Kotzwinkle, William (1938—)

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Kotzwinkle, William (1938—)

William Kotzwinkle published over two dozen books of fiction in the last three decades of the twentieth century, making his mark in virtually every genre, including mystery, science fiction, social satire, erotica, historical fiction, film novelization, and talking-animal fantasies for children and adults alike.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1938, Kotzwinkle told an interviewer in the early 1990s that his original ambition had been to be an actor, but that he kept coming up with lines in his improvisation class which were much better than his acting, so he became a writer instead. Along the way, he also worked as a sign painter, a shipping clerk in a theatrical supply house, and a department store Santa Claus. As a writer, he was a late bloomer—33 years old when his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Elephant Bangs Train, was published by Pantheon in 1971. But from then on, the author made up for lost time with a steady output, averaging a book a year from the island home off the coast of Maine he shared with his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Gundy.

By the 1990s, Kotzwinkle had managed to attract loyal followings in multiple genres. With his long-term collaborator and fellow Penn State graduate, illustrator Joe Servello, Kotzwinkle published Herr Nightingale and the Satin Woman at Knopf in 1978, earning him a permanent place in the detective-fiction world. Grief-support networks in France in the 1990s were continuing to recommend his Swimmer in the Secret Sea, a novel about the loss of an unborn child, two decades after its publication. Doctor Rat, a grim tale of laboratory vivisection as told by its subjects, earned him a World Fantasy Award in 1977, the year after its initial publication overseas.

His science-fiction credentials, combined with a willingness to try anything, led Kotzwinkle to novelize several hit films, including E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial —one of whose spin-offs, E. T. The Extra Terrestrial Storybook (1982), won him the 1984 Buckeye Child-ren's Book Award—and Superman III (1993). In turn, several of Kotzwinkle's books have been optioned for movie production, including Jack in the Box (1980), released as a film in 1991, and The Bear Went Over the Mountain, whose cinema rights were acquired by the Jim Hensonorganization shortly after its publication to rave reviews in 1996.

Kotzwinkle's most enduring gift is his satire, and its sharpest tool a merciless juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous: Chaucerian undercutting in paragraphs that build up a character's world-view with a straight face—even a painterly lyricism at the beginning of a paragraph—only to deflate it with a sharp jab in the last sentence. The Fan Man (1974) displays a keen ear for dialect (its protagonist, a spaced-out, more-than-slightly-deranged New Yorker named Horse Badorties, speaks appallingly flawless Lower-East-Side hippie English). The Midnight Examiner (1989) hilariously spoofs daily life on a supermarket-tabloid weekly, while The Bear Went Over the Mountain (reminiscent of both the children's classic The Bear that Wasn't and the film Being There) is a devastating send-up of the book-publishing world at the end of the century.

Kotzwinkle has been described as one of the first American postmodern novelists, both because of his eclecticism (a fact reflected in his wide range of publishers) and also because his plots, as such, are arguably nonpermanent art, in keeping with the postmodern aesthetic, and thus less memorable in their sequence of details than are the individual scenes themselves. These, by contrast, have a way of etching themselves indelibly into readers' memory: the euphoria of Horse Badorties tunneling through the wall to his "number four pad," the embarrassment of the loose-boweled suitor at the door of his hot date in Nightbook, the dying hallucinations of the old mahout in "The Elephants' Graveyard," the primly sublimated sexual desire flickering at tea between the country vicar and his hostess in Hermes 3000, the uneasiness of the heartless pharaoh on the gangplank in "Death on the Nile."

The ease with which Kotzwinkle's books read and the jack-ofall-trades appearance of his booklist belies a concentrated research style. In order to understand Arthur, the rightful author of the book appropriated by Hal Jam, the title character of The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Kotzwinkle spent several months sleeping in a tent and meditating five hours a day; and for the sake of authenticity in Trouble in Bugland, a children's mystery tale whose detective is a praying mantis, the author claimed to have spent an entire summer on his knees watching crickets. It is an attention to craftsmanship which has assured him a place in American literary history, and if he falls short of ranking as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, it seems likely that, for their sheer pleasure, his books will be read, and re-read, for many years to come.

—Nick Humez

Further Reading:

Barry, William. "'Bear' Takes Maine Writer Over the Top," Maine Sunday Telegram, December 15, 1996. Portland, Guy Gannett Communications, 1996.

Kotzwinkle, William. The Bear Went Over the Mountain. New York, Doubleday, 1996.

——. Doctor Rat. Henley-on-Thames (England), Aidan Ellis, 1976

——. Elephant Bangs Train. New York, Pantheon Books, 1971.

——. E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. New York, Putnam, 1982.

——. The Fan Man. New York, Harmony Books, 1974.

——. Hermes 3000. New York, Pantheon Books, 1972.

——. Herr Nightingale and the Satin Woman. New York, Knopf, 1978.

——. The Hot Jazz Trio. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

——. The Midnight Examiner. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

——. Nightbook. New York, Avon, 1974.

——. Trouble in Bugland. Boston, Godine, 1986.