Gene Kwak’s Go Home, Ricky!, a debut novel out this month from Overlook Press, has a great voice. Propulsive and poetic, full of quick-hitting monosyllables, it pounds out a drumbeat of pure sound, amid which, if you focus, you can find plentiful deadpan insights into the consummate strangeness of contemporary Middle America.
Kwak’s novel also has a great character, the titular Ricky: slacker, janitor, semi-pro wrestler, a jacked, jaded Nebraskan hoping to get famous or maybe feel a deep human emotion—whichever comes first. Born Richard Powell, he adopts the nom de guerre Ricky Twohatchet. Playing the role, he leans hard into his alleged Apache ancestry, but his claim to this heritage seems dubious. If his absent father is one Jeremiah Twohatchet, as his white mother has insisted, why does he look “white as a Republican?” We meet Ricky on the decline—broken down (neck injury in the ring, all too real), broken up with (he wanted a baby, his girlfriend didn’t), and just plain broke.
There’s another character who goes by Johnny America, but Ricky himself—well-meaning heartland striver, either Native or a natural-born charlatan—becomes a memorable avatar of the wounded, winning masculinity at the core of our country’s skewed self-image, as well as the aggressively hokey kitsch that has long papered over our brutal settler-colonial history. Take it, fake it, flaunt it, above all sell it, even back to those you took it from. If you can, genuinely forget it’s not yours.
So—compelling voice, compelling character. But the two, together, also compel a question: why the two, together? The voice is Ricky’s. He narrates the entirety of the novel in the first person. Never, however, does there come an explanation for the flair and rhythm of his unabashedly writerly sentences. He is a reader, we learn, but not a verbal virtuoso in daily life, not a diarist or a rapper or a slam poet. Wrestlers play to the crowd, and at Ricky’s level they write their own lines. But how many wrestlers have the prose stylings of a millennial Denis Johnson?
Kwak is clearly a student of Johnson, and of Barry Hannah, who gets an epigraph. He lives happily in the very particular niche that combines masculine, vulgar, lyrical, and funny-ha-ha/funny-strange. Perhaps due to his history as a writer of intense, compressed works of flash fiction, he seems less interested in the advice of Elmore Leonard—another aficionado of the dirty and bizarre American middle, but one who’d rather axe the lyricism. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” Leonard wrote. Kwak writes, and relishes the sounds. So does Ricky, apparently, though we never really learn how or why.
If this is purposeful defiance of expectation on Kwak’s part, it would be consistent with his approach to narrative. Nothing you could call a plot really emerges. If anything, Go Home, Ricky!, as stubborn as Ricky himself, actively resists easy summary. It’s not about semi-pro wrestling: regrettably, the vivid and savvy portrayal of that world essentially ends when Ricky’s career ends, in the first scene. It’s not a meditation on Internet culture, though multiple videos of Ricky’s hijinks go viral, and he riffs on generational differences between him and some Native high schoolers he tries to mentor. It’s not about reconnecting with a long-lost father, or rescuing a relationship, or finding spiritual redemption, all of which Ricky pursues without clear success.
Ultimately, what Go Home, Ricky! cares about is precisely the nothingness that greets you when you’ve lost all sense of identity and purpose. For the reader, this means some scenes of absolutely no narrative importance or momentum, such as one in which, inexplicably, Ricky starts buying and sharpening steak knives. But it also means a frank reckoning with the aimlessness of real life. A kind of existential suspense does arise, after all. What is this guy going to do? The drift of his story, across many brief chapters, offers a literary depiction of days that get away from you, hours sucked into a bar, a car, a couch. Plenty happens in the novel, but it’s at its best when Ricky—to quote John Prine, perhaps the greatest poet of Midwestern ennui—is “staring at the ceiling, just wanting to be.”
Along the way, Go Home, Ricky! offers an endearing and distinctive portrait of the Midwest. Kwak manages to clock the changing sameness—fewer cornfields, more Walmarts and meth-heads—while also taking in the different, the wrecked, the simply odd. Ricky laments Omaha’s gentrification (“rooftop patios where West O yuppies meet for margs … and a DIY garage where shy poets read their sad tweets”), but he still rides for his city, championing its true weirdness, its sad, proud, unheralded status as what Austin claims to be.
Just at the moment when Jonathan Franzen has returned to his Midwestern roots, Kwak’s equally Midwestern book has presented itself as something like the opposite of a Franzen novel: a quick, wild, first-person narrative careening off on its own, looking at whiteness, marriage, parenthood, and religion very much from the outside in, with no nuclear family in sight. In the bargain, Kwak adds a feel for unique experiences of racial difference, unmapped idiosyncrasies of identification. And he knows his way around pure American (male) garbage, the scuzzy stuff most novelists would leave out, from bathroom hand jobs to wholesale appropriation of indigenous lands and culture. If he can resolve that question of voice and character, deepen the connection between sound and meaning, he may soar. Go Home, Ricky! finds him still on the ground, but off to a very solid start.
Go Home, Ricky!
By Gene Kwak
Published October 19, 2021