THE NATURAL ORDER OF THINGS, by kevin keating
Reviewed by Lindsey Silken
We don’t read fiction to feel better about the world. We read to understand it. Lucky for Kevin Keating, because his debut novel, The Natural Order of Things is anything but uplifting. Set at a Jesuit boys’ prep school in an unnamed decrepit city, the book is comprised of fifteen connected stories that trace a moment in time as seen from the eyes of students, teachers and parents, all with motive, all hopeless. If optimism is your thing, go back to Primetime. Otherwise, pour a drink and settle in, for you’ll be pulled senseless into a twisted tunnel that Keating has perceptively and meticulously dug.
What is the natural order of things? According to Keating’s world, there’s a great deal of evil. Between the high school—where a teacher seduces a student and boys lock an old priest in a basement closet—and The Zanzibar Towers—an unkempt apartment building where teenagers and adults alike go for parties and prostitutes—it’s a sort of underworld of poverty and debasement that we enter into with the first story from which we are at no point released.
Some of Keating’s characters stand out more than others amidst the dirt and grime. Frank, “the Minotaur,” we meet in the first story, “Vigil,” when we’re still hopeful or naive enough to think the star football quarterback might do something great for the school. Instead, he gets drunk the night before the big game. You can guess how that goes. Then there’s his teacher, the sexy Batya Pinter, the only female and unlike anyone else in the strict religious institution, a mystery among the priests. She’s usually tripping on medicinal tea and among her many sexual conquests are Professor Wentworth and, later, his son.
One could go on about the corruption in these stories and the minds responsible for the terrible decisions. Each story is a fascinating case study in the spectrum of being out of one’s mind. When a teenager starts setting homeless people on fire in their sleep, society is past its breaking point. But the bigger question is why? Why do these things happen? Is the idea that put in bad situations people will do bad things? Is there a moral here?
The book’s launch has a coincidental timing with the recent tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. In the story “Ghost Dance,” Batya Pinter tells her students: “‘I’ve always considered myself a true patriot.’ The sincerity of this statement is not to be questioned. There is the gun after all—can anything be more American than that?”
We cringe at this line, because after all, it’s sort of true. According to TheAtlanticWire.com, 50 percent of guns on earth are owned by Americans. In the wake of Newtown, this idea, that owning a gun makes one patriotic, begs the question: how farfetched is Keating’s cast of terrors? After all, one could argue that Batya’s maniacal thinking is the same kind of thinking that allowed innocent children to be the victims of gun violence.
In “Hack,” the young Edmund, an aspiring writer with a crush on Batya Pinter, writes the Minotaur’s English papers for him. When the Minotaur is found out, in an ironic twist, he’s forced to be pleasured by Batya. Edmund is left alone and angry. While this was, I hope, much worse than your worst high school memory, his reflection on it could be interchanged with any angsty teenager.
He [Edmund] has the uncanny sensation that the whole universe is just a thin sheet of paper, a delicate piece of parchment, and that at any moment it can be ripped apart, and everything—every word, every letter, every trace of meaning—will slip from the page and tumble into the void.
Through Keating’s poetic language, this is the sense we get from each story; things are falling apart and the characters are on the verge of losing it. And then they do. From “The Deer Park”: “They are everywhere, these lunatics, a never-ending parade of human ruin, a plague cast down from heaven in a way that hints at God’s indifference to the world.” No one helps anyone: parents, spouses, teachers. I think this is the point. That were these people able to stick together, things wouldn’t be so bad.
In the last story, an old priest dies after those who should have been caring for him hasten his demise. Students lock the confused, ailing man in a janitor’s closet in the basement of the school. His fellow priests burn his holy books for fire when he’s on his death bed. But what are we told is the worst thing? Not giving him a proper funeral, not visiting his grave. That he was left alone, and that no one cared was ultimately the worst thing that could happen.
Not to be overshadowed is Keating’s handling of language. Had he written this book with crass and ugliness alone, without any of the lovely phrasing that deftly ties together the stories, I would have put it down. When reading about terrible people, it’s best to enjoy the description. From “In the Secret Parts of Fortune,” we get one man’s description of his so-called friend: “His soul was sheathed in barnacles, his eyes black and empty as infinite space, his pupils so large and lifeless that they seemed to suck in light like a singularity.” When wading through these gruesome and ugly stories, it’s Keating’s firm yet delicate hand that we cling to. It’s why it works.
Lindsey Silken is an editor, writer, and drinker of coffee in Boston. When not drinking coffee, she can be found consuming questionable amounts of dark chocolate. Surprisingly, she logs 8-9 hours of sleep a night. You can follow her fascinating tangents about books and life on her blog, Books Made of Paper at HelloGiggles.com.