The International Writers Magazine: Reviews

TEMPING by Kirby Olson
Black Heron Press, 2006, 219 pp.,
ISBN: 0-930773-76-4
A Charlie Dickinson review

TEMPING is the story of a determinedly bland Seattle slacker, Millhouse Moot, who has reached middle-age and through a series of unchallenging temporary jobs keeps life simple, free of relationships, and satisfyingly irresponsible. For solace in his lonely and largely meaningless life, Moot turns to literature and philosophy. As he relates in his voice of ascerbic wit, he is a very minor, yet published poet.

This, of course, is only the opening premise for what turns out to be a comedic romp venturing out globally to points east and west of Seattle, where anti-heroic Millhouse inevitably gets goosed by the complications of Life.

Despite his philosophic acceptance and rationale for being a 40-year-old slacker, Millhouse sets part of his quest to reform in motion by going to see a psychiatrist to talk about how his life might work better. The shrink, a no-nonsense, pragmatic woman, hears out Millhouse, then tells her teetotaling Lutheran client, who's never had a relationship with the opposite sex, he needs to do two things if they are to continue talking: Get drunk and get laid.

With an assist from his friend Billy Whims, another temp with literary ambitions, Millhouse manages to get drunk, but despite a trip with Whims to a Hong Kong bordello does not get laid. Also in Hong Kong, Millhouse sees what must be the love of his life, the Finnish Liisa, performing there with a Finnish circus. He recognizes Liisa as a Finnish student in the Seattle university where he works and for whom he carries a torch.

If the introduction of the love interest seems farfetched, that is only the beginning of Millhouse's screwball comedic quest, taking him to grad school, to Finland, to an appointment in academia, to marriage, to fatherhood, and to ownership of a circus. Throughout his quest, Millhouse's antagonist and rival for Liisa's affection is a circus midget clown, who is also his university boss, Marcel Nations.

Though the plot of TEMPING has some bizarre premises, Olson's satiric targets in this novel are apt and lend themselves to a comedic take: temporary work, academia, and the ascendancy of conservative government in such historically liberal nations as Finland.

But TEMPING is more than satire and for all its comedy is about the maturing of Millhouse Moot and how he finally learns something not even his shrink knew.

Millhouse by the novel's end can let go of his Lutheran piety (never really sincere, more a default position), can let go of his cynical self-protective stance toward the world, and can say after waiting more than forty years, "Better to have loved and won, than not to have loved at all."

It is worth noting Evergreen State College alum Kirby Olson has taught philosophy in both the United States and Finland and is married to a woman with the good Finnish name of Riikka, with whom he has three children--seemingly all autobiographical elements that knowledgeably inform this intensely funny first novel.
© Charlie Dickinson June 2006
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