While he’s expounding upon the big reality-shattering ideas that zig and zag through his existential dystopian novel, The Defectors, like an errant self-driving automobile, he experiences a profound Proustian madeleine moment.
It’s the first book he’s had published, and although it’s classified as fiction, it’s rooted firmly in René’s own past, particularly his childhood, and like his life, it features scenes in a machine shop, Astoria and Long Island’s pine barrens.
It has no plot – René sees it only as 13 episodes that sometimes involve a character called Zig. It’s about people who defect, not from other countries as his parents did when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia only months before his birth, but from reality.
“The Defectors,” he concedes, “has a multiplicity of realities and is self-referential at times.”
A half century ago, René was born in Stockerau, Austria, a town a dozen miles from Vienna.
Four months later, the family relocated to New York City, staying briefly in a rat-infested tenement in the South Bronx before moving to New Rochelle.
René’s father took a job as a machinist, and the family eventually bought a house in Medford, a hamlet in Long Island’s pine barrens.
“After about a decade, my father quit his job and took all of his savings to open a machine shop in our garage,” says René. “I started helping out when I was 12.”
When he learned, aside from how to maneuver the lathe and drill press, was that success was elusive.
“Everyone who worked there had dreams, but most people failed when they went out on their own,” he says.
But that didn’t stop René, at least not in the beginning. After graduating from SUNY Albany with a degree in English, he spent a year studying in Prague.
“My college friends were talking about law school,” he says, “so I thought I would give it a try, too.”
Four days after he returned from Czechoslovakia, René found himself at Touro Law School.
“I hated it, but I stuck with it,” he says. “I almost failed, and ultimately, although I got the degree, I failed the bar five times – I got the identical score each time – before I finally gave up.”
While he was waiting for his professional life to commence, he met Catherine Kapphahn, whose first book, Immigrant Daughter, was published late last year.
René, a loquacious and curious man, embarked upon a number of pedestrian jobs that he managed to make interesting.
He clerked at the bookseller Shakespeare & Co. for a short while then became the production manager at the Czech Center New York, one of the cultural institutes under the auspices of the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I was a jack-of-all-trades there,” René says. “I did everything from chauffeuring to hanging art up on the walls for exhibitions.”
Around the same time, he and Catherine started a writers group and each decided to go back to school.
“We sat at opposite ends for our railroad apartment in Manhattan typing,” he says, “while our Belgian sheepdog shuttled back and forth between us.”
After he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence, René started teaching, eventually becoming an adjunct at Hofstra.
These days, he teaches creative writing and first-year composition at Lehman College and first-year composition at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
About a decade ago, the seed for The Defectors was planted when a number of journals started publishing bits and pieces of what would eventually become the novel, and René started getting grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts, that allowed him to continue the project.
“When I worked for Hofstra, I would go to the top floor of the library between classes to write,” he says. “There was nobody there.”
Those leisurely days of longhand evaporated with the birth of his sons, Radek and Rafa, who are 13 and 8, and René now finds himself tapping out notes on his smartphone in spare moments.
This is not one of them. Rafa, who is helping Catherine haul in bags of supplies from Trader Joe’s, bounces into the living room and curls up with René.
“As far as The Defectors, I don’t really consider it a novel,” René says. “Maybe it’s a story collection. For me, defecting from reality is not so much defecting from family as it is defecting from the machines of life.”
Yes, he’s quite aware that that does, indeed, include the smartphone and computer he uses to write.
Although René has additional spontaneous, free-thinking Defectors-like episodes in mind for a sequel, he’s also mulling a narrative-driven work. But he doesn’t think he can pull it off.
“My mind doesn’t work like that,” he says. “I would like to write a book that doesn’t fit into any category, where the episodes are thought experiments. I know that The Defectors is a weird book – it’s all over the place – and I know I’m not going to make any money. But that’s OK.”
Rafa looks at his dad and smiles.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling