Plot: McKeon's ability to blend drama of the stage with real-life events packs a powerful punch for readers, leaving them stinging long after the book has been set down. The author's balancing act between absurd humor and existential philosophy makes his story a paragon of Bukowski's dirty realism.
Prose: McKeon's prose boasts some clever, often vulgar turns of phrase and dazzling metaphors and similes. His ability to keep the language fresh without reverting to purple prose is impressive.
Originality: While the book is not entirely original, the author creates a unique character with a fresh voice.
Character Development: His brutally honest and often obscene observations of life make Bob a frustrating but lovable protagonist. His overt cynicism and inadvertent escapism likens him to characters as noteworthy as Salinger's Holden Caulfield. Though the unrestricted access to Bob's psychology can be somewhat uncomfortable at times, it is needed for the reader to remain emotionally invested in the work.
Date Submitted: April 04, 2018
A young man in a theater troupe struggles to get his life together in the wake of graduate school and a failed marriage.
By the first few pages of McKeon’s debut novel, protagonist and narrator Bob is convinced that it’s “all over, college, grad school, the seventies and the marriage.” The actor is on a “sweat-soaked” Naugahyde bus seat with his friend Ripley. It’s 1980, and the two 25-year-olds have accepted paid summer residencies at the PCPA theater, a well-known company in the central California tourist town of Santa Maria, in order to actively run from the realities of having just finished MFAs. What the PCPA fails to offer them in terms of speaking roles, money, and a glamorous locale it more than makes up for with its host of fascinating fellow actors. The members of the company start to couple and uncouple in between wild, hazy parties and rehearsals for everything from Henry V to Death of a Salesman. But, being theatrical and eccentric, these are not your average quirky 20-somethings; there’s a fugitive from the FBI, a man who refuses to be separated from his dog, and Bob’s sublimely blunt roommate, Angie—who, like the protagonist, might have gotten married much too young. Each encounter forces Bob to come to terms with his insecurities, his unsuccessful marriage, and what his craft still has to teach him about life. A final twist on the very last page is one of the few moments that land with a disappointing thud—but only because Bob’s subsequent reaction is missing. Intriguing as they are, the other characters are mere stage directions for the real star: Bob’s wry inner monologue. His thoughts jump from the self-aggrandizing fervor of an improvised audition to the somber rerun of his wife’s departure before ending with a perfectly timed, caustic joke (“Ripley was raised Catholic. He knew all about” self-loathing, Bob says at one point, casually reducing his only real friend in the world). McKeon times these beats impeccably; he writes with a kinetic energy that propels Bob’s darkest and funniest moments at the same pace, making for both a fully realized narrator and a compulsive read.
An endearingly flawed actor’s thoughts come to life thanks to swift and clever prose.
The complicated life of a repertory theatre actor takes center stage in the extremely well-written novel Strutting and Fretting by debut author Kevin McKeon. Opening in the 1970s resort town of Santa Maria, California, during one summer theatre season, the story soon plunges the reader deeply into lead character Bob's angst-ridden life.
His ill-considered marriage back in college has ended badly, and Bob spends his time now either agonizing over what went wrong in the failed relationship, and a near-constant fantasy of bedding virtually every woman he meets.
Well, maybe not every woman. There's Lou, the gruff middle-aged stage manager. And there're the overworked and underappreciated wardrobe girls, whose names he never bothers to get. He barely gives them a glance, and when he does, he says with the characteristically wry humor that pervades the book, "I felt like a white slaveowner surveying the plantation."
But pretty much every other female is fair game as he tries to sort out and balance his basically good-guy persona with the more controlling side of his nature.
Yes, Bob is complicated. And this superb work of fiction peels back the layers of his carefully guarded soul for readers to explore. It is a masterful examination of a young man struggling to balance chronic low self-esteem with a performer's perpetual need for approval.
But there is also a skillful leavening of lightheartedness as Bob and the entertaining ensemble of supporting players gamely make their way through a season of Shakespeare, and audience-pleasing musicals, and the occasionally challenging contemporary play.
There is so much to like and admire about this book, from the well-drawn, three dimensional characters (including a fellow actor who carries a trembling Chihuahua with him everywhere in a gym bag) to Darkly Effeminate Mario, the hypersensitive director of Henry V, to the author's evocative writing style that succinctly sums up the raison d'etre for actors everywhere to do what they do best:
"Basically, an actor was little more than a bum," Bob explains to the reader at one point. "A vagrant. An addict. Theatre was the drug of choice. Once you were hooked, you were constantly on unemployment, constantly auditioning, always at the mercy of directors' or casting directors' taste...The performance was the high, the community and the friends you made, they were the high. But coming down was a bitch, and getting off it could kill you."
In short, this is a wonderful insight into the world behind the stage lights -- written by a man who has clearly been there, pursuing the mysterious passion that drives actors the world over to practice their craft.
We give Strutting and Fretting five-plus stars, and put it at the forefront of all the serious new fiction released this year. It currently is available only as a self-published novel like so many other Indie works on Amazon. But it deserves a much larger stage, if you will.
Don't be surprised to see this rare gem rise quickly to bestseller status either on Amazon or with a New York publisher -- and then be optioned to Hollywood. We sincerely hope there are more works forthcoming by this talented writer.