Christian Kiefer has this habit – nothing neurotic, yet noticeable nonetheless – of self-grooming when trying to summon just the right words, weighted with enough rhetorical rigor, to articulate the thoughts sizzling like stir fry in his overheated brain pan.
In one fluid motion, he’ll run a hand through his clavicle-length straight brown hair, as if trying to prod a notion into speech, then tuck a few stray strands behind his ear before deftly raking his beard like the professor he is when not musing on the human condition in prose, poetry and song.
“I banded the testicles of these two little lambs,” he said, pointing toward a grazing flock down by the chicken coop in the L-shaped backyard of his home in the foothill burg of Newcastle. “They didn’t seem to mind but, oh, man, it … ”
Here Kiefer paused, hand to hair, a tug on the chin. And, standing with the kids’ trampoline and swing set to his left and his writing grotto to the right, he added another nervous movement, a slight bow, as if miming being gut-punched.
“… it got me down to the soul of my being.”
He barked out a laugh of self-mockery, in that he had just spent the better part of an hour in his tricked-out office/recording studio in serious conversation about the nature of selfhood, the ineluctable core of one’s being and the illusion of control – all themes in his novels, the latest of which, “The Animals,” questions with visceral vividness whether, down deep, change is possible.
“The Animals” is Kiefer’s second novel in the past three years bearing the imprint of a major publisher, after nearly a decade as a singer-songwriter with many Americana-tinged albums to his credit. In all likelihood, “The Animals,” to be released next week, will establish Kiefer, 43 and a creative writing professor at American River College, as a literary voice to be noticed, both a gritty realist in the mold of Denis Johnson and Richard Ford and a linguistic stylist like his mentor, T.C. Boyle.
As in his well-reviewed 2012 debut, “The Infinite Tides,” Kiefer again mines the knotted psyche of a male protagonist seeking redemption through reflection and dawning self-awareness. In an advance notice for “The Animals,” the Kirkus Review praised Kiefer as a “master wordsmith” whose “dense and beautiful language intensifies the pain and isolation” of his main character, Bill Reed, who has fled to the woods of Idaho’s panhandle to run a wild-animal rescue and shed a sketchy Nevada past.
Whereas the story in “The Infinite Tides” unspooled leisurely with abstruse mathematical metaphors from an astronaut navigating a rocky re-entry, “The Animals” cinches to maximum tautness in describing a world where life and death are no mere abstractions.
Linking both works, and reflecting Kiefer’s naturalistic worldview, are the ideas that “there are no epiphanies,” as astronaut Keith Corcoran muses in “The Infinite Tides” and that, as Reed learns in the denouement of “The Animals,” “a man could claim nothing from that void (in the universe) and instead would need to design in that obscure and private place that is his heart the laws that would govern his life.”
Heavy stuff. But do not mistake the art and the artist. In conversation, Kiefer exudes a sly sense of humor and a generous spirit. Hardly a tortured soul holed up in a hovel, Kiefer is nothing if not engaged with the world. He teaches full-time at ARC, , is a doting father of five boys, ages 2 to 11 (he has a sixth, age 20), collaborates with countless musicians in Sacramento and nationwide on projects such as 2008’s acclaimed “Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies,” tends to a small menagerie at his home on a ridge above Interstate 80, and, yes, tackles the vicissitudes of man and the elements on the page.
“He’s got this curiosity and imagination,” said Kiefer’s father, Gary, a retired mechanic who lives in Colfax. “He was a super smart kid. School was boring to him. He had to be challenged. His mother (Cathleen) read to him. Constantly. Book after book. He could sit there forever. We found out later that most kids aren’t like that.”
Even sitting on the couch in his writing barn, adjacent his handsome ranch house festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and neat rows of kids shoes lining the doorstep, Kiefer cannot seem to fully relax. He punctuates sentences with gesticulations, tattoos of birds (one for each of his boys, two yet to be done) soaring down the ropy muscles of his forearms. He does that hand-to-hair-to-beard thing and speaks with almost as many clauses as appears in his writing. It’s as if his mind, and nervous system, is a buzzing hive of activity.
“My wife (Macie) understands my need to write,” he said, referring to juggling multiple careers and family. “People think (writing) is a choice, but it’s more like being an alcoholic. Like, ‘I have to do this.’ I write every day of the year.”
As “The Animals” nears its release date, Kiefer has moved on. He points to his desk in the barn’s loft, where a laptop sits open, a shelf of research books looming above and one of those oversized exercise balls below in lieu of a chair.
