While _The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch_ lends no new insights into the late New York School poet, it’s a vital addition to the bookshelf in the same sense that there are no throw-away Picassos. The six pieces of fiction here nicely outline the evolution of Koch’s talents and passions, showing a master craftsman and a charming mind as adept at composing extended pages of prose as he was at crafting lines of verse.
_The Red Robins_ (1975), a 56-chapter, loosely structured tale of several young American airplane pilots led by a character called Santa Claus, perfectly illustrates Koch’s sometimes-preference for music and fun over meaning. While thoroughly enjoyable and completely engaging, the novella has no particular plot line and refuses us the satisfaction of an overarching theme. In Chapter 16, “Dracula and the Easter Bunny swooped down. Their only aim was to kill them [the Red Robins] at one fell swoop. The Easter Bunny fell hard on Jim, Bob, and Rusty. Dracula, on the other hand, was caught at the edge of a machine gun and immediately burst into flame.” On the very next page, starting the chapter titled “Mike,” we read, “My name is Mike, and I am a man-eating tiger….”
Almost 20 years later, Koch’s masterpiece _Hotel Lambosa_ (1993) finds him more reflective, less infatuated with absurdity and instead almost painfully nostalgic for his youthful relationships with women, friends, and exotic places. “I am going with my wife tonight to the Tango Palace!” he writes, and we can almost feel him yearning to go back in time. He knows he’s romanticizing his past, and yet he refuses to deny the plain truth: our pasts are inherently romantic. These same themes play throughout much of Koch’s later poetry, and are perhaps best explored in his collection _New Addresses_ (2000), the last of his books published before he died.
_The Red Robins_ and _Hotel Lambosa_ anchor the collection (and make up 80% of it), but the other four pieces similarly give us impressions of Koch we’ve already gained from his poetry; Koch’s prose doesn’t have the familiar flavor of an artist “trying something new” by working outside his genre. In “The New Orleans Stories,” for instance, Koch employs his trademark narrative directness and humor to describe a poor family in serious trouble with the law, while in “The Beverly Boys’ Summer Vacation,” the collection’s first entry, he uses simple, jovial, “Dick and Jane”-type sentences to deliver a plot that’s surprisingly unnerving. Koch’s ability to provoke unexpected emotions from us in prose echoes that same success in his poems, which often make us laugh, but which leave us with an impression of sadness, regret, or earnest longing.
One of the primary pleasures of reading Kenneth Koch is that, for all his infatuation and prowess with the English language, he simultaneously seems frustrated by its imperfection as a means of translating his heart, his mind, and his memories into something we can understand and experience as completely as he does. _The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch_ showcases a few lesser-known methods by which Koch explored that tension, and it’s precisely that struggle that makes this volume, like everything he’s written, well worth discovering.
_This review was originally published in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 10, No. 4._