Jim Kokoris' new novel is published next week, and I had hoped today to have in the paper a column looking at the intriguing issues it brings up. But the news has a funny way of pushing the interesting stuff to the back burner. So Kokoris' fourth novel, "It's. Nice. Outside." will have to wait, just because the superintendent of police got fired. I suppose I could post it here, but the paper gets much better play, and I'm still hoping to get it in Friday. To prepare for that, and since many readers won't be familiar with him, this is the column I wrote about Jim when he published his first novel, 14 years ago.
I don't read novels much. They seem false. Their characters all have names like Zack Kinkaid and Blossom Roadapple and by a page or two, if not in the first sentence, something staggeringly untrue happens. I opened the book gingerly, as if expecting a rubber snake to pop out.
The first sentence of Kokoris' novel, The Rich Part of Life, set off a warning bell: "The day we won the lottery I was wearing wax lips that my father had bought for the Nose Picker and me at a truck stop."
Winning the lottery has grown into a literary cliche on par with, "And then I rolled over and it was all a dream."
I might have given up right there, but as I said, I knew Kokoris. He lives in La Grange Park. He had handed me the book asking if I had any suggestions how he could better shove it under the snouts of an indifferent public. I smiled sadly at this request, itself a sign of naivete. When it comes to publishing, I have lately begun thinking of myself as Ugarte, the greasy Peter Lorre character in "Casablanca" (In case you don't recall, Victor Laslow comes into Rick's Cafe looking for help from Ugarte, who has just been dragged away by the police. "Ugarte cannot even help himself," says a barfly, bitterly).
I tried to explain this to Kokoris, but it failed to put him off—you don't get a book published by folding up at rejection. So we met for lunch a few months ago, I fed him some platitudes, and he handed over an advance copy of the book.
I soldiered past the lottery win—a worrisome $190 million. The book is told in first person, the narrator 11-year-old Teddy Pappas. As I read, my concern and hesitation were replaced by interest and enthusiasm. Kokoris does something very clever. Just as the white whale hardly appears in Moby Dick, and then only at the very end, after we have met Ishmael and Ahab and Queequeg and all these wonderful characters, so the $190 million that sets The Rich Part of Life in motion remains distant, over the horizon, as we meet Teddy and his very real, very touching family, his little brother Tommy (nicknamed whatever disgusting habit he has at the moment); bookish, balding Civil War scholar father, and a variety of other oddball relatives and nosy neighbors who show up sniffing after the windfall.
After I finished I handed the book over to my wife, to see if perhaps my judgment was blurred. She loved it, too.
Kokoris began the book four years ago, when the dread 40 was staring him in the face.
"I always wanted to write," he said. "I felt if I didn't get it done this time, it would be tough to do as a 45-year-old."
Curiosity drove me to ask Kokoris to get together again for more conversation and bourbon. So many, myself included, dream of writing a novel. He did it. What's it feel like?
"It really hasn't sunk in," he said. "There are moments when that weird thing hits you."
Such a moment happened recently at the book expo at McCormick Place. Kokoris was scheduled to do a reading of his novel. He took his book, stepped up to the microphone, and surveyed the expectant crowd.
"I had to step away from the microphone and gather myself," he said. "I was with these big-time writers. What was I doing there?"
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that its publication date did not throw the world into rosy hues. The heavens did not crack.
"I definitely had the notion that on May 1 my life would change," he said. "Instead the whole thing is ups and downs, good moments and bad moments. I'll go into one bookstore, and it will be prominently displayed. Then I'll go into another and they'll have to get the ladder out. On the whole it's life as usual."
Even sale of the book to the movies—Columbia Pictures bought it—has not caused Kokoris to quit his job or buy a bunch of black clothing. He seems to be taking the proper approach, unconcerned how the director—James Mangold, of "Girl, Interrupted" fame—might mangle his story.
"He paid good money, so he can do what he wants," said Kokoris.
Before we left, I handed him my copy of The Rich Part of Life to sign. He took a pen, and then botched up the title page.
"I've ruined more books . . ." he said, trying to fix the inscription. "I always cramp up. It was easier to write the book than to sign it."
He offered to go run to the trunk of his car and get a fresh copy, but I declined. I like it fine the way it is. It isn't long, the period in an author's life when he nervously defaces his own books. Sophistication sets in. Kokoris is working now on his second novel. I can hardly wait.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 1, 2001