Calf by Andrea Kleine
Soft Skull Press, 2015; 368 pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
In a statement preceding Calf, author Andrea Kleine discloses that the novel was inspired by the love affair between John Hinkley, Jr., who famously attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and Washington D.C. housewife Leslie DeVeau, who murdered her ten-year-old-daughter in 1982. Hinkley and deVeau met in the institution in which they were both incarcerated; Kleine admits that deVeau’s daughter was a childhood friend, killed “on the eve of my twelfth birthday party.” In a lesser novel, such an admission might sentence the plot to the narrow trajectory of fact. In Kleine’s capable hands, however, the confession gracefully frames reader experience. Even as Calf assumes its own, distinct reality from its inspiration, one cannot help but read with a sense of dread that renders each character simultaneously more fragile and, potentially, more savage.
Calf details a crime similar to the DeVeau murder through the eyes of sixth grader Tammy, who has just moved to the ominously named Friendship Heights section of Washington D.C. For Tammy, D.C. makes for a bleak home, one in which she is at the constant mercy of large, uncaring forces, whether it be her abusive stepfather or the daily casualties of middle school. For Heights adults, it is a city in which “People often said “nervous breakdown” as if it were something that happened to everyone sooner or later, the same as a really bad flu or strep throat.” When neighborhood mother Veronica murders her ten-year-old daughter Kirin, a friend of Tammy’s younger sister, it rocks a suburb already in the gray hangover of the 1970s, at the dawn of a consumerist age defined, under its glossy, expensive surface, by madness and isolation.
The book’s sense of place is solidified with a weird, lyrical craftsmanship. Well-placed, late-twentieth-century emblems abound: belted bathing suits, purple mimeographed classroom worksheets, a drinking age of 18. A teen girl, upon seeing her mother after she discovers the crime scene, tennis whites smeared with gore, “dropped the phone and it dangled from the wall mount, gently knocking the floor as it bounced up and down on its springy cord.” Yet an edge of mourning, an acknowledgement of the inexplicable violence and horror that belies suburban life, prevents the scene from morphing into a slasher flick: as said daughter retreats to her bedroom, her mother, still covered in blood, sadly reflects, “Doesn’t she realize…that is the very worst place to hide?”
A parallel storyline follows Hinkley-esque loner Jeffrey Hackney as he succumbs to madness in pursuit of a Hollywood starlet. Like Tammy, Jeffrey is marked by a core loneliness seemingly destined for disaster; when storylines collide, it is at an embarrassing bust-in at a local library in which Jeff surprises Tammy as she sits on a public toilet, “her pants pushed down below her knees and the tiptoes of her sneakers touching the floor for balance…all she had left at her disposal was to move a forearm protectively over her lap.” Jeffrey feels an affinity for his vulnerable narrative bookend – the two are linked by both isolation and, surprisingly, their unknowing, respective potential for violence.
Much of Calf’s power comes from Kleine’s sense of where to place the minor chord, darkness emerging as much from the mundane as from grander acts. But Calf’s greatest accomplishment is its discussion of peripheral trauma – how individuals caught in the orbit of tragedy are affected. While the adults in Tammy’s world speak very little directly to Kirin’s murder, the children of the neighborhood do the work of talking it out amongst themselves, attempting to discern a reason for why a parent would kill their child. Fittingly, it is the children who populate the story’s dark, elegant culmination, and Tammy who is given an opportunity to shift the tide from bloodshed to compassion, demonstrating faith in the belief that a goodness, greater than that which has been presented to her by the adults in her life, exists.