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Every picture tells a story in Paul Kwiatkowski's illustrated novel

October 15, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • An image from Paul Kwiatkowski's illustrated novel "And Every Day Was Overcast," about growing up in Florida.
An image from Paul Kwiatkowski's illustrated novel "And Every… (Paul Kwiatkowski / Black…)

Paul Kwiatkowski’s “And Every Day Was Overcast” (Black Balloon: 280 pp., $29.95 paper) is a book that messes with us. Billed as “an illustrated novel” — Carolyn Kellogg discussed its charms in our fall preview video — it blurs the line between text and image, fiction and nonfiction. Who is the strung-out teenage narrator: the author or an alter ego? And who is in the photographs?

That’s an essential question because the bulk of the project is made up of images — staged or candid, we’re not sure. Shot by the author, and apparently going back more than a decade (“I used whatever was cheap and available. Digital didn’t exist at the time so a lot of the photos were done with a disposable camera,” Kwiatkowski acknowledges in a brief publicity interview), these pictures tell their own story, one that exists at the intersection between fiction and the world.

Briefly, the story: “And Every Day Was Overcast” is narrated by a kid growing up in Florida in the late 1990s, stuck in a dead-end life, a dead-end town, with nothing to do but get high on whatever substances are available (in one memorable sequence, he and a friend trip on a homemade mixture of Colorado River toad venom and Arizona Iced Tea, “a concoction that blunted faces into crude, featureless, Popeye-looking masks”) and hang around.

There is no point, no denouement and, even more, no redemption, no way out of the boredom and ennui of every day. In that sense, “And Every Day Was Overcast” is reminiscent of recent novels such as Greg Bottoms’ “Fight Scenes” and Brad Land’s “Pilgrims Upon the Earth,” which also trace the nowhere lives of disaffected kids.

What makes “And Every Day Was Overcast” different are those pictures, which give the book a documentary edge. Or no, not quite documentary, since we are always aware of the images as a construction, a complement to the written text. They tell their own kind of story: bleak if not exactly tragic, empty scenes of shattered houses, kids under the influence, Mohawks and guns.

At the same time, they raise (or change) the stakes here, leaving us unsure about what’s real and what's not. It’s like a Larry Clark film, in which the boundaries between truth and invention are willfully eclipsed. Looking at these photographs, it’s impossible for us to forget that these are actual people, caught in the act of living their lives. That’s true even if the photos have been set up; the kids in them are always authentic, even if the situations are not.

That raises a lot of interesting questions, although, to his credit, Kwiatkowski keeps that in the background of the piece. What does it matter if the scenes he details are invented, as long as they ring true?

Kwiatkowski makes this explicit by calling the book a novel, although it’s a designation he subverts at every turn. Photographs, the fact that the narrator shares the author’s name and background: We finish “And Every Day Was Overcast” in a delirious state of disassociation, not unlike the kids whose lives it seeks to evoke.

This, of course, is why we turn to books — or one reason, anyway — to see the world as we have not before. The shabby suburbs of “And Every Day Was Overcast” may not be unknown to us, but Kwiatkowski’s ruthless excavation give us a new language by which we hear stories that might otherwise go unheard.

“Memories of childhood,” he writes, “humanize us as adults. With age, our versions of that time are deformed then reassembled. What fragments bleed through are tailored to a narrative designed to hide vulnerability.”

Yes, yes, I want to say, but even as we hide that vulnerability, it never goes away. This is the faith, and the revelation, at the center of this book.

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