Toward You completes Jim Krusoe's bittersweet trilogy about the relationship between this world and the next. Bob has spent several years trying to build a machine that will communicate with the dead. He's gotten more or less nowhere. Then two surprising things happen: he receives an important message from a dog, and a former girlfriend, Yvonne, reenters his life. These events make Bob even more determined to perfect the Communicator, as he calls his invention, in the belief that it will change his friendless, humdrum life for the better. In the meantime, Yvonne's young daughter inhabits an afterlife she is trying to escape and would give anything to be reunited with her mom.
Toward You is a poignant story of longing, mistakes, regret, disaster, and, above all, hope.
“Krusoe’s sure and subtle imaginings of such characters—yearning, isolated and finally enigmatic—place him among the foremost creators of surreal Americana.”
—The New York Times Book Review
"Krusoe's surrealistically skewed, oddly affecting novel blurs the borders between life and the afterlife, what's real and what's imagined, to highly entertaining effect. . . A seriously strange, funny and affecting novel about imagining another life while being stuck in this one."
"Jim Krusoe is the mad scientist, the man behind the curtain . . . Krusoe does something magical with regular words and regular life. His adjectives glow with possibility; the term 'fair-sized brown dog' takes on a sci-fi, suburban backyard glow, like an alien presence with a new language that sounds enough like our own to make us strain to uncover its meaning."
—Los Angeles Times
“It's a funny, quirky, darkly fascinating tale told with the skill of a wordsmith and the soul of a poet.”
“A surreal meditation on the afterlife.”
—Los Angeles Magazine
"Jim Krusoe’s plots are as quirky, charming, and original as his voice, which is saying plenty on both counts. He has the skewed perspective of Picasso, the sad heart of Keats, and the straight-faced mischief of The Outer Limits."
“Every page hums with true emotion and genuine humanity.”
—The Brooklyn Rail
"Jacobson writes that there should be no distinction between comic and serious novels, even though readers have 'created a false division between laughter and thought.' Over the course of this trilogy, Krusoe has proven that one is accomplice to the other, like a friend who gamely points to some fantastical sight in the distance, then socks you in the jaw."
“Jim Krusoe once again proves himself a master of dialogue, sublime wit, and unforgettable characters in Toward You.”
“Krusoe has a way with sketching witty vignettes with these desperate characters—some goodhearted, others not—that makes the reading enjoyable.”
I’d been tinkering with the Communicator when I heard a short squeal of brakes outside my house and then a dull thud: the sound of a body being struck by a speeding car. As quickly as I could I removed the headset, shut off the current, and hurried to my front door. When I opened it, I looked around.
The street was pretty much empty except for a big brown dog wobbling up the walk to where I stood. About five feet away, it suddenly sat down and stared as if it knew me but was having trouble remembering from where exactly, and whether I’d been a friend or an enemy. The dog’s dark eyes moved from deep, pained questioning, to blank, then back to me.
“Hey, boy,” I said, but before the animal could come to any resolution one way or another, it fell heavily onto its side, all four legs stuck out and quivering. I tried to remember if I’d seen it around the neighborhood and, if so, where, but in truth I’d never paid much attention to dogs. The animal looked at me again, let out a sort of exasperated sigh, as if it had done what it was supposed to do—had brought back the ball, or whatever, and dropped it at my feet. “And now,” it seemed to say, “it’s your turn.” But my turn to do what, I couldn’t understand.
Then it died.
The dog, a male, had short red-brown hair with a small patch of white on its chest and a flat, broad skull. His expression, in death, had changed to one of dignity and regret. I walked over and patted his stony head. “Sorry, guy,” I told him. “You did OK. You came to the right house. It wasn’t your fault. You did fine. It just didn’t happen to work out. Things go that way sometimes. Believe me, I should know.”
Around the dog’s neck was a thick leather collar with silver spikes and an oval nameplate with Bob in block letters, but there was no other identification—no license, no rabies tag, no carefully chosen heart-shaped or bone-shaped or round disk with an address to look up or a phone number to call—nobody at all to tell the bad news.
And as chance would have it, Bob was my name, too.
