Vincent Czyz pens Stories of Restless Dreamers and a Blue Jean Baby Queen
By Sally Deering
Like many young writers in their 20s searching for the road less traveled, Vincent Czyz packed up his car one day and hit the highway for a cross-country trip. Jack Kerouac did it as a member of the Beat Generation; Hippies in the 60s did it to find girls with flowers in their hair. To a budding writer, The West can be as inviting as a ballpoint pen and a clean sheet of paper.
Czyz’s travels to find adventure led him to a town in Kansas and a colorful cast of characters who were hard-drinking, had their hearts broken more than once, and could tell a story as good as Louis C.K. Guys with names like Zirque, the Blue Jean Queen, and Stevie “The Duke of” Pallucca.
These characters – and others – are the heart and soul of “Adrift in a Vanishing City,” (Rain Mountain Press, 239 pgs; paperback; $18;) a collection of short stories Czyz wrote with a sensitivity for soft-hearted, lonesome everymen – and women – roaming restlessly through life like stray dogs searching for a home.
Czyz says his style of short story writing breaks away from the convention where things get tied up in a neat little bow at the end. Instead his characters slip in and out of the stories like ghosts haunting each other’s dreams.
“What I tried to do was fuse poetry and short story,” Czyz says, taking a mid-afternoon break at a Jersey City coffee shop. “I wanted something more intense. I didn’t want disposable sentences.”
Here’s an excerpt from the character “Pap” who stands 5’1”, with a clubfoot. He’s the town drunk in love with the prettiest girl in town, similar to the main character in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Czyz says.
“…Lookin out the window, the light growin, he spotted a pale moon, cold round rock up there, white and frostbitten, a high school-age god hurled himself an iceball through space. A new meaning to cold if he could be up there to feel it, him and his pot-belly stove, everything on the whole miniature planet (misshapen like him, only done half way, s’posed to be a planet but look what happened, got shortchanged in a big way, only gets away with bein so ugly ‘cause it gives off a shine), him and his pot-belly stove’d be all the warmth in that corner a the universe, any other life up there’d come shuffling over to the beacon light. Pap Prometheus and his Amazin Woodburnin Stove…”
“One character, Earl Kukovich, he’s a colorful character of Polish extraction, and one of the funniest people you’d ever meet,” Czyz says. “I’m skipping over the fact that he killed five people.”
Then there’s Stevie, “The Duke of” Pallucca, who was educated at Notre Dame and worked as a bookie. Czyz says: “I would go fishing with him, partying, horseback riding and go with him on his bookie runs. This is the late 1980s-90s. Stevie was intense. He could recite T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg. He wrote poetry, too.”
Czyz roots poetic language with character, he says, and his writing has won several awards including the 1994 W. Faulkner -W. Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction. A 2011 Truman Capote Fellow at Rutgers-Newark, Czyz teaches freshman composition at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, and creative writing at The College of New Jersey in Ewing. His students need only read his book’s first chapter, “Zee Gee and the Blue Jean Baby Queen” to see that their teacher elegantly fuses prose with imagery, describing timeless moments as if remembering a dream.
“Every writer expresses something intense,” Czyz says. “You ask yourself, ‘what words do I use that will make people feel what I felt? Like a sunset. How do I capture that in words?’”
Many of Czyz’s characters are mysterious, and poets at heart yearning for something just beyond reach. Czyz, who cut his journalism teeth writing features for the North Jersey Herald News in Passaic, writes his characters with empathy and a deep feeling for humanity.
On his travels to and from Kansas, Czyz says he had no intention of writing a book about the friends he had made. He kept a journal, sure, but he was just one of the boys, not a writer peeking into their lives from the outside.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t have a tape recorder,” Czyz says. “They were so funny. There are a lot of good storytellers in The West where conversation is still more of an art.”
Czyz earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Rutgers-New Brunswick; a Master of Fine Arts degree from Rutgers-Newark, and a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His short stories have been published in periodicals like Camera Obscura, Georgetown Review, Skidrow Penthouse, The Massachusetts Review and Quiddity. He lived in Istanbul, Turkey, for 10 years where his fiction has been anthologized in Turkish, and Czyz now resides in Jersey City with his wife, Neslihan.
In October, Czyz has a new book coming out, “The Christos Mosaic,” a thriller written for the commercial fiction market, he says, whereas “Adrift in a Vanishing City” was more a labor of love. At the end of the book, he recalls a pair of sneakers Steve “The Duke of” Pallucca gave him in 2006. When he learned Pallucca had passed away, Czyz and Neslihan took a road trip to visit Pallucca’s grave.
Czyz writes: “They were well past their expiration date, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, so we rode half way across the country and put the sneakers on Stevie’s grave with a note – laminated with packing tape and tied to a lace – explaining their significance.”
Where to buy “Adrift in a Vanishing City”
“Adrift in a Vanishing City” can be purchased online at Amazon.com; and at Barnes & Noble bookstores; Three Lives Bookstore and Co. in Manhattan; and at Word bookstore on Newark Ave, Jersey City.
Visit Vincent Czyz’s page on Facebook.