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To a degree rarely rivaled, Sean Kilpatrick lives for words. Tantrums is a testament to the last twenty years of his life, and includes absolutely batshit scripts, joyfully brutal fiction, and brutally vehement criticism. The title – Tantrums – is a gentle admonition, as every piece hails like a fit of bad temper. Kilpatrick’s style is dictated by a lively hatred. His imagination is as diffuse as the language allows it to be. If writing is a means of revenge, then Kilpatrick’s prose swings as low as possible, leashed only by a peculiar style. At once precise and verbose, the prose seems guided by something inhuman, and Kilpatrick has even written: “I’m trying, impossibly, for an art that transcends dogma to become its own dogma.” Tantrums is his best try yet.

If you’re reading Kilpatrick’s work for its content, a particularly strong stomach is required, though I suggest otherwise. Kilpatrick refers to his own work in many registers: Through the pen of his moniker Alfred Wichly it’s “nation-free kamikaze” – a phrase like an ouroboros. In his Ligeia Magazine interview, referring to his word choice, his no-holds-barred approach, he writes, “I burned my life down for this assemblage.” In his manifesto on style, “I Advance Under a Mask,” and using the categories that the eighteenth century rhetorician Hugh Blair prescribed (which range from plain to elegant) as his vessel, he clarifies that his own style is “[Hugh Blair’s] vehemence – florid, but anchored by calculated rage…” And indeed, the emotions that Kilpatrick’s work feeds on and evokes are rage, disgust, and contempt – but if a step back is taken to witness the how (not merely the what) of what he’s written, joy is also possible.

It’s clear that being a native Detroiter has shaped Kilpatrick’s work, for which, among (many) other reasons, he hates the city. “Ruin Reviews” is a series Kilpatrick wrote for The Fanzine in the 2010s, and is collected in Tantrums, a sinister alternative to travel writing. “I toured my disinherited landscape, Detroit, at the height of its ruin’s popularity…” I also grew up in Southeast Michigan, but not directly in the city, and remember many high school classmates making the trek to Detroit with a sack lunch and a camera to photograph the abandoned Packard Plant, the Belle Isle Zoo, the train station, and other infamous places known for their ruin porn tourism. Kilpatrick continues describing his native city, with a humor and a care reminiscent of William H. Gass’s midwestern In the Heart of the Heart of the Country:


Scratched along the bottom ridge of Michigan’s glove, existing despite chronology, barely a location, bipolar with seasons, a perpetually nagging climate that forces many a citizen to shuffle, pinched by copious lakes: Detroit, hard to pronounce without wincing, became refrigerated into a gelatinous and pockmarked roadway.


Let’s turn now to the scripts, which would typically be adapted for the stage or screen but these scripts embrace the skin they’re in. Sure, there are transitions, scene headings, subheadings, and sometimes even character introductions, but the scripts really shine in their absurd, witty, and disgusting dialogue. This is at the beginning of Shock Test, from the mouth of William Cooper (Behold a Pale Horse):


Ain’t it swell, feeling fat beneath a roof? Moderately sturdy, insulation a mere ten percent asbestos-laden, the panting heat of bodies ensnared by cotton candy…plush and cozy as a condom in a microwave. Mind I don’t sneak close and discharge into your dog cone while you blindly trust directives harum-scarum! Never proffer your gizzard, folks. Not to someone with this chunky a spread. Sticking berries in the stork’s beak won’t make my syrupy load an okay chaser, I’m afraid. And I am afraid. For you. Don’t like my audience sipping knowledge from a cloven hoofprint.


I’m grateful for the curse of having read many of these scripts prior to the release of this collection. In addition to Shock TestGoliards, Nudes, and Twitterfinder General were briefly made available on nemo me impune lacessit press before Kilpatrick withdrew them from distribution. Many of these scripts were also available for free, and read by the author, on YouTube. Reading or listening to them read aloud is the ideal experience.

The scripts in Tantrums have been released in different iterations, but much of the fiction in these collected works has not. Pieces such as “Virtuoso (after Clifford D. Simak) (with Christopher Parks)” – a co-authored, six-part sci-fi story about a violinist’s last stand against a pack of dogs that wish to hear him play at the end of the world, amidst a virus that makes its host excessively exercise until death – is a real treat (between writing this review and publishing it, “Virtuoso” has been published here). A large chunk of the never before released work in this collection is an anthology called: Mother Tongue of the Foreign Born: A Banned Anthology Neutered by Alfred Wichly. Wichly is Kilpatrick’s sassy counterpart, “a moniker to fool the court.” Mother Tongue begins with Kilpatrick’s biography of Wichly: “Wichly taught his students how to write without fear of reproach and every day I thank him from the gutter where he left me…” and then an introduction to the anthology by Wichly himself: “Trust me, I’d kick the wheels off my baby’s carriage for art…”

The contributors to this poetry anthology are: T. Plank Struthers, Gerald Adorf, Diamanda Horsefly, Winston Veils III, Dante Crimp and Serafima Spigotsky – all Kilpatrick in drag. They each take their turn introducing and then sharing their contributions. All of their dark and hilarious bios are written by Wichly. For example, in Wichly’s introduction to Gerald Adorf: “Adorf wanted to shoot up a poetry reading, but no one ever came to his.” In an interview in 2016 Scott McClanahan wrote, “The idea of writing for me has always been to have your work found in the possessions of an assassin after their arrest. To have your work found at a crime scene.” This banned anthology reads like something you might find tucked into the back pocket of a school shooter (albeit one with enough sense to equate language with violence) and the cultural contempt is strong enough to make you feel like you’re not simply a bystander but complicit – that you could be charged for simply being in possession of these poems.

