The Kryptonite Kid: A Review
Who is this Joseph Torchia? Wikipedia and the jacket flap tell me that, like Jerry Chariotâ€"young hero of Torchia's novel, The Kryptonite Kid (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979), he was born in Pennsylvania, that he went to Catholic school, that later he went to public school, that he worked as a photographer and journalist. That he lived in San Francisco. An Amazon review, apparently by someone who knew him, tells me that he was happy to get a weird, irrelevant blurb from Pauline Kael, admittedly no mean feat. It indicates that Torchia was a man of no small hope and no small sense of belief, gullibility as to what the outward signs of literary success meant, really. He died in 1996. He hadn't published anything, as far as Wikipedia knows, since the 1988 Stonewall Inn edition of his second book, As If After Sex, originally published in 1984. So the book took four years to go from hardcover to paperback, and then only as an entry in a St. Martin's Press series about seminal gay literature or somesuch. It needed the support of a series to justify the risk of paper and ink. Torchia spent the last years of his life as a photographer with a small studio, and died, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "apparently from liver cancer." Is that normal in an obituary? To say what someone "apparently" died from?

The question of who this person even was bothers me. It wouldn't have bothered me were I not a sucker for the epistolary novel, especially the kind in which the letters either tend not to get sent or get sent to people who don't exist, or don't care. I like the futility of a correspondence. I feel like we're going to lose that in the modern world. No one responded to your email: who cares?

So when I saw this book on the two-dollar cart at Alabaster Bookshopâ€"its cover a Joe Shuster-looking illustration of the title character holding a pen and a Virgin Mary statue, towel-cape fluttering in the windâ€"and I read the flap copy and learned that the book was about a kid who writes letters to Superman, what was I to do? It was two bucks to read some junky little literary novel about Superman, in epistolary format, and I'd forgotten my book that day.

At first all the standard tricks are employed. The book is entirely written as letters to Superman by his two "super-pals," Jerry Chariot and Robert Sipanno (Jerry writes, Robert suggests things sometimes.) The kids are adorable. They think Superman is real. They misspell a lot of basic words. They don't understand grownup topics at all. We have read this kind of book before.

Then the scene comes along where Jerry tries to tell his parents that he's writing letters to Superman. His father hits him with a rolled-up newspaper, which he then unrolls to show Jerry a photo of George Reeves.

You're an idiot, he says. Superman shot himself, he says.

It is all uphill from there if you like books about people going through complete grinding hell. Jerry's older brother calls him a queer, a mortal sin. His father beats him unmercifully, many times, and gets drunk every night at the Italian Club, and beats him again. His sister, a nun, tells him he's going to hell for believing in Superman. His teacher, the nun Sister Mary Justin, prevents him from getting his First Communion so that he will, in fact, go to Hell.

Yet Jerry continues to believe in Superman, who never writes back. Against everything, he holds this deep faith in Superman. He writes a poem about how he likes Superman better than Jesus. He keeps trying to ask Superman questions to prove that Superman is really God, asks him to use his super-breath to put out the fires of Hell that await him.

Eventually Jerry becomes obsessed with breaking through the Time Barrier. He becomes obsessed with the idea that when he grows up and becomes as powerful as Superman, he'll travel back in time to visit himself and tell himself that everything will be all right. His letters to Superman become totally consumed by this theme. He believes that he will eventually become Jesus, when Superman takes him back in time to be placed into the care of Mary and Joseph, and then Superman will save him from the cross.

And then, he achieves his goal:

I had this dream.

I dreamed I was flying through the air and I was flying real fast and I broke through the Time Barrier. Only I wasn't flying backwords into the past. I was flying forword, into the future.

Like you do sometimes.

And you'll never guess where I landed? I landed right where I am write now! Right on top of my dad's apartment building! And it was late at night. Real late. But my light was still on so I looked in the window and you'll never guess who I saw?

It was me, Superman.

Only I was a LOT bigger. And I was writing a letter to you, just like this one. Lots of short sentences. Lots of short paragraphs. Only I wasn't writing it because I was typing it. And I don't even have a typewriter but that's what I was doing.

I watched for a long time.

I looked through the window and I looked at myself and I knew it was me. I KNEW it! Except I was bigger, like I told you. And I was crying. Tears kept falling allover my typewriter. The one I don't have yet. And each tear was a different color. Red and blue and yellow. And gold. And green, like Kryptonite. They fell everywhere. Rivers of rainbows flooding the room, getting higher and deeper, attacking me, drowning meâ€"killing me!

It was AWFUL, Superman! I thought FOR SURE I was gonna die! I kept trying to make it to the window, to pull it open and save myself. But I couldn't. Somebody was stopping me. Somebody was outside holding it shut.


It is completely horrible and heartbreaking when you start to see Jerry lose his faith in Superman. His belief is taken from him, piece by piece, as his life gets torn more and more apart. He starts hinting that Superman never writes him. He tells Superman he has the power to find Kryptonite in rocks and bricks. He brands himself the Kryptonite Kid and makes a green outfit for himself. He starts to identify more and more with Mr. Myxyztplk!, Superman's imp foe from the Fifth Dimension, starts writing letters to him instead. He becomes consumed by visions of Robert dying in Vietnam, in a war that hasn't yet begun. He starts practicing how to fly.

Yes the thing you think will happen happens. That isn't the end of the book.

The ending goes far enough that his original editors at Holt, Rinehart & Winston forced him to change the ending. The edition I have is a Macmillan UK printing from a year after the first US edition, and I kind of have to believe that this edition has the real ending, because I can't imagine anything more horrible than the ending of this book, and I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to cut it. But this kind of ending can sometimes be a problem for people, you know.

I'm sick of people who believe that traditional publishing is some kind of meritocracy. A book publication means one of two things:

(1) You wrote something that touched someone very deeply, so much so that they were forced to publish the book or never look themselves in the mirror ever again.
(2) Someone thinks you would be good to exploit.

Editors at Holt, Rinehart & Winston acquired this book, then cut the ending. The ending is the only thing that makes this book not what I'd thought it was when I bought it for two bucks: a cynical, cheapo cash-in book, published because Superman is a recognizable Brand. The only reason you would publish this book and cut this ending is because you do not understand it, and you think it will become difficult to acquire the SUPER-dollars you would like to extract from the Superman name. Or worse: you think that "readers" won't understand it. They are sensitive.

The book is not the best written thing in the world. It doesn't matter. There aren't many other books I've read that mine this territory, and almost none that have an ending similar to this: the complete fusion of author and character, the haunting of fiction by reality. The thing of it is that Torchia goes farther than I've seen most people goâ€"and he doesn't do it as a stunt, or as a device. He does itâ€"and who knows how accurate this is? There is no information on Joseph Torchia within the Internet's cold reach. And yet I still think this is accurateâ€"he does it because he's still the Kryptonite Kid in 1979, at his typewriter in this room, crying a rainbow of tears with someone holding the window shut so that no one, not even himself, can save him.

This is still Torchia's world. The protective bubble of fiction and fantasy can extend its skin only so far out through time before it becomes unsound. But the thing about this kind of bubble is that it doesn't pop: it phases in and out. It lets you see reality for what it is, then it lets you go on believing. There are many novels of disillusionment, from Don Quixote on up. Novels of effective, torturous re-illusionment are rare, and precious when found.

Posted by future on Sat, 26 Mar 2011 00:25:05 -0500 -- permanent link


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