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KIDS’ STUFF
by Henry Sutton. (Serpent’s Tail) Fiction, 2004. 252 pages. What makes you want to read something?  (Hell, why are you reading this now?)  Maybe you want to be entertained, or possibly learn something. The promise of titillating sexual content can also be a motivator. Think about the teasers that jump out from all those women’s magazines staring you down while you’re queued up in the supermarket checkout line: 12 bedroom moves that will have him begging for more!  Are you a size queen?!?  Taste better [down there]!  (Okay, that last one is probably a bit unlikely, but you know what I mean).  I’m not even the target audience for this sensationalism, but sometimes I can’t help myself from taking a little peak at it. Even better is a look behind the curtain at someone’s innermost, totally exposed, raw feelings and desires, and the more unflattering to that someone, the better, right? 
     Henry Sutton’s Kids’ Stuff especially fits this last category.  We get to see the fascinating and painful inner workings of Mark, an often angry, high-strung Englishman who has an exceedingly hard time turning his feelings into words.  Mark reminds me a lot of the guy in Billy Bragg’s “Little Time Bomb” (off his classic 1988 release, Workers Playtime), a frustrated lout who feels manipulated and completely outthought by the fair sex, yet is hopelessly in need of them anyhow.
     Mark, a carpenter and odd-jobsman, has built a cozy life with his hot, successful wife Nicole and their young daughter, the princess-like Gemma. He’d been pretty much able to block out his turbulent past and focus on his current life when he receives a phone call from Kim, his psycho ex-wife.  Ten years earlier Kim had disappeared with her and Mark’s then-three year old daughter Lily.  While this sudden loss of contact with his little girl bothered Mark, part of him was relieved that he didn’t have to deal with her or her mother anymore.  Kim’s call serves as the catalyst to bring her, and especially Lily, catapulting into Mark and his little family’s fortressed lives with a vengeance.  Thirteen year old Lily is surly, pierced, tattooed, swears like a sailor, drinks like a fish and claims to have been the recipient of many sexual advances during her traveling days with her mother.  Not surprisingly, she’s also quite unstable. Her occasional visits- and soon her very existence- put a huge strain on Mark and Nicole’s relationship. This situation triggers a series of flashbacks about Mark’s painful family life, particularly his serious issues with his own parents.  There are obvious parallels between Mark and his elder daughter, and it’s grimly intriguing to watch them as they both come completely unhinged. By the time this tale comes roaring off the tracks, I felt great empathy for Mark while still realizing I wouldn’t want to spend very much time with him in any sort of social situation.  He’s frequently an outraged, petty prick who in many ways embodies all of our baser natures. I could see little glimpses of myself in him, and I didn’t like it too much. 
      Sutton is a skillful, insightful writer. His prose is hard-hitting and to the point (the book’s chapters are often only 2 to 3 pages long, but the pacing is perfect).  Among other things, Kids’ Stuff asks to what extent can you blame your problems on your family; when do you grow up and start taking responsibility for your own actions?  And even if you don’t care to address these issues, Sutton is such a great storyteller that you’ll be entertained at the very least. You might also learn something or be sexually titillated (and there actually are some naughty parts), and you’ll definitely get an unflinching, captivating look at the mind of a decidedly imperfect character.  This could make you feel better about yourself- or worse- but either way, this book is very much worth reading. –Ben Hunter

 

 

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