In the short story “Warmar” Kilpatrick writes, “She got under him worse than any pillow and cleared her throat so he could speak.” If comfort is antithetical to the text, then the relationships that exist between women and men are indispensable. Sex – in the case of “Warmar,” she got under him – positions itself against love or anything else that good sex relates itself with and whirs as if a powertool. Kilpatrick’s characters screw or drill one another rather than make love. It’s mechanical. [she] cleared her throat so he could speak: in other words, he would be voiceless without her. I imagine that without Kilpatrick’s bad relationships, we’d have much less of his vengeful work.

Reading Kilpatrick, one highly regarded predecessor crops up: Logan Pearsall Smith. Smith was a man of letters in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and in his time was known for polishing a phrase until there was nearly nothing left of it. Kilpatrick, like Smith, emphasizes style over substance, and although a decent balance is always a safe bet, there’s nothing safe about either’s work. Smith was hated by many of his more famous contemporaries – the Bloomsburys for example. And Kilpatrick has his share of critics. Joe Sacksteder’s “Against Quirky Writing” comes to mind. While this essay doesn’t specifically name Kilpatrick, it seems obvious that he is in the line of fire when Sacksteder writes who his “target” is:


Middle-aged writers who cut their teeth in or adjacent to the alt lit scene and the indie publishing boon of the aughts. Writers who want their weird language and their story, too…I have a problem: I worry that we’re losing the ability to see a text as experimental unless it’s experimental on the line level… The chances of quirkily written pieces finding success are increased further by their tendency to take very short forms, often inhabiting the gray area of flash fiction / prose poetry. It’s hard not to be suspicious that it has something to do with the difficulty of sustaining such syntactic gymnastics over broader stretches. The longer quirky writing persists in asking us to be surprised by its moves, the more that it can start to reveal itself as a string of one-liners—and the more that the experimental claims of the text can begin to feel wholly superficial.


Here is Kilpatrick’s response, in his piece “Against Good Stewards”:


The preppiest of experimenters, dipping a loafer into nonlinear conceptualism, are thoroughly hired by academia to promulgate tautological mystique so pedagogy can stay pedagogy, so writing becomes further noncreative and aloof by its own democratically misaligned…system of usury and dried-out agnotology (which is why these people hate language and mistake lingual torque for fraud, because fraud forged them, the handshake is all they know)… The world’s been making me obsolete for so long I feel justified feeding it a little poison in return… I enjoy different styles, including a plain plot, sometimes, when I’m not being insulted nonstop by writers pretending they’re of a dying breed (our internecine envies might let you share in the suffering (and improve your work)).


I think the call and response here speaks for itself, but my read is that it comes down to taste, which is something one must develop and defend. It’s an argument as old as words. The Ancient Greeks described two ends of a stylistic spectrum as Asiatic (ornamental, bombastic, emphasizing wordplay), while the other end was Attic (austere, formal, traditional). Kilpatrick’s style is unapologetically Asiatic, and he has quipped that his favorite slur, of which he’s scarcely parched, is to call someone an “Atticist.” Writing plain, dry prose is worse than any other insult, according to Kilpatrick, which gives a sense to where his allegiance lies. “Stylistic writing is not twee,” he writes, “it’s a death sentence (if lucky).”

John Gardner and William H. Gass had a similar beef, which need not be reiterated here, except to say that Gardner published Gass, and in a similar vein Sacksteder interviewed Kilpatrick right here in Hobart in 2014. They also attended the same Masters program at Eastern Michigan University (which also happens to be my alma mater). I hate to come off as a fence-sitter, though I’m a fan of both Gardner and Gass. Gardner’s main critique of ornamental writing is that fiction should read like an “uninterrupted dream” and when the author’s language is drawing attention to itself (the way language in a poem often does), the dream is interrupted, and the fiction is exposed as artifice. I can appreciate this critique, while also pointing out that if I’m looking to have a reading experience like an “uninterrupted dream” I’ll reach for, say, a Stephen King title, which personally feels less like reading and more like watching television. I don’t mind delaying the dream for some wordplay. I don’t mind reading a sentence so sonically stunning that I repeat it out loud three or four times. I don’t mind slowing down to drag a stick through the scat of a line. This is not to say that Kilpatrick’s work feels like a series of interruptions (or dung heaps). Sacksteder’s critique is much narrower than Gardener’s, and is specific to “experimental writing,” so I feel the need to add that although it seems clear that Kilpatrick’s work is in Sacksteder’s line of fire, I don’t consider Kilpatrick’s writing to be “experimental.” I suppose when I think of “experimental writing” I think of design heavy stuff that’s more fun to be looked at than read. Is his work extreme – yes, is it challenging – sometimes. I admit that when I was just beginning to read Kilpatrick’s work, I was confounded. His style chimed at an octave that reached my ear but eluded my understanding, though my curiosity was piqued. Eventually, my curiosity trumped my desire for television prose and the unique experience of reading Kilpatrick’s work, and grasping what it’s up to and getting into its groove, was a reward in and of itself.

