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April 14, 2005

Books, Journals & More – A Closer Look: Chuck Kinder

Drive 79 South until you’re well into West Virginia, then let Chuck Kinder take the wheel; that is, if you’re not afraid of beer joints, cussing, hillbillies and extraordinary story telling.

Whether he’s complimenting an old friend on his tattoos or taking you back to his youth when he was a “testiclely-challenged boy,” Kinder’s escapades are a hoot in his “Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life.” His other novels include “Honeymooners” (2001), “The Silver Ghost” (1978) and “Snakehunter” (1973).

Director of Pitt’s writing program, Kinder, who is referred to as a badboy American writer by The New York Times and a lot of other publications, is a master at being both a wild man and a storyteller. During his post-Beat literary cool years, Kinder wrote hard and lived hard in the San Francisco area alongside a number of buddies including literary giant Raymond Carver. Among his students at Pitt was Michael Chabon, who supposedly used Kinder as the basis for the character Grady Tripp in his novel “Wonder Boys.”

More telltale of Kinder’s background was his leap from expelled high school student to mill worker to San Francisco flower child to Stanford University fellow. He came to Pitt almost 25 years ago to be closer to his family in West Virginia. Kinder said that he loves Pittsburgh, calling it, “the Paris of Appalachia.”

Kinder’s latest book pays homage to his native state, though some of the names and places have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. “Everything else is as literally true as the Bible,” he jested.

According to Kinder’s prologue, he left town on sabbatical to “immerse myself, as it were, among the lives of the mountaineer characters, both the quick and the dead, among both my family members and strangers, whose stories I wanted to write, fascinating, famous brave survival tales….”

Kinder seems comfortable with his roots, knowing that his heritage is responsible for a persona that has, historically, worked to his benefit. “I embrace that hillbilly bullshit,” he explained. “The folks down there will say, ‘No, we’re not really like that,’” mocked Kinder, changing his Southern twang to the monotone of a straight, white man from up North.

“When I went to Stanford — I know it’s hard to tell, I’m so cosmopolitan and suave now — but I was a hillbilly hick. A little fellowship boy.” But as fortune would have it, West Virginia pedigree was hip in the late 1970s at the college, according to Kinder. “When I got to Stanford, I found all these rich kids acting like they were hillbillies. It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Kinder recalled. “I even started chewing tobacco to make myself more authentic.” Women loved it, according to Kinder.

Kinder’s family hails from southern West Virginia, just outside of Montgomery, where his mother, “who reinvented herself as a Baptist church lady, a good-looking church lady” and his sister still live. Kinder’s many tales, whether strolls through the past or edgy reunions with the present, are packed tight with colorful characters and lots of action.

If readers want to know, say, the real West Virginian definition of a honky tonk, they should go to the Stars and Bars chapter. Kinder said this story details his last beer joint fight where “I got my butt kicked.” Kinder describes his most recent bar fight:

“I saw his first punch coming at me like a program I had circled to watch in the TV Guide. That didn’t make much difference either, except that I managed to duck just enough so that instead of breaking my face into pieces, it plowed a trench along the top of my head, the air about which began to sparkle. The fighting style of Baddest Bill was simple enough to figure out, he merely stepped forward one flat foot at a time, windmilling haymakers. My own fight plan was simple too, duck and dodge and scramble about until hopefully Baddest Bill either ran out of gas before I got killed or he was magically transfigured into that rare Southern Baptist full of forgiveness, pity and mercy.”

Kinder seems to take greater care in developing character descriptions than in honing a left hook. But that’s been his priority all along. In fact, one of his greatest legacies from growing up in West Virginia is the art of storytelling.

Kinder’s choice for the best storyteller he ever knew — and he has known many great ones — is his grandmother Daisy, known affectionately as Mimi.

“As a boy, I loved nothing more than hanging out with Mimi. She would tell story after story,” said Kinder. “As a little boy I loved to sneak under the kitchen table, where the old aunts (pronounced ‘ants,’ Kinder emphasized) would be stringing beans or something around the table.” The women would gossip, tell ghost stories, relate tales about witches in the woods or lost children in a forest. “And they believed there were witches in the woods.”

As Kinder listened to the same stories over time, they became richer, better in the telling.

“I was very attuned to the stories. I could remember everything, and this old aunt would come up with a detail in an old story. They would tell the same stories over and over again, changing them slightly.” Kinder started “piping in” with his own details to fit the stories. “Mimi, who loved me with all heart and soul, would accept the story. I realized that I could interject not facts, but factions — in between fact and fiction — and yet they had a certain validity because they were emotionally true. They captured the sense of the story, the sense of the narrative.

“They weren’t utterly factual, but they made the story better,” explained Kinder, who paused, adding: “It could have happened.”

—Mary Ann Thomas

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