“Fargo turned in time to see the back door dissolve into a dark blue surge, like an ocean wave rising up under a black light, and then give way before a solid mass of burly flesh. The room filled up with cops.”
Fargo Burns was about to get a ride in a straight jacket to a psychiatric hospital in New York City. In a massive psychotic break the thirty-two-year-old had spent the evening “howling and half-naked in his torn and bloody clothing…heaving furniture into the street” from his 12th floor apartment.
The problem was, Fargo thought he was a dog. The bigger problem was that it was no longer acceptable to Fargo to be a human being.
In lyrical language set against a backdrop of societal and personal violence, Kos Kostmayer weaves the story of Fargo’s tortured struggle to create a “normal” life. Fargo has a start. He loves his three children and though separated from his wife, he and Holly have a friendly, caring relationship.
But in 1971 the Vietnam War raged on, convulsing society in the U.S., Fargo haunted Havoc, his favorite saloon and “a place of reckless pleasure, a place where opposites came together to form a new and mutant breed of joy: joy fed by pain; pain relieved by drugs; drugs anointed by denial; denial driven by a hot desire for true and loving freedom. It was chaos set to music.” At Havoc Fargo encounters Billie Speed, “a promise of true bliss,” who shares Fargo’s affinity for drugs and sexual ecstasy heightened by danger. The fact that Billie lives with Kohler Skane, a ruthless killer, takes that danger to the knife’s edge.
In a complex narrative structure that Kostmayer pulls off elegantly, the somewhat amnesiac Fargo rediscovers his childhood in Bitter Forest, Mississippi, through talking with Lane Dubinsky, the psychiatrist whom he thought was Virginia Woolf when he was a barking dog. Merciless beatings with a doubled-over belt by his father, Morgan. Seeing his favorite uncle, the pear-shaped Wallaby, hanging by a rope from a tree. The endemic racism in the Mississippi Delta coming close when a white mob burned the home of Lester Moto, the black “backcountry powerhouse” who ran off with Fargo’s Aunt Maida.
Back and forth in time and place between New York and Mississippi, Kostmayer adds depth to Fargo’s character and understanding to his struggle with being a human being. His prose rings with authenticity, born of the author having lived for over two decades in rural Mississippi though a New Yorker at heart.
A playwright, poet, and screenwriter as well as a novelist, Kostmayer, who is also influenced by his passion for jazz, delivers a virtuoso performance of language in Fargo Burns. The beat is fast, and the shifts from taut poetic expression to the dialogue of an accomplished playwright are evocative of jazz improvisation. Kostmayer’s technique is definitely not improv, however. He clearly invests his intellect and life experience thoughtfully in creating the story of this complex, troubled, but likeable southern expatriate.
Polly Dement, Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the author of Mississippi Entrepreneurs (2014), a collection of 70 stories about the tenacious and courageous men and women who risk fortune and futures to create successful social, cultural, and business enterprises in Mississippi. Her current writing project, Defying Odds, Fulfilling Dreams, The Woodward Hines Education Foundation 1980-2020, will be in print in December.