Bob’s nails were dark, shiny, and in need of cutting. There was an endearing tuft of black hair at the very tip of his tail. His tongue, already drained to gray in the fading light, poured carelessly out from one side of his loose mouth. I could see no visible marks on him, but clearly he had been the victim of that speeding car—wherever it had disappeared to—the sound of whose driver’s belated attempt to brake had disturbed me. It seemed odd that out of all the doors on this street Bob might have staggered toward, he had chosen one that belonged to a person who shared his name—his brother, in effect—but animals, I knew, often had a way of sensing the nearness of a kindred spirit.
Or, alternately, I thought, if Bob hadn’t known my name, was it possible he’d been sent as a sign? Could Bob’s visit be a warning, like in that famous scene in The Godfather when the horse’s head is left on the movie producer’s bed? Was someone or some thing telling me: “Hey pal, it’s time to wake up. Bob was alive. Now he is dead. You are alive, but how long do you think that is going to last? So carpe diem, Bob, if you get my drift”?
I may have been missing a couple of steps in the old reasoning process here, but the point was the same. In other words, there was a possibility, however remote, that some godlike force had chosen this unfortunate dog to send me a message, and that message was: “Get off your ass, Bob. It’s time to stop your woolgathering and to make something of your life. You’ve been working on the Communicator in a more or less half-assed fashion ever since Yvonne disappeared, and how far have you gotten? Not very, is how far. You’ve been putting on those headphones and taking them off for how long? Since Yvonne’s been gone, that’s how long. Don’t let me lose more faith in you than I have already, but also, don’t spend so much time on your invention that you forget you have an upholstery business to maintain. I could tell you dozens of stories of people who starved to death before they finally found what they were looking for. Still, as it did for this unfortunate animal, the messenger of this message, time is running out for you, too. That ship, or train, or bus supposed to take you out of here to a better future is at the station and is about to move on without you unless you get onboard.”
As messages went, I thought it could have been a little more focused. The messenger of this message? And woolgathering? Where did that come from? I’d never used that word in my whole life. Why was I using it now?
I took a few steps down the walk, toward the street, and turned to look at my house. It was a modest frame structure with a mostly brown front yard and some kind of bush on the right side of the door. True, the door could have used another coat of varnish and the bush’s leaves were starting to curl, but we were in a water shortage. That wasn’t the whole story, however. The fact was that I had neglected to do the watering as well—yet another strike against me, the dog’s message might have added, in a sort of PS. To make matters worse, my gutters were stuffed with leaves. My next-door neighbor, Farley, had a tree whose branches hung over my roof, and though I’d asked him a million times to cut it back, he refused. One of these days I was going to have to get a ladder to clean those gutters out. I hated heights.
I knew I should call the city and report Bob’s death, but the truth was that the dog’s timing was terrible. It was five thirty on a Thursday, and the city offices were already closed for the day. As a cost-cutting move, they were closed on Fridays, so no one would be answering phones again until the following Monday—no, Tuesday, because Monday was Columbus Day. In other words, when—about five days in the future—I finally got through to the city switchboard and sat on hold for about ten minutes listening to an idiotically cheerful trumpet solo that some well-meaning civil servant must believe represents the sound of a happy citizenry, was connected to a clerk, and had to explain how the previous week an animal had died on my doorstep, how long would it be from then before someone actually appeared to take said animal away? Over a month ago I’d called to ask them to take away a metal bookshelf that had been tossed near the curb in front of my house, and large parts of it still remained, making a clanking sound every time a car ran over one of them. So I figured that from where I was right now, time-wise, to the actual moment a bored maintenance worker arrived at my small house to carry Bob away, I would have a dead dog lying across my threshold for a minimum of five days, with a week far more likely, possibly two.
Also, there would be the smell.
It didn’t seem right, somehow. Bob had done his job. Bob had made his painful way all that distance, up my walk nearly to my front door, and had, like the inventor of the marathon, Philippides, used his last precious moments of life to deliver his message. That, and maybe to beg for a little first aid. And I had gotten the message, more or less, but, pitifully, had been unable to offer any assistance in the area of veterinary expertise. Surely Bob deserved more than being thrown into a landfill, or worse.
When I considered it, I had only two real options. The first was to drag Bob next door into Farley’s yard and let Farley deal with him. The downside of that was if Farley happened to be around at this hour and he saw me (Farley worked nights, and his schedule seemed to change often, so I could never be sure exactly when he was at home), I would be in big trouble. Farley had a nasty sense of boundary entitlement and once, when a letter addressed to me had been delivered to his house by mistake, he wouldn’t hand it over until I signed for it. It turned out to be an overdue notice from the library. Or I could just drag Bob back out to the street and leave him, but the negative in that case was that if anyone saw me doing it—and there was a lot of potential to be seen because half my neighborhood, come to think of it, was out of work—I might be accused of murder, or at least littering. Plus, lying in the road, Bob could cause an accident; the last thing I wanted was to hurt an innocent mom driving her kid to preschool and then be sued by her hotshot lawyer.
