S.F. poet turns to prose to write about brothers suicide

When “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO, suddenly August Kleinzahler had an easy way to describe the people he grew up with.

Kleinzahler, a San Francisco resident for over two decades, was one of a handful of Jewish kids living in the predominantly Italian section of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

But his neighbors were not just Italian.

“I don’t suppose it was Tough Tony who brought little Gloriana to my parents’ house every day and babysat for the two of us while my mother went off shopping or visited friends. It was some other affectless gorilla with a shoulder holster.”

So writes Kleinzahler, 54, in his new essay collection, “Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained.”

“It was very nice growing up with Italians of Sicilian background,” Kleinzahler said. “They’re like Jews, they’re very noisy and hysterical, so temperamentally, it was very familiar to me.”

Kleinzahler described his Jewish upbringing as nominally so. “My parents used to drag us to synagogue on High Holidays, and both my siblings and I were bar mitzvahed,” he said. “That was about it.”

The essayist moved to San Francisco in 1981. At 16, he had fallen in love with poetry. He published his first chapbook in 1977, and then a full-fledged book of poetry the following year. He was 28. In total, he has written 10 books of poetry.

He never tried his hand at prose until he was in his late thirties because “that’s when I began getting my own voice, and I became a stronger writer. It took me that long.”

Though many of the essays in the book are about his adopted city, the title essay, “Cutty, One Rock,” is named after his brother’s favorite drink.

As a kid, Kleinzahler worshipped his older brother, who he never names in the essay. There was a six and a half year age difference between them.

“That was a large factor, because when you’re children, he was big and I was not,” Kleinzahler recalled. “He was a wonderful athlete, charming and audacious and wreckless and an enormously attractive creature. I adored him and followed him around whenever he’d let me.”

The centerpiece of the story is an evening when Kleinzahler is 21, and visits his brother in Manhattan, as he used to do. While the two of them are tripping on LSD, his brother confesses that he is gay.

Kleinzahler didn’t think he knew any gay people before that, and learning this was quite a blow.

“It seemed strange, it was an unwholesome, pathological condition to me. I thought of it as something freakish. My brother was a very tough guy, and it wasn’t a mannerism, it was the way he was, so it was very odd.”

His brother was also involved in crime, and later that year, he commits suicide.

The story ends: “I miss having someone like that in my life. I miss it like a limb.”

Though it was perhaps the most defining moment in his life, Kleinzahler only sat down to write about it a few years ago. “I thought I would write about it someday but didn’t know quite when. But such things take a long time to digest, and apparently I was ready to write about it. It was very painful to do, but also rather cathartic.”

Kleinzahler concluded, “We all inhabit historical moments. One of my greatest regrets is that my brother didn’t live in a friendlier era. Then it wouldn’t have been such a poisonous thing for him.”

August Kleinzahler will be reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30 at City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. Information: (415) 362-8193.

“Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained” by August Kleinzahler, (154 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $19).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."