photo by Michael LevyThe Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award winner for 2014 is Kristopher Jansma, of Brooklyn, New York. Competition judges selected Jansma's The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (Viking Press, 2013; pb Penguin, 2014) for its fresh and traditional, reliable and unreliable narrator, in voice and character, as he, unnamed throughout, discovers his own unchangeable spots as he journeys from Raleigh to New York to Dubai to Sri Lanka to Iceland and Ghana.
Kristopher Jansma's first novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards received an Honorable Mention for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award and was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Flaherty-Dunnan Debut Novel Prize. Kristopher's work has appeared in The New York Times, Electric Literature, Slice Magazine, The Blue Mesa Review, and Columbia Magazine. He is an assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz College.
The narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards grows up in Terminal B of a small airport and begins writing stories while he waits for his stewardess-mother to return. Because Terminal B has no clocks she leaves him a gold wristwatch that she found in First Class. When the boy takes it to the Concourse watch repairman, he opens it to reveal the inner works, and the boy wonders where the seconds go just as he wonders where the travelers go, rushing past him, never to be seen again.
Soon his knack for telling stories, and lies, will take him even farther. He becomes the jealous companion to Julian, a talented but unstable writer, and he falls in love with an actress named Evelyn, who is set to wed an Indian geologist. This gonzo chapter, "Malice and Desperation in the Grand Canyon," is full of rich details, including an elephant and a Hindu wedding dais covered with orchids and centered with a roaring Sacred Fire.
The earnest voice always "means well" in the face of the most audacious gambits for meaning and connection, and its open-faced curiosity for what comes next. The voice of Jansma's first novel is fresh yet generous, with whiffs of Salinger and Kerouac. The questions throughout this traditional yet postmodernist novel are how to move forward in the world, what to move forward into, and whom to "travel there" with--questions and their answers that concern us all.
The adventures themselves are both thoughtfully narrated and satirical of American culture, condensing phrases into fresh American language. One of the boy's teachers reminds the class to write by "tell[ing] the truth, but tell[ing] it slant," but he doesn't know what that means because his entire life of comings and departures has been structured on the slant--and so he takes it for granted. He is innocent to his "slanted" life in the way Huck Finn is innocent and Tom Sawyer is not; on every trip, in every chapter, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is solidly well told, and the book recalls, one critic has said, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Wes Anderson; fresh yet classical. The meta-love of books is clear on every page yet the old quest for meaning is taken seriously, too: readers are taught, delighted, and moved emotionally to action by reading this enjoyable new novel.
Jansma's spirited, clever website www.kristopherjansma.com contains links to his essays on writing and teaching that are as well-written and perceptive as his novel.
Inspired by a personal tragedy, Jansma's second novel, What Can Go Wrong, due out in 2015, takes place in Manhattan at the time of the recent devastating recession and follows five friends who must deal with a sudden catastrophe. The second novel is surely something to watch for and read by this talented, bright, questioning/questing writer and teacher. Jansma's writing is thoughtful and perceptive but also funny, witty, and entertaining--the best of literary fiction. Long may it live into the new century and beyond--if it can take life as seriously-humorously as this.
Finalists were: Suzanne Rindell, Wiley Cash, Don Waters and Vanessa Blakeslee.