I walked back to where Bob was lying and thought it over: Why not be active for a change? What was it Bob had said about woolgathering? When all was said and done, it would be a simple enough thing to drag Bob around back and bury him beneath the rosebush that was currently looking in serious need of nutrition. All in all, I guessed it wouldn’t take more than a half hour, and, in addition, it would give the brave dog a sort of resting place in honor of his sacrifice. For another thing, it would feed the bush.
The more I pondered, the better the idea seemed. I looked down at the inert form lying at my feet. “You were wondering if I was a friend or foe, Bob,” I told the ex-man’s-best-friend, “but you can relax now. You made the right choice. You did the right thing. You’re safe now. Nobody is ever going to scold you again for jumping up on the furniture, for tracking mud onto the carpet, or for stealing an unguarded pork roast from a dining room table while your underachiever owner is a room away in his La-Z-Boy recliner—a real pain to reupholster, by the way. You’re a good dog, Bob, and notice that while, only a few minutes ago you were accusing me of being indecisive, look at me now. I’m taking action on your behalf, my friend. And that’s only the beginning.”
Grabbing Bob by his hind legs, I pulled him around the side of my house through the gate to the backyard and left him about four feet away from the rosebush. He looked as if he were sleeping, though his original look of regret had turned to one of resentment. Then I went to the garage and found the fancy spade I’d bought from a mail-order gardening catalog but had put off using because it looked so beautiful. I took it down and started to dig. My backyard was small, so at first the hole seemed disproportionately large, but once I’d slid Bob inside, the hole suddenly looked too small and too shallow. I could have pulled him out again and dug it deeper, but decided not to.
“Rest in peace, old buddy,” I whispered.
There might be a little smell, but eventually the odor would disappear. It wouldn’t be the worst smell in the neighborhood, either, that honor probably going to Farley’s taxidermy shed. In time, Bob would become the rosebush and the rosebush would become Bob. Or something like that. It was a nice thought, I thought.
I filled the hole and tamped it down. Then I watered the rosebush for several minutes. The backyard looked worse, in its way, than the front, but at least back there people weren’t leaving me notes to pick up my trash or to cut my grass. In the darkening air I could just barely make out a hawthorn at the far corner of the yard that was in the process of shriveling to a Brillo pad. The lemon tree, I noticed, was covered with cobwebs, which meant the white flies were back. I shut off the water and hung the spade back up in the garage, where I found a piece of wood—a sawed-off end of a one-by-twelve I’d used to make a shelf a while ago. Then I unearthed a brush and some paint. In a kind of Old English lettering, I wrote, Bob, and beneath it I added the date and the letters RIP. I carried the finished sign over to the rosebush and hammered it into the ground about a foot away from where Bob’s head ought to be. All in all, it looked pretty professional.
That night, I dreamed I was walking up and down the streets of St. Nils, some of which I recognized and some I didn’t, when I found myself in an unfamiliar alley, staring at a large building that appeared to be a warehouse, strangely out of place amid all the nearby houses. How the warehouse had come to be among all these residential structures, and why such an anomalous eyesore was tolerated, I had no way of knowing. The building was about thirty feet high, and the side I faced was about sixty feet long. There were two windows on top and two on the bottom, each about twelve feet by six feet, and no entrance was visible. Flat iron bars covered the lower set of windows, dividing them into checkerboards. The upper row of windows had no bars at all, only closed gray shutters with flaking paint.
Peculiarly, between the building’s top story and the lower one, someone had painted a squiggly horizontal line, with everything below the line a light blue, while the top section, except for the shutters, was completely white. This contrast, along with the fact that the line was vaguely wavelike, gave the place the feeling of an ocean on its lower part, and of a cloud-filled sky on its upper one. Except for the oversized copper gutters along its flat roof, there was little else in the way of decoration, nor was there any company name or logo printed anywhere to signal who owned it. I couldn’t be sure if the building was still occupied or had been abandoned and was only waiting to be torn down. Or possibly rehabbed into low-priced artists’ lofts. Artists, I remembered thinking in my dream, will live about anywhere.
