Andrea Kleine’s Calf is catnip to me.
From the tagline that claims it is a cross between Are You There God it’s Me Margaret and Taxi Driver, to the fact that it is a fictionalised account of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinkley, this is a book that screamed ‘Must Read!’ to me.
Despite the fact that a lot of books scream the same thing at me, I managed to convince my husband that I needed this book for my birthday. Given that I now no longer buy new books, Calf came with a lot of expectation, and for the most part, it lived up to that.
Set in the heady days of 1981, performance artist Andrea Kleine takes her inspiration from real life events. While the world was rocked by John Hinkley Jr’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Kleine’s world was rocked by the murder of her close childhood friend by her mother Leslie De Veau. Unconnected, apart from both happening in Washington DC, these events converged when De Veau and Hinkley later became lovers while inmates in hospital.
Kleine fictionalises these real life characters, so John Hinkley Jr becomes Jeff Hackney while Leslie De Veau is Valerie, who shots her daughter Kirin while she sleeps in bed.
Set over one year and made up of dual narratives, Kleine’s story follows Jeff Hackney as he becomes obsessed with and stalks a young actress, Amber Carroll (here standing in for Jodi Foster). Meanwhile, eleven year old Tammy, is a friend of Kirin, the young girl murdered by her mother Valerie in her sleep.
These are dramatic, almost surreal stories, but these were surreal times and Kleine deftly captures the confusion of an era when John Lennon had just been assassinated, AIDS was in the ascendant, an actor was President and the threat of the Russians and nuclear war was a cloud over everybody’s days.
The confused, fractured and violent nature of the world is reflected in the microcosm of family life. 11 year old Tammy feels alienated from her family; she is frightened of her step-father, feels abandoned by her mother and is aggrieved at having to look after her siblings. Life outside of the home is no less confusing as she deals with the emerging sexuality of her friends, bullying and shifting allegiances. When Kirin is murdered, Tammy struggles to control the darkness within her own mind.
Older, but just as childlike is Jeff Hackney. He is devastated by the death of his idol John Lennon and spends his days in bed thinking about writing songs. His parents are losing patience with their drop out son and his response is to create a fictional girlfriend and move to LA to try and meet Amber Carroll, the young actress with whom he has become infatuated. Delusional, manipulative and unstable Jeffrey’s descent into insanity is chilling, and Kleine cleverly portrays his suffocating need to be noticed, to be acknowledged.
When he meets a girl in a motel whom he later convinces himself was Amber, his fixation is immediate and engulfing. A flippant remark from her becomes a talisman of self-worth to him.
‘Oh yeah. You look like you could be a rock star’
Jeffrey’s entire face began to beam. No one had ever said anything like that to him before. This girl was the one person in the entire universe who got him.
Kleine may stop short of empathising with her creation, but she does try to understand him. As he moves closer to the idea that only violence can provide what he needs, she captures his twisted logic with skill.
Better to go down in a blaze of glory. Better to let the world know I was here. Better to let Amber know I really loved her. Better to let everyone know I was here and I existed and I had feelings. I had ideas. I had thoughts. I wanted things. And nobody listened to me and nobody cared. They just erased the parts of me they didn’t like and didn’t want to see. But they could only erase the parts they saw. I still saw the rest of me, the parts they didn’t give a shit about.
Her depiction of Valerie and what leads her to shoot her own daughter is equally affecting. The reader knows what will happen between mother and daughter but the lack of surprise does little to lessen the impact of the scene when it finally happens. Rather than the more famous crime of Hackney’s, this is the real centre of the novel, a fever dream of a sequence that is so well written it’s hard not to think of how often it has played over in Kleine’s mind through the years.
She told herself to breathe through her nose. She didn’t want to open her mouth. She didn’t want to risk the chance of talking herself out of it. She tried to hang on to the feeling of lightness even though the weight of being left alone was beginning to pour over her. It was trying to push her back down to her knees. But she had to stand up. She had to. She couldn’t let them win. She wasn’t going to let that happen. This was the only way. The only way. She had to do it. She had to save her. She had to.
She turned towards the bedroom door that was still open. The angels had left it open for her. They were nice.
Kleine appears to have some sympathy for Valerie, driven by ghost angels to kill her own daughter and then try to kill herself and when the meaning of the book’s title becomes apparent, it is heart breaking.
The telling of how these worlds collide is a slow burn. Calf is more a character study, of the disaffected, the lonely and ultimately, the mentally ill than it is a page turner, despite the subject matter. The novel is taut and well-crafted with chapters alternating between Tammy, Jeff and Valerie. Kleine builds suspense by taking her time in getting to the scenes that are most dramatic and the most anticipated.
Where the book is less successful is in the depiction of Tammy, which is unusual given she appears to be the stand in for Kleine herself. Making Kirin, the dead girl, a friend of her sister’s rather than a friend of Tammy herself is an odd choice – distancing Tammy’s narrative and diluting her grief from that of close friend to that of acquaintance. A brief scene where her path crosses with Hackney, while tense and well-written, seems too far-fetched to be believable.
For a novel about such dramatic, violent events, the ending is a quiet one, possibly underwhelming for some, however I found it to be well-judged. The relationship that developed between the real life John Hinckley and Leslie De Veau is what holds these narratives together, but Kleine does not allow that to be the overriding focus.
In the end, Calf is not about Hinkley, or De Veau but about the fragility of children’s lives and the damage that neglect can foster.