by Paul Kwiatkowski | Black Balloon Publishing | 280 pages
Paul Kwiatkowski’s amalgam photo book-slash-novel-slash-memoir, And Every Day Was Overcast, is a novel about young adults (if that’s what we call high-school kids), but it is certainly not most people’s idea of a “YA novel.” The textual elements trace the messed-up, acid-fragged Loxahatchee youth of the narrator in short blips of narrative, but they’re interspersed with pages of dirty (in more than one sense) photographs.
Kwiatkowski could have published these photos as an art book – they’re astoundingly fresh, almost electrifying – but chose instead to pair them with this short coming-of-age tale. He and his publisher, Black Balloon, are very careful to refer to as a novel, not a memoir, though it’s hard not to draw connections between the “fictional” characters and the kids in the photos, which hail from Kwiatkowski’s 1990s youth. It’s an overt rejection of the already-blurry lines between the real and the artificial, between reality and fantasyland.
A cynic might call it the perfect novel for the Tumblr age (more than perfect: inevitable), reacting purely to the subject matter: rednecks butchering gators, teens flashing the camera, decaying jungle-choked trailers, homemade death-metal mixtapes, smoking, drinking, drugs, boobs. And Kwiatkowski doesn’t disappoint as a Baudelaire of the swamps, detailing days spent tripping on a mix of toad venom and Arizona iced tea or jerking off to a roll call of iconic TV females (from Jem to Punky Brewster to Winnie to Fran Drescher). But behind the usual teen melody of getting high and getting off is an ominous background noise, a crackling static made up of AIDS hysteria, bullying, loneliness and the frankly oppressive Floridian environment. (As the title has it, it’s not always sunny in Loxahatchee.) How could one not feel creeping existential dread when nature itself is constantly working to shake off human occupation, whether by heat, insect, decay or wildlife? The narrator says, “My roots were steeped in shallow earth, easily extracted from amorphous terrain – swamps and beaches, neither land nor water.” Any melodramatic teenager might feel that way, but in Florida it’s also physical reality.
The book has been rapturously received, blurbed by none other than Ira Glass, and will no doubt be decorating 20-somethings’ coffee tables across the nation Dec. 26. But it’s worth exploring the iPad deluxe edition, if you can. Despite their genesis as Polaroids, ancient Kodak snaps, or tired prints from crappy disposables, the images seem more at home there, almost alive; the glow-flicker of a pixel display suits not only the photos, but also the TV-drenched narrative.
Along with the text and photos, the iPad edition boasts a soundtrack (a mix of field recordings and ambient noise that is utterly familiar to any Southern suburbia-dweller, yet unsettlingly affecting) and a trove of anonymous interviews that are pure gold: funny, honest reminiscences of growing up in South Florida. Kwiatkowski’s adolescent angst may be universal, even trendy today, but the mix of nostalgia and dissolution in And Every Day Was Overcast is uniquely Floridian.
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