Some folks are introverts, and some are extroverts. I'm the latter; people are my thing, but my people are story characters. Stories are my high, and reading is my method.
Sometimes in fast food joints I read the backs of tiny ketchup and sugar packets to satisfy my reading urge or directions for shampoo and conditioner in English and Spanish if I'm in the shower. Sometimes I'm so consumed by anticipation that I turn pages with such abandon that I don't notice all the paper cuts I'm giving myself.
I'd been doing well in the post-"Harry Potter" world, but now I'm in a new rut caused by Kevin Kling, a playwright, actor, author and divine storyteller, who recently published his first book. His book, "The Dog Says How," is a compilation of 30 short stories. It synthesizes his experience as "first generation off the farm" with quirky observations and succinct, pointed writing. The tales, set against a Midwest backdrop, are enriched by a captivating sense of time and place as Kling lives up to his zodiac sign, "Minnesota with Iowa rising." Kling is an Osseo, Minn. native and a current resident of the Twin Cities, and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 7, he will be holding a discussion and a book signing at Carleton College's Great Hall
Before reading this, Kling had never been my literary fix of choice, though I had dabbled in his past work. A frequent storytelling contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" since the early 1990s, he is notable for producing six recordings of his stories beginning in 1984 and successfully pursuing theater by publishing nine plays. Two of his most acclaimed plays are the widely performed piece "21A" (a one-person play based on a South Minneapolis bus route) and "Fear and Loving in Minneapolis."
Kling has continued to work despite an August 2001 motorcycle crash which left him partially paralyzed. At a late 2001 benefit dinner, Kling recounted moments of his ordeal, delivering his patent weave of humor and insight.
"Over the next several hours I was in sections of the newspaper I'd never known and headed for one section I wanted to avoid. I felt death brush twice and had one full blown conversation where we discussed my future, mostly what realm I would occupy," Kling said, before reverting to his traditional understated humor. "I was also on morphine When morphine takes over, it takes over. It falsely takes charge like Alexander Haig when Reagan was shot. It says, I'm in charge now.'"
I'm so taken with his blended, accessible style that it has induced visions.
I've always enjoyed thinking of excellent authors as characters themselves as craftsmen, as wordsmiths laboring over intricate, thoughtful pieces, as peddlers of fantasy and reality and now as competitive male gymnasts. Kling's caliber is on par with that of fellow Midwest story-men Garrison Keillor and Bill Bryson. I envisioned that the three's splendid writing prowess could be humanized into a skillful athletic trio.
If there were a pan-Midwest male gymnast team everyone knows Keillor would specialize in the parallel bars, while sturdy Bill Bryson of "A Walk in the Woods" fame would seal-in a victory on the pommel horse. Their ace writing hands finger tips callused from typing and palms chalked by pen marks would catapult the team close to storyteller gold. Almost. To cinch the deal they would need Kling to flesh out the lineup.
Kling would perform a stellar yet subtle floor routine replete with agile subject changes complemented by one or two brisk bursts of dialogue. The spectators are a diverse bunch from across the nation though a noticeable contingent hails from South Minneapolis, the nexus of many of Kling's stories.
In his fifth entry, "Dogs," Kling touches all corners of the mat: humor, depth, reflection and strong characters. First he describes some noble historical roles of dogs then parlays into their modern functions as companions, hunters and amusing dreamers. Along the way he asks if our delight is unmerited ("are we paired with the dogs we deserve?") and admits his dachshund dictates his life ("call me what you will, but when I put on a pair of pants, there's liver in one pocket and plastic bags in the other").
Kling's routine is popular because the material is refreshing but evokes a sense of familiarity and cohesiveness that signals a well-rounded, memorable tale. His sophisticated, image-rich storytelling has pulled me in and I'm content to stay. After reading "The Dog Says How," it is undeniable that Kling's charming genius will vault him into the national realm of aforementioned Bryson and Keillor.