I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be two versions of Robert Day; no, three. The first, and the one many Eastern Shore readers know best, is his Professor of English Emeritus at Washington College persona. Under that rubric, Professor Day helped to put Washington College’s creative writing program front and center among small liberal arts colleges across the nation. That he succeeded is a testament to both his teaching skills and the flowing power of his own writing, as well as his ability to inspire his students, many of whom still speak of him in tones reverential years after his retirement.
Robert Day’s second persona is his cowboy one. Once referred to as the “Cowboy of the Chesapeake,” Mr. Day hails from deep in the backcountry of western Kansas. Once upon a time, he played some serious baseball at the University of Kansas before turning to writing and penning his first successful novel, The Last Cattle Drive which was optioned for Hollywood movie rights, but alas, that tale ends with the word “optioned.” Undismayed, a few years later, Day drew upon those same Kansas roots to deliver a fine collection of stories, Speaking French in Kansas. Fortunately for his fans, that same laconic twang can be still heard in his latest work, For Not Finding You.
But before I get to that, there is the question of Mr. Day’s third persona: that of raconteur, boulevardier, un homme du monde à Paris (pronounced, as the French do, pa-RIS), to be exact. Monsieur Day has spent pas mal du temps in Paris as well as Kansas and somehow he’s managed to weave those two strands together in his newly released tale of love found, love unspoken, and ultimately (sadly) love lost in his latest literary offering, the aforementioned For Not Finding You.
One of the elements I like best about Day’s writing is his touch with dialogue. Scenes set in Kansas sound like Kansas: spare, authentic, wonderfully wry. Like “Patsy was no rose. Not even a shriveled flower at the stem’s end. Mostly thorns—especially if you crossed her.” Or “Talk is ventilation for the brain,” Buck said. “Just like you need to open the vents and damper on the Woodsman now and then to keep it from smoldering and getting creosote in the flue pipe. You don’t want smoke in your head.” When I read those words, I hear them plainly spoken and I see Patsy and Buck in all their Kansan glory. Robert Day is really good at that.
On the other hand, scenes set in Paris have that faint awkward touch that sounds like an American trying hard not to sound like an American. For all I know, Mr. Day may speak fluent French (he doesn’t, I’m told) but Leo Murdock, the narrator of FNFY, lives in the twilight of an expatriate American residing in Paris, one who is besotted with things Francophile but still observes the city and its scenes existentially, as though he’s looking at Paris through a slightly fogged lens. No matter; it all works, or as the French would say, “ça marche.”
But beyond dialogue, there’s knowledge. Of landscape; of heifers and cattle prices; of horse temperament, rattlesnakes, and snapping turtles; of fence building and windshield ranching and shelter belts and gardening and river quicksand. All the details of life on the prairie. This isn’t research; this is knowledge gained from the ground up; not book learning, but bootstrap Kansan stuff. It makes for fun reading and not a little disbelief—the good kind, not cynical but worthy of respect. “Good thinking,” as Buck likes to say.
Good as he is with dialogue and description, Day is at his best in developing his characters. And that they are: characters, real people, not just stuffed animals. As Buck says to Monique as he’s about to take her out for an evening ride, “I’m not harmless. But I’m not dangerous either.” But maybe that’s just Day looking in the mirror of his writing.
For Not Finding You is a good story for what it says, but it’s a better story for what it doesn’t say. There are words unspoken, conversations inferred. This is what distinguishes Day’s writing. He doesn’t spoon feed you, he lets you nibble and chew at your own pace and to reach your own conclusions. Questions hang in the air and Day lets you ponder their answer. A scene where Leo is thrown from his ornery horse stands as quirky metaphor for a near-miss in marriage. It also propels him years forward, still looking for—and not finding—the youthful love that got away. It’s touching; there’s a deep sense of bonjour, tristesse, a palpable, yearning kind of sadness that colors many of the story’s Parisian scenes and stands in stark contrast to the delightful humor of the Kansas plains.
Day is a wonderful writer and an even better storyteller. Maybe he’s the last of the “Prairie Populists,” not the “crazy old goat” who owns the Half Vast Ranch next door to Buck’s place. When I read one of Bob Day’s stories, I occasionally get thrown for a moment but I really don’t mind. I take a breath, dust myself off, and get back up in the saddle and ride off with him into the Kansas sunset. Or maybe even to Paris.
As a story, For Not Finding You is highly worth your reading while. Moreover, it proves that good writers really are like fine wine: they only improve with age. So pour yourself a glass of good French wine and settle in. At one point in the story, Leo muses that “small luxuries are better than big ones if you live in the country.” For Not Finding You is just that: a small luxury that, despite its country roots, looms much larger for its Kansas plainness and its Parisian sophistication. Its settings, characters, dialogue, and pace make for a lot of good thinking.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com