To Chuck Kinder, the line between fiction and non- has never been a pencil-drawn affair. No, it's more like the arbitrary, slack-string border between West Virginia and its eastern mother -- the craggy nuance of the Big Sandy and the Tug Fork, the Ohio and the Potomac -- that carves out the Mountain State. In Kinder's new book, Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life, the University of Pittsburgh professor revisits his native West Virginia both physically and metaphorically. And he creates a memoir informed by his own fictionalized way of life: The "close-to-the-bone" truth is all there, even if sometimes it needs a little help.
"I'd kept sort of a memoir," says Kinder, "but because of my fictioneer impulses, it's sort of a meta-memoir: I took liberties with the facts. But really it's a memoir of an interior landscape. I found all these things about West Virginia history that I was really interested in as a metaphor -- all these adolescent things. Here I am an old man dealing with 17-year-old boy issues: rebellion, father-and-son issues. And there are real parallels to West Virginia history."
When on sabbatical from his day job, Kinder found himself drowning in the draft pages of Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale, his acclaimed 2001 novel. Much like Grady Tripp, the mad-genius professor whom author and former Kinder student Michael Chabon famously based on his mentor for Wonder Boys.
"It really was 3,000 pages, sitting right there in three piles," says Kinder, pointing to a couch in the office of his Boo Radley-chic home in Squirrel Hill. "I had to get away from it, and get a new place to look at it from. So I figured, 'I'll go write non-fiction. That's easy! You just go out, meet somebody, write it down.'"
Kinder's perfect "somebody" was Jesco White, the quintessential rural West Virginian eccentric: Elvis fanatic and second-generation hillbilly tap dancer; the star of documentary filmmaker Jacob Young's cult favorite Dancing Outlaw and the titular "Last Mountain Dancer." Kinder met and befriended White, with whom he remains in regular contact, but while White takes up one of Dancer's nine sections, Kinder's planned Jesco White book was "queered" according to Kinder by the dancer's money-hungry manager. But Kinder had already taken an apartment in Fayetteville, W. Va. (Or "Billville," as he calls it. And indeed, throughout Dancer, whether it's a half-cocked madman tourist-plane pilot or a stomp-on-your-neck hillbilly homo, almost everyone's named Bill.)
"So I just started driving around the hills," he says. "It was a pretty turbulent time in my life, and lo and behold I found myself immersed in even more trouble than when I'd left. I'd go find these great little towns in West Virginia, and I'd just hunker in, get to know folks, drink at night, wink and blink with a beer-joint beauty."
Even his travels involved those "fictioneer" impulses. To this day, in certain towns in southern West Virginia, bar denizens and bartenders know Kinder's ponytailed figure as that of "Little Hank," nephew of country legend Hank Williams.
"Why did I do that?" says Kinder. "I know why I did it in the story, but why did I do it in real life? It's like I was living deliberately for the story I'd write about it -- and that's a strange tautology."
After his travels, his hunkering, his turbulence and history, Kinder wound up with Last Mountain Dancer, the connection between Jesco White, Indian ghosts, carpetbagger politicians and legendary Matewan sheriff Sid Hatfield's final breath and Kinder's famous father (who single-handedly won the Second World War), his eloquent and insightful mother ("Chuckie, you lie like a rug"), his "thick-wristed" grandfather and famously ugly brother-in-law. Dancer finds Kinder at his most smack-in-the-face honest, whether discussing his then-current philandering, or the crimes against man and humanity committed in youth. Like its famous outlaw characters, Dancer pulls no punches, and that's what makes it beautifully dangerous.
"I've got mixed feelings about it, frankly," says Kinder. "I had no intention of laying that stuff out there. I was writing that stuff for me -- I even say a couple of times in the book, 'I can't even think about publishing this.' But I did. I did.
"You get this strange objectivity when it's [no longer] what you're going through --you can just say, 'I like that scene' with a dispassionate, cold eye. The emotional stuff I wrote about, that's as truthful as anything I've ever written, and as painful. I try to impress on my students, sometimes the story takes off in unexpected directions -- and that's what Dancer did. Not unexpected factual directions, but unexpected emotional directions.
"I was goofin' driving around those hills and hollers, the exterior landscape I was using metaphorically. Really I was driving around my goddamned heart."