“This is what I’m writing,” he said. “I’m (at) 650 pages. It’s about cartographers in the age of Napoleon. It’s set in Europe, totally different for me, uncoupled from reality, you know, in the sort of a (Jorge Luis) Borges and (Italo) Calvino type of way, a little weird, a lot weird, actually. I’m very, like, as a writer, I tend to dial into this American white male realist type of thing. That’s what I do, but this is really pushing me in an interesting way.”
Knowing Kiefer, say his friends, whatever he’s working on will be an exercise in full immersion. Michael Spurgeon, novelist and fellow teacher at ARC, calls Kiefer “probably the most creative human being I know.”
“Christian’s process is unusual,” Spurgeon continued. “He’ll write an entire book. Then, say there’s something not working for him, he’ll throw (it) out, start from scratch. With the first book, I think there were 44 drafts. … He has an enormous lyrical gift, no question. He loves big baroque sentences. But there’s a sort of grittiness to ‘The Animals’ in the prose itself, and that reflects the context of the book.”
“The Animals” marries a tight plot – a man escapes a life of crime, drug abuse and gambling addiction in the bleak high desert of Nevada to rebuild his life in an Edenic Idaho, yet must eventually reckon with the past – with lush language and this central question: Can people change, fundamentally, or even have control of their lives? One character, Rick, an ex-con who is Bill Reed’s childhood friend and later partner in crime, is adamant: “There are no clean slates.” Bill, however, tries mightily to overcome the belief that geography (and abject poverty) is destiny.
“I tend to feel like people don’t really change in their core,” Kiefer said. “… Human beings as a whole adhere quite strongly to a notion of control. I think it is an illusion. Part of it is me struggling with the emotion of that core being. By core, I’m thinking of (philosopher Martin) Heidegger writing about the self – the unchangeable core of being. That’s set when we’re young or even before that. If you’re a bear, your core being is your being. If you’re a human, your core being is below this level of language and culture and society and everything else.”
An aging, blind grizzly at the animal rescue preserve, leader of a silent Greek chorus of witnesses to Bill’s struggles, figures prominently in “The Animals.” Kiefer even pulls off the literary high-wire act of writing a chapter from the anthropomorphized ursine’s point of view. Everyone is damaged in the novel, be it caged wildlife with broken wings or humans nursing emotional scars and tangible wounds from violent encounters.
Away from the page, the author does not dwell in such darkness. Kiefer calls his upbringing in Auburn – dad Gary ran his own auto shop in Nevada County; mom Cathleen was an artist and waitress; younger sister Bronwyn is a now middle school teacher – “idyllic.” His father worked on the car of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder and became friends, giving Kiefer an early taste of literature. His father also introduced him to Dylan and Hendrix (their music, not the men) and had drums and guitars around the house on which to noodle.
“My parents were very supportive of any ridiculous thing I wanted to do, such as going to USC and majoring in creative writing,” said Kiefer, who earned a doctorate in English literature from UC Davis. “They seemed to trust I would do something with it.”
Jason Long, friend of Kiefer since their days at Placer High School in Auburn, said their teenage group of “music and theater freaks and geeks” were astonished by Kiefer’s precocity. In high school, Kiefer already had written, recorded and released a “concept” album about a veteran with severe PTSD.
“The rest of us were, like, ‘This guy’s amazing,’” Long recalled. “We all wanted to do something like that, but he did it. He’s always been a write-aholic: songs, stories and at least one play. That part of him has not changed.”
On that, Kiefer is certain.
“I went to my 20th high school reunion five or six years ago,” Kiefer said, “and it was, in a sense, an epiphany for me, ironically enough. It’s that nobody really changed in the sense of their core self. The people who were Bible thumpers in high school were now crazy drug addicts, and the people who were super boring are now real estate agents. It just goes on and on.”
And Kiefer himself?
“Me,” he said, hand through hair, “I was this. Already doing this stuff.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
“The Animals,” By Christian Kiefer
W.W. Norton, $25.95; 320 pages
Author Appearances: In conversation with Michael Spurgeon: 7:30 p.m. March 20 at The Avid Reader (617 Second St., Davis) and 7 p.m. April 2 at Time Tested Books (1114 21st St., Sacramento). Also: 6 p.m. March 24, Placer High School auditorium (275 Orange St., Auburn), with author Jason Sinclair Long.