Another aspect to this tête-à-tête is that Sacksteder teaches, Kilpatrick does not, though teaching had at one time been in his sights. Here is an excerpt from Alfred Wichly’s introduction to Tantrums, which serves as an example of some of the difficulties and elegancies of Kilpatrick’s writing and his life:


The few times Kilpatrick was allowed to teach, he explained (always in vain) how literature tries, with rare (but integral and noteworthy) success, to help mitigate miseries arising from a usufruct life divorced of any aesthetic appreciation (outside the dreaded grocery list), how art, all art, can instigate deliverance from being plugged daily into the indifferent functionality caused by mass populations, inspiring a return to feeling – true, sometimes watering itself with its own decadence, but ultimately (necessarily by such a function – the unavoidable sacrifice of its own practitioners: societal scorn, epideictic fatigue, anything literary now mere phylactery) relieving the same repression (endured under every human setup, every operative politic, the shaman went mute) that inspired it. But students, of course, stopped listening a few utterances in…


Note how the first sentence is an example of what it warns against (sometimes watering itself with its own decadence) while the core of this excerpt wields a diamond of truth (how art, all art, can instigate deliverance…inspiring a return to feeling) and ends with a laugh out loud moment of bathos (students, of course, stopped listening a few utterances in).

Kilpatrick works with a commitment to the revelation of possibility – not just of what might happen in his prose but in the language with which his prose is constructed. Sometimes a word is so deeply disturbed that I forget that these are the same basic units with which we communicate. When a writer of prose values rhythm and sound over plot and character it’s worth noting. Kilpatrick’s emotional unit is the sentence, not the paragraph, which lends itself to Sacksteder’s critique of “quirky writing” as “a sting of one-liners” – but just like on an autopsy table, how a body part may be removed for closer inspection, Kilpatrick’s sentences, while necessary to the whole, seem to gleam just as bright outside of their original context. Here is a minor selection of Kilpatrick’s Asiatic aphorisms, dissected from Tantrums:

“We must endure the silence of our deities.”

“The ocean imprinted something in our spit.”

“Anyone not smashing their head into a post sounds like a fucking motivational speaker to me.”

“The best part about America is how it takes forever to buy all the things that will hospitalize you.”

“Do we not appear sexier through teardrops?”

“I do not like to share blame. I regret the blame I’ve shared.”

“Blood makes the grass grow.”

“You can only worship your own dung if it falls out bigger than you. That’s what art is: being outsized by one’s digestion.”

“They want you full of hope so there’s a path of blood behind the deer.”

“Art is never for the people and certainly doesn’t belong to the elites.”

“The reptile in man’s shadow smirks behind its camo.”

I remember the teenage pleasure of reading Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange without warning of his Russian-influenced argot. The characters’ vernacular rewired my mind. Similarly, Kilpatrick’s prose is pressurized to an extreme degree, privileging music over meaning, and rhythm over reason – but this is not to say that his prose is meaningless or reasonless. In some ways there’s more. I’ll use Shock Test as an example, and reiterate a point made earlier: Not only is there meaning hidden in the what of this play – how Shock Test is about some of the most insane personalities of the nineties, imagining them in conversation with one another, testing the limitations of one another’s bizarre ideologies – but there’s meaning hidden in how it happens, the way that words and phrases shoot and stab one another from across the page. In the William Cooper quote above, Kilpatrick juxtaposes the following phrases: “ensnared by cotton candy,” “condom in a microwave,” “syrupy load,” and “sipping knowledge from a cloven hoofprint” – which likens knowledge to cum and, revoltingly enough, you can taste it. Kilpatrick’s linguistic emphasis branches off from Melville and McCarthy, though his ornaments are noosed even weirder on the tree of style, disturbing his lines to an extent that you may re-learn how to read – and therein lies the joy.

Even if the sentence work that Kilpatrick employs on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, isn’t your thing, he can still be admired from a distance – anyone who takes their craft as seriously as Kilpatrick does can be admired. Anyone who’s “burned his life down” for such assemblages can be admired. In fact, even if you like his work and want to celebrate the author, he would be the first to advise against it: “Every salute is a middle finger to me.” You too should admire Kilpatrick’s Tantrums, but from a distance.


Tantrums can be purchased here.