A Beginner’s Guide to Eric Kraft
Eric Kraft is one of my favorite writers, and he’s amassed some of the best and most consistent mainstream reviews I’ve ever seen, but I don’t know many other people who have heard of him. Even for those who have, his large and interconnected body of work can make it hard to know where to begin. This post is a modest attempt to remedy that — especially now that his older work is becoming available again in both print and electronic formats. I’ll talk about what to read first, how to choose among the rest of his work, and why I think he isn’t more well-known.
Where to Start
Kraft’s oeuvre begins with nine stories he wrote in the 1980s which are each somewhere between a short story and a novella in length. On the surface, they’re all whimsical tales of small-town America in the ’50s, centered around a boy named Peter Leroy. Just below the surface, Kraft weaves in various literary references, (often hilarious) undertones of adult sexuality, and a gently cynical view of American society and ambition — but with such a light touch that it never interrupts the narrative or weighs it down.
It’s hard to describe these stories any further, except to say that they are easily the most fun literary fiction I’ve read that was published in the last 30–40 years. The material is somewhat like that of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, but with none of the same ironic distance or occasional smugness. Even the best “serious” fiction today is so weighed down with cultural context and in-group assumptions that it’s hard to find a contemporary point of comparison for these nine stories. To find another author who is trying as sincerely as Kraft to connect with everyone, you might have to go back to The Adventures of Augie March, or even further to Mark Twain, who’s obviously one of Kraft’s major influences.
These nine stories were collected in one volume called Little Follies, which seems to be long out of print. You can often find used copies online, which is how I first read them, but now there are two other options as well: ordering a new edition directly from Kraft’s website, or buying electronic copies at the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook stores, where they’re now selling for only a dollar each.
If you have never heard of Kraft before, I would encourage you to stop reading here and try one of the stories out. The first, and arguably the best, is called My Mother Takes a Tumble, and you can find the online versions here (Kindle) and here (Nook).
If you’ve been through these stories and are looking for more, or if you’re just curious to learn more about Kraft, then read on.
What to Read Next
Kraft’s output since then consists of about ten novels (many still in print) that I’d put into three main categories. The first group is longer stories of the same general type as the ones in Little Follies, with the young Peter Leroy staying on as a main character. This includes Where Do You Stop (1992), At Home with the Glynns (1995), and Inflating a Dog (2002). My favorite of these three is Inflating a Dog, which tells the story of Peter Leroy’s mother attempting to start a houseboat restaurant.
The second category is novels that take one or more of the secondary characters from the original stories as protagonists. There’s Herb ’n’ Lorna (1989), which tells the story of Peter’s grandparents and how they met; Reservations Recommended (1990) (my favorite), which imagines his troubled schoolmate Matthew as a troubled adult in Boston; and What a Piece of Work I Am (1993), which follows the older sister of another of Peter’s friends.
To understand the third category, you need to know something about the conceit of the whole project, which is that all these stories are framed, narrated and/or introduced by an adult Peter Leroy, who is presented as a dreamy, nostalgic and unreliable narrator, and is largely a stand-in for Kraft himself — just as the town of “Babbington,” where most of the above stories are set, is a thinly-veiled Babylon, on the south shore of Long Island, where Kraft grew up.
So: in this third category are the later novels that break down the walls even further between Peter Leroy the protagonist, Peter Leroy the narrator, and Kraft himself. These books generally interweave stories of Peter Leroy’s childhood with stories of his contemporary life, which seems to mirror Kraft’s own life much more closely. At a few points, they even raise the curtain completely and make brief references to Kraft by name. These novels include Leaving Small’s Hotel (1998), Passionate Spectator (2004), and the Flying trilogy (collected in 2009). My favorite of these is Leaving Small’s Hotel, but all three are more of an acquired taste than his earlier work. Like many writers, Kraft seems to be getting more sentimental with age, and without the context of his earlier work, parts of these books can come across as a little too sweet and sappy for some. On the other hand, if you prefer something with a sweeter, less cynical tone, Flying is not a bad place to start (and The Static of the Spheres will probably be your favorite of the original nine stories).
Why Isn’t He More Widely Read?
I think it’s because the reviews, as positive as they are, tend to focus too much on the postmodern aspects of Kraft’s work: How much of this Peter Leroy character is really Kraft himself? How honest and/or accurate are his recollections, even within the context of the novel? How “real” are the other characters and their storylines supposed to be? And how are all of Kraft’s books connected?
In particular, Kraft’s work is often called “Proustian,” a reference to Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrance of Things Past, a 15-year project in seven volumes that deals with many of the same questions around memory, reality and truth.
Stephen Hawking was once told that every equation he included in a popular science book would reduce his readership by half. My theory is that calling a book “Proustian” has approximately the same effect. Most of us have read little or no Proust, and fairly or not, we have a general impression of his famous book as being long, dense and difficult.
I confess to some doubt as to how many of the people applying this adjective to Kraft have actually made it through Proust’s 1.5 million word opus (and I certainly haven’t), but there’s no question that it was a major influence. And Kraft himself seems very interested in these “Proustian” or “meta” aspects of his work. He includes lots of digressions along these lines in the books themselves, particularly about the unreliability of memory, and he’s taken advantage of the hypertext format to build a dizzyingly complex website that adds various other bits of writing, photos and ephemera to all the works, and attempts to knit them together into a complex whole.
Now that I’ve read everything, especially the books in that third category, I am starting to understand this project a little more than I did at the beginning, but I still see it as an unnecessary distraction for first time readers. You do not need to be interested in the Peter Leroy / Eric Kraft “universe” to enjoy Kraft’s books, any more than you need to be interested in Yoknapatawpha County to appreciate Faulkner, or in the Marvel Universe to appreciate the Spider-Man movies. Kraft’s stories stand up perfectly well on their own, and their fun, infectious tone makes them a ray of sunshine in the too-often dour and over-intellectual landscape of modern fiction. I hope you’ll give them a try.