KAMBY BOLONGO MEAN RIVER by Robert Lopez
by Matt Bell
When I look back at the reading I did in 2009, it's mostly the short story collections I remember, for whatever reason. The one exception is Robert Lopez's Kamby Bolongo Mean River, the book that beat all other books for me that year. I was lucky enough to get to read the book in galleys, then again on its release date in October, and then a third time in December. Since then, it's become a book that constantly haunts my desk, no matter how many times I try to return it to the shelves. There's so much to admire about the book, from its formal elementsit's written in short, beautiful paragraphs, full of repetition and empty of commasto its fantastic narrator, a character in possession of one of the most uniquely rendered and affecting modes of speech in recent memory.
Kamby Bolongo Mean River is narrated by a young man under observation, trapped in what is probably a hospital room that contains only a bed and a telephone. He begins his story focused on the telephone: "Should the phone ring I will answer it. I will say the hello how are you and wait for a response. I will listen to what the person on the other end says. I will listen to the words."
He says, "The trouble is some people use words one way but other people use those words a different way altogether. My problem is I think about one word too long."
He says, "A word like injury can split your head open."
The narrator does answer this phone frequently, but usually the callers have the wrong number, or at least the narrator thinks so. In between phone calls, he draws stick figures of his life-story on the walls, masturbates compulsively, and tells us the the story of his childhood. What we are told, in halting steps frequently interrupted by narrative tangents and linguistic diversions, is that the narrator grew up in Injury, Alaska, with his brother Charlie and his mother. That his mother was frequently out of work, fired alternately because she wouldn't work overtime and because she wouldn't sleep with her bosses. That his brother Charlie wanted to be a boxer or an actor. That their mother often fed them sandwiches and coleslaw. That she got both the brothers singing lessons but that the narrator was the better singer, so much better that Charlie often punched the narrator in the stomach so he would "stop singing and dancing better than him," and that once, Charlie and the narrator "sang a song about the kamby bolongo," a song for which he and Charlie "had made up the song and the lyrics were the best [they'd] done."
Through the story, these details and many others repeat themselves, take on larger and larger significances even as the narrator's utterances undercut the ground the reader is left to stand on, offering facts that seemingly cannot be factual then attaching them to emotions that ring startlingly true, until it becomes clear that, as the narrator claims, it is not the content that is most important but the delivery.
The narrator says, "If you concentrate on the words you lose the voice and the voice is too important to lose. How the voice pronounces each word is probably the most important thing."
He says, "The words themselves are important less than half the time."
He says, "It's always better to listen to the voice and leave the words alone."
The story of Kamby Bolongo Mean River is nearly all remembered, a childhood recalled rather than experienced, but the book never suffers for this backward stance, as so many others might. Because of the unique voice of the narrator and the recursive undermining of his speech, Lopez is able to move forward by moving backward first, looping through the unsteady past to create the headlong future. It is probably fair to say that the past of the novel's last third is hardly the past of the novel's first, but even this shifting narrative feels truer of life than many more grounded tellings captured in other novels.
In the end, the narrator tells us, "I think I have lived an entire life beside the point," but perhaps he is wrong. After all, it is not what the narrator has doneor what has been done to himthat creates the emotional resonance of this deeply sad, deeply moving book, but rather the way in which it is told. In Kamby Bolongo Mean River, Robert Lopez has created a character imbued with a tireless voice, who speaks with "nothing impeding [himself] from [himself]," so that eventually his speech exhausts the elements of his own story, causes them to break down, to shift, to realign themselves into new stories created not by deception but by trauma. By the end of the novel, the narrator is still in the same place he was at the beginning, but I am willing to bet that no readerno listener, for this novel is as much spoken as it is writtenwill be able to say the same. Despite the claims of the narrator, these words do matter, and it's the many talents of Robert Lopez that made them so. This is a novel no one should miss.
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