One might never associate Notre Dame with the literary avant-garde, yet for two bright years (1976-78) Steve Katz taught here. Katz’s often comic, sometimes satiric vision provided the acerbic warped edge to America’s avant-garde. Katz’s range was expansive. The Exagggerations of Peter Prince was referred to as a “post-modern extravaganza,” but Katz being Katz, it is possible he wrote his own blurb.
In this satire the narrator, just out on his own in 1970s America, discovers his capacity for pure love as the only unselfish caretaker in the life of his girlfriend’s daughter, a disfigured adoptee from Vietnam. Be forewarned, though: Peter Prince’s diction could make even a merchant marine cower in shame. Katz’s playful short-story collection Creamy and Delicious retells ancient Greek mythologies in modern settings. And Saw takes sci-fi to places even sci-fi has never been. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of these works. This is, after all, the avant-garde.
An American Studies/English major, I roomed with pre-med students and engineers all through college. They were wonderful, not a Frankenstein in the lot. I got to learn all about science without ever having to take advanced algebra, calculus or trig. So when Steve Katz was slated to read from his latest work I rounded up the guys from St. Ed’s and we went over to Washington Hall for the grand event. I told the guys it would be unlike anything they had ever heard. I told them it would be a worthy study break.
Katz read for about 40 minutes, the bulk of which consisted of a first-person account of a tube of salve being squeezed out and rubbed over sundry sore muscles. The reading was interminable. Afterward, one of my pre-med roommates credited me with truth in advertising. “You were right,” he said, “never in my life have I ever spent 40 minutes wondering what it would be like to be a tube of BenGay being squished onto the hard-to-reach places of some guy’s back. I think I’ll stick with science.” I suspect that my old roomie, now a dentist whose clinics serve small communities in upstate New York, has never since pondered such a thought.
As for me, I’ve never pondered it either, but not having learned my lesson the first time, a few years later in grad school I listened to a member of the French avant-garde read a first-person piece about what it might be like to be a pencil writing its life away and approaching its existential condition of final nub-hood. The avant-garde, as you can see, has earned its reputation of not being for the faint of heart. As events on the social calendar go, avant-garde literary readings are a great place to meet the kinds of girls who make it into their 30s still thinking it is cool to braid their armpits.
So these days I am reading 43 Fictions by Steve Katz. It is a compendium of selections from the aforementioned books plus others, the titles of which nobody much seems to remember. But that is beside the point. I am reading Katz again — the piece about the tube of ointment having wisely been excluded — because whether outlandishly comic or satirically bizarre, Steve Katz is just fun to read. He is even fun to reread. In “Mythology: Hermes,” the Greek messenger from the gods is now a librarian who is so quick “he could get a good night’s sleep in the blink of an eye.” Hermes is so fast he can retrieve books from the stack for you before you even ask for them. And he is only getting faster. While walking with his girlfriend from his house to hers, “Hermes could circle her 43 times whereas in the old days he could circle her only 43 times, too, seeing as how she got wider but also walked slower.” He is, as they say, quicksilver fast. And readers have to stay fast if they are to keep up with the mercurial Katz, whose writing is perhaps the literary version of Iowans going out to the cornfields on a Friday night to watch demolition derby. A rock ’em, sock ’em rambunctious time is sure to be had by all.
Michael Berberich teachers writing, literature and humanities at Galveston College, Galveston, Texas.