this was the kind of place that encouraged vision.” Cook relishes in such seamless conflations of character and landscape.
The second story and the title story of the collection, “Marrying Kind,” is a departure from the literal theater. The story begins at a wedding, where the groom is putting on his “wedding suit.” But as in the story that comes before, we are asked to consider the wedding as another type of play: “An ornate mirror hung on the wall, next to three white baptismal gowns, to encourage a last self-examination… he raked a comb through his sweat-dampened hair, parted down his face with his handkerchief, and then stood by the door and waited for his cue to enter the church properly and meet his bride.” The rest of the story follows the honeymoon in Vegas, the city of masks, lights and mirrors, where we learn that Neil and his new bride, Laura, don’t know as much about each other as they thought; their secrets carefully revealed through masterful, narrative control.
Tightly crafted forms further enhance Cook’s interest in theater and performance. Not only is the collection separated into three parts, reminiscent of a three-act play, but many stories are further segmented into sections. In “Retreat,” the narrative is split by days of the week, and in “Day of the Dean” we see headings such as, Dawn, Breakfast and Walk, indicating the pieces that make up the protagonist’s day. The stories also move chronologically by age—the first story revolves around a teenager, where, towards the end, we are introduced to older characters with families of their own. The family unit, where each member is a part of the whole, is another overarching theme in Marrying Kind. “Morning of the Shark” exemplifies this—each segment headed by the name of one of the family members. At the center of this narrative is the father, Will, who has lost his footing in life. Instead of following Will from the first-person point of view, we learn about him via each family member. In Luke’s section, we learn that the young philosopher of the family sees “…his father’s abandonment of his life as an artist [as a kind] of rehearsal.” And when Will catches a small shark, we understand it as a performative act, one that brings him a newfound pride: “He felt an unreasonable excitement about being able to show the jogger what he’d caught, as if he had something to prove.”
While each story in Marrying Kind feels distinct in its subject matter, it is difficult not to see how all the narratives serve as an examination of a singular story. Marrying Kind thoroughly and thoughtfully examines life’s phases and cycles, losses and gains— the book itself an embodiment of the idea that life is an ongoing opportunity for self-examination and renewal. Like all great literature, it is through the character’s missteps and wins, that we walk away with a little more clarity on ourselves and our role within our families, friendships and the world at large.
Marrying Kind by K.L. Cook is available from Ice Cube Press.
K. L. Cook is the author of three previous books of fiction: Last Call, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize; Love Songs for the Quarantined, winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction; and The Girl from Charnelle, winner of the Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction and named a Southwest Book of the Year and an Editor's Choice Selection of Historical Novel Society. In 2019 and early 2020, three new books will be published: a collection of stories, his third, entitled Marrying Kind; his debut collection of poetry, Lost Soliloquies; and The Art of Disobedience: Essays on Form, Fiction, and Influence. His stories, essays, and poetry have appeared widely in anthologies, literary journals, and magazines, including Best American Mystery Stories, Best of the West, Glimmer Train Stories, American Short Fiction, Harvard Review, One Story, Threepenny Review, Writer’s Chronicle, and Poets & Writers. He is the Co-Coordinator of the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University and, since 2004, has been a member of Spalding University's School for Creative and Professional Writing.
Brooke Sahni’s poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in magazines such as The Missouri Review, Nimrod, EcoTheo Review, 32 Poems, Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook, Divining, is the winner of the 2019 Orison Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming in 2020. For more information, visit brookesahni.com.