I knew, of course, that if I walked around to another side of the building I might find some clue to tell me more, but as it was a dream, it was impossible to move from where I was rooted. Why had I come there in the first place? Or, alternatively, was there some message I was supposed to deliver to whoever was inside, and, if so, where would I find the front door?
Then I woke. I got out of bed and walked into my living room, where I looked out the front window.
Across the street a light went on. A man wearing pajamas and a robe appeared at his window and looked back at me. Had his dreams been strange, too? Was he lonely? Did he want to step into the street to have a late-night chat?
Thus, I wondered, and then I wondered if he was wondering the same things. After a few minutes his light went out, and his window was dark again. A street or so away, a car backfired. It was well after midnight, so I washed my hands, brushed my teeth again, and this time finally stayed asleep.
Unlike the first two books in this trilogy, which have one male narrator, Toward You’s narration alternates between a man and a young girl. Why did you decide to vary the narration in the last book?
I started this book with high hopes for my narrator, Bob, but after a couple of drafts, became impatient with his poor attitude, considering the fact that he'd done a terrible thing and seemed barely sorry. So almost in revenge, I began trying to discover his victim's side of the story, in part to remind the reader not to forget her, in part not to let Bob off the hook. The more I wrote the more I began to identify with Dee Dee and her situation of wanting to escape a place she didn't want to be in (death). In the end, it turned out to be her story I was writing.
How did you approach writing from a young girl’s (which you’re obviously not) point of view?
Dee Dee c'est moi. We had the same goal: to figure out a way, while still staying true to the rules of the universe of St. Nils, to spring her out of heaven. And while I tried to keep her sounding eight years old, at times she sounds grown-up because one of the rules of the book's universe is that all dead people get a “power-up,” so they can communicate on equal terms with each other (dogs get one, as well).
But actually all these post-life-communication thoughts came from one of my favorite moments ever in teaching. One night in class, many years ago, a woman read a longish story and then, after she'd finished, informed us that she wanted no criticism because the whole thing wasn't hers; it had been channeled. I asked her if dying transformed people into better writers, and she became flustered. She wasn't sure, she said. So I started thinking about it, and in my universe that's exactly what dying does; it makes us into better readers, too.
The male narrator, Bob, is working on an invention he calls the “Communicator,” which will pick up “Terminal Waves” that allow a person to communicate with the dead. Have you ever communicated with the dead? If so, what did you learn?
Anybody who has taught has plenty of experience communicating with both the living and the dead. Actually though, the key word here is communication. All three of these books are about people trying to communicate with others. In the first (Girl Factory) there's no successful communication at all, only a lot of trying (someone once said it was like me writing drafts of a novel). The second, Erased, starts with only a postcard from the grave. In Toward You, Dee Dee tells her story in order to bridge the gulf between life and death.
Bob’s invention is inspired by his studies at the Mind/Body Institute, where he took classes in such topics as Speed-reading with the Third Eye. How has living in Southern California influenced your work?
I don't know about Southern California specifically, but one of my favorite radio stations here is KPFK, which devotes a large portion of programming to one sort or another of holistic-self-improvement show in a fairly unbroken stream, at least during those hours I'm stuck on the Southern California freeways. There are speakers who tout diet supplements, meditation practices, psychic thought, hypnotherapy, the power of crystals, plus practically anything else you can imagine, and while each promoter promises a complete transformation of our unhappy and unhealthy lives, they also seem to ignore the fact that the show just before theirs promised the same, and the one yesterday, and the one the day before that. Best of all, the hosts of these programs seem to participate in this miraculous aphasia as well. It's this hope, the ability of all of us when proven wrong to regroup and try again, against all odds, which fascinates me, not only in the Mind/Body world but also in politics and life.
Are there any books or movies that inspired or influenced Toward You?
The book that burned in my ears as I wrote the first few pages of Toward You was Back, by Henry Green, and specifically the moment when the main character, upon returning to England after being a prisoner of war, steps off a bus at the cemetery where the woman he loved lies buried. Amid a cascade of roses and the color rose, he closes, heartbreakingly and hopelessly, with the line “and her name, of all names, was Rose.” That doubling of the name (and the rose) comes into play with the dead dog that shares Bob's name.
