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"Mr. Chowder is incapable of writing a bad sentence." – The New Yorker

Blackbird Days, a novel

Blackbird DaysHarper & Row
Pinnacle Books, paperback

Read an excerpt from Blackbird Days

Reviews

The New Yorker: “Like the stanzas of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ the chapters seem to frame thirteen clues to one essential secret. An elegant and unusual first novel.”

New York Times: “Mr.. Chowder is a marvelous stylist with a sincere, unforced affection for ordinary lives… a strong writer.”

The Saturday Review: “A tremendously satisfying writer.”

Los Angeles Times: “A poetic, finely-controlled first novel.”

Chicago Sun-Times: “Ken Chowder has enlivened the ordinary, made the commonplace dance. This is as fine a novel as you’ll read this year.”

Chicago Tribune: “A superb first novel.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Its energies are remarkable and impressively sustained.” (Starred review)

Collage: “This novel has a manic hilarity, a liveliness of language and emotional sweetness reminiscent of the best of Thomas Pynchon. Very moving and very funny.”

Houston Post: “A young author of polished skills and vast promise comes to us with the publication of this first novel. Chowder presents a dazzling array of insights into the human psyche.”

Excerpt

…“I was getting very tired of teaching,” Will said. “Tired of my particular mode of existence. And I didn’t intend to sit around speaking of meaninglessness over tea until some esthetically-apt solution took up the chair next to mine.”

“But your solution is a rather obvious one, don’t you think?” Howard said, face slightly red.

“Obvious is about the best I can do, Howard.”

Howard now chuckled soothingly. “Very good, Will. So you prefer the active course, as usual. You stubbornly make your outcry. Fine, fine, I understand. Quitting teaching may be admirable. Admirable, but perhaps dangerous; or unproductive, which is worse.”

Will shrugged. “The choice is pretty straightforward. Kierkegaard said: ‘There are two ways. One is to suffer; the other is to become a professor of the fact that another suffers.’”

“You would prefer, I suppose,” Howard said, “that everyone suffer.”

“I don’t know about everyone. Just me. When I teach, all I do is deaden feelings – mine, my students’, and those of the writers whose masterpieces I reduce to three forty-five minute lectures. The same lectures, every year.”

Howard held his drink up to the dim light and filled his lungs with air. “You forget, something, I think, no doubt you forget, the nobility of teaching. The nobility. You are, after all, the bearer of light; you pass the torch. In an illiterate age, with atavism hard upon us, you quietly keep the faith. Call me History if you like, but it is you who transmit the lessons, the wealth, of history: you who keep alive the great tradition.” With a flourish he swilled down his drink.

Will frowned. “Sounds good,” he said. “But teaching is a job. What I do is tell a lot of kids who don’t listen a lot of things I don’t believe. And I correct spelling mistakes on their handwritten papers.”

Howard appeared concerned. “Why, what don’t you believe them that you tell? I mean, what do you tell them that you don’t believe?”

Will wasn’t sure why he was drunkenly chattering away about something in which he professed disinterest.

“I tell them it matters,” he said. Howard said nothing.

“I don’t believe the facts matter,” Will added, half noting his half-pun.

Howard ate ice cubes when he felt no prohibition against it. “What does matter, then?” he mumbled, crunching, and probably, Will thought, not caring; it would be like Howard to crunch and not care.

“Moments matter. And kindnesses; intentions; feelings; extraordinary sights; memories,” said Will, reciting his list.

“Those are the facts,” Howard said, spitting a big piece of ice back in the glass.

Neither of them was quite sure what Howard meant; nor, in fact, what Will meant; and neither seemed to have anything to add. At last Howard asked, “Are those the things you want to write about?” Will answered, “Yes,” and Howard said, “Good,”; and they both felt a bit better.

But Howard still wasn’t sure he understood why Will had stopped teaching, unless it was because he was tired of correcting spelling mistakes. How could Will turn his back on literature when he wanted to write? One becomes a great poet by reading, not by going out into the world intent of feeling – something or other, God knows what. One could be sensitive from now till doomsday and one wouldn’t write ever one –

“You know, Howard, you should do more serious writing,” Will said idly. “You love words. You’d be a great craftsman.”

Howard’s wave of criticism subsided. “Don’t you think my inspiration might be suspect? I’m not readily subject to revelation, you know.”

Unfortunately, Will – tactless as ever, and without a stitch of conscience – said, “Possibly. You may not be a great writer, Howard. But you should try.”

“What should I try to be, adequate?”

Will drained his gin again. He would stop drinking now, certainly. But even that had been too much; his stomach was notoriously weak. There’s always a point, he said to himself, when you know you should have already stopped.

It was the George Pratt System. George was the mechanic who worked on Will’s car; George had it down to a science. “There’s a torque wrench for this, but you can just do it by feel,” George explained. “How do you know how far to tighten it?” Will asked. George shrugged. “It’s pretty easy, I guess.” He fitted the wrench onto the head of the bolt. “See, you just tighten her” – he turned his wrench – “Tighter her just till –“ With a loud crack the engine head split in the center. “Till she breaks,” George said. “Tighten her till she breaks; then back off half a turn.” It wasn’t long before Will discovered the universal applications of the Pratt System: take it past the limit, and turn back.

“Well?” Howard asked. He sounded impatient.

“Well what?”

“Should I aim for adequacy?”

“Oh no,” Will said. “Try to be a great writer. Then back off half a turn.”