When it comes to academia, it's a "publish or perish" world. With his debut novel, "The Infinite Tides" (Bloomsbury, $26, 400 pages), American River College professor of English Christian Kiefer has passed the test.
In the moving, symbol-heavy "Tides," Kiefer confronts the Big Issues life, death, loss, hope, redemption as experienced by Capt. Keith Corcoran and, by extension, Everyman.
Keith is an astronaut on the International Space Station who gets word that his teenage daughter has been killed in a car wreck, and his adulterous wife is demanding a divorce. Back on Earth, he goes on hiatus from NASA and tries to cope with losing everything.
Kiefer is a published poet ("Feeding Into Winter"), musician (the Christian Kiefer band) and now novelist ("I like to keep busy"). He and wife Macie live with their five children near Newcastle, "on a ridge on a couple acres with some chickens. It's a little empire of awesomeness."
Kiefer, 41, grew up in Auburn, earned a master's degree from California State University, Sacramento, and a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of California, Davis.
He will host a book-signing at 7 p.m. Thursday at Time Tested Books, 1114 21st St., Sacramento; (916) 447-5696. I caught up with him by phone at his campus office.
What do you teach at ARC?
Composition, creative writing and literature the whole gamut.
What do your students think about you as novelist?
They're interested and excited. A good many of them are in college for the first time, so to have a faculty member who has published a novel and he's teaching them how to write sentences is a big thing for them.
What sparked the story?
Part of it was listening to the news and beginning to feel I might be the only man in America who still had a job.
Then sitting at Starbucks (grading papers), watching other men at other tables looking through the want ads, then drifting to the sports pages, then to the funnies, then finally to the front page. Basically using the hunt for a job as a way to fill the endless hours of their otherwise vacant days.
That's certainly cheerful.
Men and I guess women, too define themselves by what they do. When a large swath of them end up with no answer to the question, "What do you do (for work)?" it presents an interesting social and cultural situation.
How so in the book?
(The story is) about imagining oneself as a vector, which has direction and momentum. Then learning you're not a vector, you're a point, which sits in one spot and has no mass. Keith is completely focused on himself moving forward in the world on a path he has envisioned. When the moment comes when he is derailed from that path, he slowly becomes aware of all the things he has missed in his life.
What about the theme of isolationism?
All of our lives are containerized. We go from the container of our car to the container of our house. Keith's mission is flying on a container the space shuttle to another container the International Space Station and climbing in to a space suit another container. He's seen most of his life from (various) containers.
His house and the neighbors' houses are basically the same. The Starbucks are all purposely the same. In terms of the novel, every container is the same as the next container. The significant events in the book are when he's outside.
The question becomes, "How do you locate yourself as a unique individual in the context of such self-similartiy?"
Your skill as a poet must have informed the book.
The poetry made me hyper-sensitive to word choice. And reading mid 19th century literature Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville has given me a real sense of focus on the flow of sentences. William Faulkner, too, though from a later period but very much coming out of that tradition. I carried Faulkner's "Absolom, Absolom!" with me in my backpack, and still refer to it when I want to remind myself what a sentence can really do.
What are the "infinite tides"?
I don't want to give away the symbology of the book, but Keith is a character who moves forward all the time, but (can't because) the ebb and flow (of life) is part of its process. There's an infinite kind of circularity, and it takes Keith a long time to realize that it's essentially what life is.
After a loss such as Keith suffers, how does one move on?
The famous text on that is "On Death and Dying" by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who (explains) the steps you go through in the grieving process. There's a moment when Keith realizes he's stuck in one of these grief stages and it pisses him off that he is so ordinary in the end. He's thought of himself as a super-genius his whole life. But when it comes to these types of emotional resonances, we are all the same at heart.
What does Keith finally learn?
As simple as it sounds, he learns to stop and accept the fact that the things around him and the people around him are enough.