By David Feela
Corvidae is a family of intelligent and mischievous birds, so it’s no surprise that Jack Kisling chose a crow to perch so prominently in the title of his under-appreciated-and- therefore-not-so-bestseller, “The Crow Flies Crooked.” In this corner of the Four Corners many people have heard about it, but few have ever read it.
It is a difficult book to locate, but I got lucky. Kisling’s first and only novel won second place in an important literary contest, the California Commonwealth Prize for fiction, but unfortunately the same year Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner just happened to submit his 9th book to the same contest, and it won first place. Bad timing.
Published in 1966 and never reprinted, the book chronicles a small town’s devotion to stupidity, deceit, and a brand of pinto-beanflavored poetic justice in a fictional location known as Crying Creek, just up or down the road from many small towns. Since I moved here over 30 years ago, old-timers have whispered to me about the novel, how it qualifies as a thinly veiled libelous attack on living individuals. It has even been suggested that locals were so offended by the text, they gathered up all the copies they could find and burned them. As for how much truth exists in any of this, I can only report that if it’s scandalous, it’s also hilarious.
A book reviewer on Amazon that claims to have lived in these parts 40 or so years ago penned these words: “Author Jack Kisling has accurately depicted the people in this little-known Colorado town, believe it or not. If the exact events aren’t exactly as they happened, they might as well have been.”
That may be so, but it’s beside the point. Knowing who is allegedly depicted in this book does nothing but distract the reader and frankly, it turns a good novel like “The Crow Flies Crooked” into nothing more than yellow journalism. It also does a disservice to a talented author who populated his pages with the necessary cast to tell his particular story. No living persons were ever harmed during the typing of his manuscript. What’s the big deal?
What Kisling accomplishes that any aspiring fiction writer tries to emulate is an accurate portrayal of human nature, and the more precise that depiction is, the more likely someone is going to be offended. We see ourselves in shadows, and we are frightened (or in this case angered) at the recognition of our own shortcomings embodied on the page for everyone to see. When the characters of Tiny Elmore and Little Clint step into the story, for example, their appearance, interests, and mannerisms may remind us of actual people, but that doesn’t make Kisling a biographer.
Fiction writers belong to a tier of lesser gods, semi-omnipotent to the extent that they are able to spin the raw and granulated events of ordinary life into cotton candy. Journalists are a different lot, more akin to the genus Corvus, the best of them skilled at gathering bits of fluff and shiny stuff so their prose sparkles when they write, but their stories are expected to fly in a straight line.
Jack Kisling spent 30 years in the business as a journalist for the Denver Post after leaving his rural newspaper editor post, but in that tiny tick of time known as “the interim,” he penned his novel. Colleagues in the newspaper business respected his wit, his craft, and his companionship. He died in 1998 after a long struggle with brain cancer. His newspaper columns have predictably turned to ash in the incinerator of time, because news of the world’s events burns hot at the moment it’s written, then quickly cools.
“The Crow Flies Crooked,” however, deserves a grander audience. I’ve been hunting for a personal copy just to savor what I’ve already read, but as I said, it’s hard to find. The book qualifies as a collectible, not because it’s valued as literature, but because so few copies can be located. One book dealer told me he handled a signed copy a few years back and sold it for $50. I’d love to have been that buyer. Another dealer suggests that a copy might be located for $100. I could ask him to hunt that one down, though I wish the book came with a time machine so I’d be able to give the money directly to the author and shake his hand.
When (and if) I find my own copy, I should be clear about one thing: No, you can’t borrow it, and you shouldn’t ask. Book borrowers are the sort of characters that will show up in my first novel.
David Feela, an award-winning poet and author, writes from Lewis, Colo. See more of his work at www.feelasophy.weebly.com