Niche: A weekly peek at an area artist
By Aarik Danielsen Columbia Daily Tribune
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Often, talk about successful writers centers on bringing shades and shadows of a very specific setting, the haunts and hallows of their homes to bear on their words. Faulkner had Mississippi, Steinbeck the Central California coast and Thoreau the Walden woods.
Daren Dean’s work has a definite sensibility, but it’s born from a childhood in the company of rich characters rather than born out of a single location. Dean was born in Missouri, the state always a point of reference and return. Growing up, however, he and his mother sojourned frequently “for no good reason,” an indefinable wanderlust rousing them and a westerly wind blowing them to states such as Arizona, California, Colorado and Nebraska.
At each stop, Dean encountered a cast worthy of preserving in print: jovial shop owners, beguiling barflies and roughnecks who doubled as swimming teachers. Each of their stories added contour to his character, each highway and byway traveled providentially pointing toward one path. “I think partly my background was raising me to become a writer,” he said.
Dean speaks like a modest Midwesterner but writes like a Southerner with sordid stories to tell, versed in the vernacular of violence, fluent in the language of hard luck, acquainted with everyday drama and the alienation that occurs even in close-knit communities. In his new novel, “Far Beyond the Pale,” Dean draws deep from wells of tradition and tension established by his literary forefathers.
“Things resonate with me more … with these Southern writers,” Dean said. “I guess it has to do with growing up mostly in the Midwest. … There’s a lot I recognize when I look at those characters. Some people think it’s funny that you write about these kinds of characters when you’re not this kind of person. But I’m very familiar with that thought process and how people really do things and think about things.”
Like a sphere careening through a pinball machine, he was flung back and forth between drastically different situations. Living with his mother, Dean knew few restraints. They occasionally lived in motel rooms, and, often, he would get off the school bus to visit her in bars where she worked. There, he heard “a lot of funny talk because everyone was drunk or on their way.” Tall tales, outright lies and candid confessions were part of the chatter; Dean was often amazed at how adults would fail to filter their comments around him.
He would also stay with a devoutly Pentecostal aunt and uncle; Dean was given a great deal and love in each environ but felt adrift in a world of extremes, hoping to find merit in the middle. He learned to blend in during even the most “volatile” situations, a gift that would later serve him well. “When you’re a kid, you’re not in control of too many situations so, really, what you have is the power of observation to help you,” he said.
Yet, for a long time, he had little interest in writing, inspired instead by visual movements such as surrealism and dada. Over time, he warmed to the likes of Truman Capote and, especially, Flannery O’Connor, whose stories he felt paralleled his own. French author André Breton provided just the bridge Dean required between surrealism and the written word; his “Soluble Fish” encouraged him to engage writing techniques such as free association. He eventually completed a degree at Central Methodist University and a Master of Fine Arts at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Influences deeply felt during school and beyond included professor and novelist Clyde Edgerton and Mississippi-based author Larry Brown. He taught writing and literature classes adjunct at the University of Missouri, Westminster College and William Woods University but, after struggling to “cobble together” enough classes each semester, accepted a position at the University of Missouri Press.
All the while, he penned and published prose, poetry and creative nonfiction, securing a style that positioned him as an heir to a rich legacy of Southern literature, though Dean also identifies with genre-blurring labels like Industrial Gothic, Southern Punk and Country Noir. His work possesses a quick, dark wit similar to O’Connor’s — his narrators are self-deprecating and self-aware — as well as a characteristic fascination with the grotesque. His most astute awareness is of the alienation felt by a generation with increasingly absent parents. “I think my characters struggle with being true to their loved ones, and being true to your family is a way of being loyal to yourself,” he said in a follow-up e-mail. “They struggle with these loyalties because the characters … are divided within themselves.”
Each factor emerges in “Far Beyond the Pale,” the story of “Honey Boy” Kimbrough, “a 13-year-old, four-letter spouting, pistol-packing kid” who befriends a violent scofflaw on his search for any semblance of a functional family. Although the tale’s trajectory mirrors his, Dean said the main character is far more audacious and willing to act than he ever was. Currently available, the book is being considered by a larger publisher, so Dean’s work continues “to hopefully make the characters stronger and perhaps make the arc of Honey Boy’s life more dramatic for the reader.”
The book contains no grand epiphany; Dean said he doesn’t succumb to the “misconception that fiction has to have a moral.” He agrees with Harry Crews, who said, “What the artist owes the world is his work, not a model for living.” Dean would rather concentrate on crafting “an interesting and entertaining story or have a certain aesthetic.”
The perpetual migration Dean endured meant rarely seeing resolutions in the lives of characters he encountered. As such, he sees solid beginnings, muscular middles and incomplete endings in his work. However, as he continues on with Honey Boy and in his career, Dean is learning how to craft fascinating conclusions to his chapters, ones sure to reflect his Midwest-by-birth, Southern-by-the-grace-of-great-writers sense of self.