I first met Kevin Fenton in 1977, late August maybe, beginning of September. We were both freshman at Beloit College.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances. We lived on the same floor of the same dorm, so I guess I probably ran into him early on. He was visually memorable. Largish fellow; my height or so; broad shoulders; carrying a bit of weight; round, lumpy Irish head. His walked in a bear-like shambling amble. His sartorial inclinations were, well, haphazard. But it is the hair I remember most.
As a disclaimer, this was the seventies. Unfortunate tonsorial choices were the norm. Hair-wise, I was still recovering from four years of military school, had been growing my hair out from its mandated crew cut all summer, but I was still well shy of anything approaching the style of the time. But Kevin? His hair had been growing for a while. Maybe forever.
We’re not talking long, straight, hanging down to the middle of your back hair here, not Bob Seger hair, not Leon Russell hair. We’re talking a rambling, gravity defying brown halo of chaos that enveloped his noggin and environs in an Einsteinian nebula of keratin and, for all I knew, small birds. Kevin is very stylishly coifed nowadays. Nice head of hair, Romneyesque even, where I’ve resorted to the camouflaging almost-shaven look of the patternly bald.
Weird time, those first few weeks of freshman year, everybody posing, preening, trying out their away-from-home personas in their first real chance at personal reinvention away from those witnesses to their pasts who could call them on their bullshit. I was going for some creative/intellectual thing, affecting a distanced reserve, mostly because, while I’m the equivalent of a party animal online, in person, I’m actually kind of shy. And I was amusing myself by dissecting the costumes of personality inside which my dorm mates were hiding. The devil-may-care party boys who were sheltering their insecurities behind beer cans and bongs, the femme fatale upstairs who was, I think, playing the same game as me, the jocks still trading on already fading high school glories.
But I never could figure out what Kevin was up to. Probably because he wasn’t up to anything. He was, and remains, one of the most relentlessly authentic people I know.
Also turned out he was one smart bastard. This wild-haired dude who looked like he dressed in the dark, at a thrift shop, he had read everything I’d read and a mess of shit I hadn’t, used words in conversation that I had to look up (that had never happened before) and had buttressed most of what he said with actual thought before he said it. The rest of us were just running our mouths, throwing verbal effluvium at the walls to see if anything would stick. This dude was dropping science.
I don’t suspect many people noticed, though, because Kevin didn’t say much.
He stuttered, that was one of the other things I noticed at first. A fair bit those first few weeks, and I guess that’s how it goes with stuttering – the stress of new environments can bring it on. Not much at all, really, by the end of the semester. But he wasn’t one of those guys that felt the need to be in the center of every conversation, that had to opine on every issue, that needed your attention. He wasn’t anti-social. He just wasn’t in your face.
I noticed the science, though, because Kevin and I talked quite a bit. For me, he was that friend you make at college, the one that you want to be alone with so you can stop pretending to be somebody else and just exhale.
I left Beloit after my sophomore year. Kevin and I stayed in touch for a while – he stood up in my wedding in 1980. We wrote letters, real ones, back in the days before e-mail and Facebook.
But we lost touch, lost touch for quite a while.
In 2003 I was in Kansas City on business and my wife told me Kevin had called. I had a moment of that weird guilt you feel when somebody you’d drifted apart from, somebody who had been as close to you as anyone at one time, when that person is the one who cares enough to reach out first, to take that risk of re-establishing contact. But I was also thrilled. I called Kevin from my hotel room, we talked for awhile, got back in the touch.
And here’s what I’ve learned since. He’s still a smart bastard. And he still isn’t in your face about it.
I knew Kevin was a hell of a writer – knew that thirty-some years ago at Beloit. But a few years back he let me read the manuscript of his novel, Merit Badges, and I was stunned by the depth of his gift, by his insight, by the unfailing honesty of his emotional compass, and by the grace and economy of his prose. I spend most of my time reading and writing genre stuff, but a book like Kevin’s reminds me of what literature can be. It can be more than a story, more than an entertainment. It can be transcendent and revelatory and enriching.
Lately, though, I’ve been catching up with a few other things Kevin’s written, some of his mental flotsam bobbing around on the interwebs. Here’s what else I’ve learned. When someone is a smart bastard, a really smart bastard, they get smarter and smarter as the years go by.
Do yourselves a favor. Go read this. And this. And then go buy Kevin’s book. If you’ve got room in your reading diet for the random shit I throw up here, then you really out to squeeze in a few things that are better for you.
Kevin, if you’re reading, then yeah. I know. This thing should have stewed for a while. It needs a good editing, another draft or two. But who has time? I’m busy tweeting and acting like an ass on Facebook. Give me any shit about it and I’m posting the picture. You know which one..