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John Eby: Collins’ seventh novel certainly significant

Published 11:00pm Wednesday, March 23, 2011

“Of Uncertain Significance” is the Michael Collins book for which I’ve waited.
The Dowagiac author I’ve known for more than 15 years probes in his seventh novel “the atomized particles of relationships laid bare, a vivisection of modern aloneness, an uncertain journey toward meaning in a seemingly godless world.”
“We abandoned the collective sentiment of our founding fathers’ motto, E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many one,” Michael writes. “We removed the phrase from our currency, replacing it with, ‘In God We Trust.’ It tore out the core of what should have been sacrosanct in our Constitution, a separation of church and state … Our politics became about God and flag … fed a line about individual liberties, about the individualization of the American Dream … In the so-called greatest democracy in the world, where you could say anything you wanted, nobody was really listening.”
In reacting to his daughter Nora’s seizures and brain tumor at 6, “I found a way to explore what I wanted to say about the human condition,” and while some of it’s dark and existential, a lot made me laugh aloud, like the rivalry felt with Mitch Albom. Albom’s arrival in Detroit more than 25 years ago cut short the Free Press column-writing career of former Daily News managing editor Eric Kinkopf.
Albom went from a mere sports columnist to an author as prolific as Bob Greene.
I’ve encountered Albom twice — in the Detroit Tigers locker room in 1987 and a few years after that at a Paul McCartney concert. Karl on “Mitch’s masterpiece,” Tuesdays with Morrie: “A dime-store take on on the meaning of life and death that sent the entire nation running for a box of Kleenex … a more interesting story is how Mitch had so many Tuesdays on his hands … and how he just happened to get a book out of it.”
“I wanted to topple the pyramid” of Albom’s books, Karl admits.
Karl lives in Chicago with his wife Lori in a childless marriage that began with their elopement to the Sault Ste. Marie locks.
The couple are looking down the barrel of middle age as his once-promising writing career dims, The Opus rejected.
Each hunts a legacy.
He embraces his wife “in the jaded way a boxer might in the latter rounds of a fight.”
As they embark on fertility treatments for the baby Lori desperately wants, Karl must face his fear he will turn out like his traveling salesman father,  a Cubs fan found dead after an apparent suicide when the author was 13. “We start out with such high expectations, all of us do,” father tells son.
Unbeknownst to Lori, Karl has taken out loans against their house to pay for his mom’s care at PALS — Potawatomi Assisted Living Suites — less than a mile from where “the music died” in a 1959 plane crash in which Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper perished, as recounted in Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Michael has a deft touch with references that resonate with me for a variety of reasons — “Northern Exposure,” Barry Manilow, Forrest Gump, Cabrini Green, Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Mike Ditka, Pop Tarts, June Cleaver, Parenting magazine, Harold Washington, the mayor turned library, “Petticoat Junction,” Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, Tammie Faye Baker, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, William Hurt in “Altered States,” John Lennon glasses, Michael Jordan, Elvis Costello, “A Clockwork Orange,” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” John Dillinger, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” McDonald’s Happy Meals, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “Risky Business,” “Pretty Woman,” the Sex Pistols, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Count Chocola cereal, “General Hospital,” Hamburger Helper, Freddy Krueger.
“How else do you come to understand America but through television?” Karl muses.
There is an indelible image of the Russian mockumentary troupe with nude performance artist Marina Kuznetsov, 24, carrying a placard over her head, “I Have Nothing to Sell You,” except the notion she might be the same person as a murdered Yale debutante from Long Island named Emily Piper Hampton.
Another indelible image is Karl the “Rear Window” voyeur “on the set of my own existence” watching his gay neighborhood.
Karl freelanced for crime writer Perry Fennimore, but he feels adrift in his relationship and increasingly drawn to Chicago’s back streets.
The first time I heard the title, it threw me. A “cold medical term,” uttered by a doctor to explain that the tumor might have caused her seizures, but then again maybe not.
“It had a metaphysical underpinning to it,” for Michael. “It spoke to larger issues. Nothing held significance anymore. I kept wondering what our existence and our time on earth actually means. It was a question that would define the prevailing theme of the novel I started on during my daughter’s recovery, a rigorously disquieting questioning novel seeking answers.”
He’s my brother’s age and his “desperate search for understanding” speaks to me:
“(After the moon landing) we came back to more earthly concerns, the horrific nightly images of Vietnam, through Nixon’s impeachment and our withdrawal from the South East Theater of War, so by the seventies, all our collective consciousness could settle on as horror was the cinematic inanity of Jaws, a marauding great white shark with the potential to ruin, God forbid, a Fourth of July weekend at the beach.” Of all the movies he could have referenced, the one that came out the summer after I graduated high school — the last one I saw with my mother.
“Reality in the end, was defined by our wants and desires, by how we saw ourselves,” concludes Collins, who teaches at Southwestern Michigan College.

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