There is no writer today who gives me (Ben) more pleasure to read than Eric Kraft. I had the good fortune of being introduced to Kraft by Caleb Wilson, who insisted I give Little Follies a try. Since then, I’ve read everything of Kraft’s I can get my hands on (much of which is, for shame, out-of-print).
The central character of Kraft’s stories is a boy named Peter Leroy, a literary alter ego of Kraft’s childhood. The books usually begin with Peter Leroy writing an introduction explaining how he came to author the present volume. Then, during the stories, we are treated to twin narratives of Peter’s childhood adventures and adult Peter’s rendering of those stories to his Ideal Reader (and long-suffering wife) Albertine — and, by extension, to us — in “real time.” So we have a metafiction in which the author Eric Kraft is writing about a younger, embellished, fictional version of himself named Peter Leroy, who himself is pretending to write his own memoirs (again, with great embellishment). Got it?
If that sounds at all daunting then I have already done a disservice to Kraft. The books are sheer fun to read. As cerebral as they can be, they are not a bit pretentious, even though reviewers like to compare Kraft to (among others) Proust, Borges, Nabokov, Twain and Cheever. This hints at the difficulty of pitching Kraft to would-be readers: he’s a moving target. Trying to describe anything he accomplishes in his books risks omitting a half dozen other essential parts. This usually sends reviewers (as it will me too) back to broad, glowing endorsements. Two of my favorites are from Malcolm Jones — “Charming but never sappy, droll but never cynical, Peter Leroy’s adventures constitute one of our wittiest and most acute portraits of America at mid-century. In the bargain, they are the literary equivalent of Fred Astaire dancing: great art that looks like fun” — and Andrew Ervin — “The only American author since Pynchon to completely erase the line between the literary novel and the spit-out-your-coffee comedy.”
My admiration for (and envy of) Kraft has mostly to do with the literary terrain he explores: childhood, memory, love, adventure and family. On one hand, I feel deep regret that someone else has captured something essential about each of those subjects (or, often, a combination of several at once if not occasionally all five) far better than I ever will. On the other hand, I can find it in my heart to forgive Kraft because, again, he’s a joy to read. And I should say that we’ve borrowed much of the inspiration for the back-and-forth of our online personas (Ben and Erin Voreblog) from Kraft’s Peter and Albertine. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
While I still consider Little Follies to be the best introduction to Kraft (you can read customers reviews about it here), Flying is a pretty good one too. Collecting two previous novellas (Taking Off and On The Wing) and adding the final part (Flying Home), Flying recreates young Peter Leroy’s supposed airplane flight from his hometown of Babbington, New York, to New Mexico and back, all in a homemade flying motorcycle (or “aerocycle,” whom Peter names Spirit and has a running dialogue with). At the same time as he’s writing this story, the adult Peter Leroy drives cross-country with Albertine and tells her the truth, one painfully obvious to the reader: Peter never left the ground. But he did have some adventures, almost all being of the digressive sort, which young (and old) Peter believe to be the adventures themselves.
The closest thing I can compare the Peter Leroy stories to is Calvin & Hobbes. Both are, on the surface, whimsical stories of precocious kids with fantastic imaginations. You get pulled in because they’re fun. But once you’re in, you begin to appreciate how many levels the creator is working on. In the same way Calvin & Hobbes was a profoundly creative accomplishment that crossed all the boundaries of what a comic strip could do, the Peter Leroy stories do the same in their own medium.
If I have piqued your interest to even the tiniest degree then I consider my work here done. At this point you should proceed directly to the source material. Short of buying a book, at least visit the portal to Peter Leroy’s world that is Eric Kraft’s website. You’re in for a ride.