The other snippet I specifically remembered came at the far other end of the book, in the very last scene. It's from Elleston Trevor's Flight of the Phoenix, an adventure novel (and after that, a movie) in which a plane crash in the desert leads to an incredible ordeal of heat, bad luck, and anguish. After everything, at the very end of the book, the last sentence is “Out of the desert there came seven men, and a monkey,” a vision so full of surprise and clarity and hope that it made me want to cheer; in fact, I think I did. I had wanted this for Dee Dee as well, though my version is less cheer-inducing.
Between the first pages and the last two, other works of literature were very much on my mind. The first, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, because of the wonderful and sad speech Troilus makes after he is dead, standing on the Eighth Sphere in the afterlife, looking down on those who are still struggling here on earth and questioning everything he had thought was so important: fame, his great love, his life. Along with that, the book I worked hardest not to think about was Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, a book I admire on many levels, and, of course, which also has a dead girl telling stories. I tried so hard not to cover Alice’s ground that at one point I changed Dee Dee into a boy, but Dee Dee would have none of it.
Oh—and a scene in the police station was inspired by Mickey in the Night Kitchen.
You’ve published several books of poetry. Do you approach fiction writing the same way as writing poetry? Do you think there is something about your being a poet that lends a more “absurdist” tone to your fiction?
I define poetry in terms of rhythm and jumps of intuition. A fiction sentence is usually (though not always) somewhat flat, and fiction likes to fill in the spaces between intuitive leaps with details. Once the direction a book needs to go is set both for the reader and for me, I like to open out the space by changing style, voice, location, and even genres. It's probably this sideways movement, along with a certain love of lists and of rants, that has caused some people to call my books “poet's novels,” whether out of praise or out of disparagement I can't say. I wouldn't argue with either.
You’re very comfortable creating worlds in which things don’t have to make sense or come to any pat conclusion. How do you advise students who believe that stories have to make sense in order to succeed?
I believe that within the context of a story everything has to make sense. That is, everything should fit the rules of that story's particular universe, which I hope, is very much, but not entirely, like ours, because as an artifice, it can't be exactly the same. As for conclusions, there are a lot of people who require a sense of certainty (against all evidence, in my opinion) about their lives, and if all they want is a story with a simple rise and fall, a place to stay awhile that leaves them pretty much unchallenged by what has happened, I don't expect I'm the person to change their minds. For me, a pat conclusion, one that stops the conversation begun by the narrative, is not only untrue to life, but is the least possible interesting ending we can arrive at. Answers allow us to stop thinking, which may be pleasant, but, after all, how many answers are there to important things?
How does the writing of a book influence the book that comes next?
Sometimes one book will influence the next, and at other times it won't. The whole process is difficult to be certain of because I have a limited number of themes that attract me in the first place. Sooner or later, no matter where I begin, a book will often wind up circling what turns out to be a familiar concern. About these three books in particular, every time I finished one it appeared that I had more to say. I think that with Toward You, however, I've finally topped off the tank on communicating with the dead. I hope so
If you could write anything, what would it be?
I’d write a whole book that only describes one thing: a hill in West Virginia I looked at forty years ago. It was spring, and the hill was bright green, covered with white dots of grazing sheep beneath a blue sky filled with white dots of clouds. I think I stared at it for a whole five minutes, and have never forgotten that moment; it made me feel small and stupid. If I could, I'd describe only that hill, without humans, without any plot—just grass, sheep, and clouds—but though I've tried, I can't, because it just so happens I'm the kind of writer who needs a narrative on which to hang my words. My bottom line is that I can only write about what allows me to write, what unlocks the actual act of writing, not to imitate the writers I admire. I'm not saying, though, that every writer shouldn't constantly struggle to expand his or her possibilities; I do.
The trilogy is complete. What’s next?
I have a book called Parsifal that I'm excited about because the narrative moves backward and forward at the same time. It's the Parsifal legend, of course, about a boy raised in the forest who goes on a quest. The book is probably as close to a psychic autobiography as I've ever done. The hero fixes fountain pens.
1. Is this book a comedy?
2. What purpose, if any, is achieved by introducing so many points of view?
3. Can any of the characters be considered “admirable”?
4. What is the morality of the world of this novel?
5. Assuming that Bob’s act of concealing the dog’s death from Yvonne was a mistake, what should Bob have done afterwards?
6. Is the ending of Toward You a happy one? Is it hopeful?
7. Is there a process revealed here by which the living can communicate with the dead, or the dead with the living?
8. Who is telling this story?