In some ways Kevin Killeen and I are a lot alike: We were one-time colleagues at KMOX Radio, we grew up in the St. Louis suburbs in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we sneaked Kents in the woods, threw rocks at freight trains, and hopped rides on the slow-rollers through town (his tracks were in Webster, mine were in Ferguson). We both sat facing backwards in the ‘way- back’ seats in our family’s Buick station wagons, and we’ve always been story-tellers.
In between his daily story-telling on the radio, Killeen writes books. His second book, Try to Kiss a Girl, comes out next month. In his first book, Never Hug a Nun, his writing style reminded me of the work of a slightly more famous Missouri author, Mark Twain. It’s a similarity that Killeen won’t deny.
“The first book that ever really drew me in was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the hero was a kid,” Killeen says. “He didn’t play on the train tracks like I did, but he was on the river, and he smoked and he cut school—these were virtues that I endorsed.”
Instead of Huck and Tom, Killeen writes fictionalized and embellished remembrances of his own youth, poorly disguised as primary character Patrick Cantwell. In Try to Kiss a Girl, it’s 1969, and 11-year-old Patrick and his family are on their annual vacation to Lake Michigan. At the start of the trip, Patrick’s goal is to catch fish, but that changes after he meets another, much more experienced boy.
“The other kid reads Mad magazine, and believes in flying saucers and the Mothman and other mysteries of the universe. He’s the one who tells Patrick the facts of life,” Killeen explains. “The boy finds out the secret hidden for the ages: where babies come from. And the kid feels like, What else did I miss if I didn’t see that?”
You can probably imagine where the plot is headed; but with Killeen at the pen, there’s no telling where it will end up. In his typical self-deprecating manner, Killeen tells me it’s been suggested that he not quit his day job, but I think that’s only because it’s difficult to find financial success as a writer.
I have to admit that it’s somewhat my fault that my friend isn’t further along in his writing career: Back in ’96, Killeen was laid off from KMOX, where I was also working as a reporter. I hated to see him leave the newsroom, so I encouraged another reporter to go after a better job at another station. When the other reporter took the new job, I lobbied the boss to re-hire Killeen—and he’s been there ever since. I’m thinking that if he hadn’t come back to the Mighty ‘Mox, he’d be on his seventh or eighth novel by now.
“It’s fun to be a reporter but everything you cover is so inconsequential the day after tomorrow,” Killeen says. “With fiction, you think, Wouldn’t it be neat if I could write a book that would last for 30 years or more, and people would say that it really captured a time?”
His books have enabled Killeen to take a deeper look at life: How his parents ‘endured’ raising seven kids, as well as reflections on his own family and life raising his four kids in Webster Groves.
Killeen has been able to see a greater metaphor in a simple, seven-day vacation. “You think you’ve got all the time in the world, but you’ve probably only got seven decades just like the seven days. All of a sudden, it’s Wednesday, you’re 40, and you say, Where did the time go? Then, it’s Thursday and you’re 50; and on Friday, you’ve got to clean out the cottage, and there’s nothing left but the drive home,” he says. “I guess that’s born of years of thinking that I wish I had a two-week vacation instead of one!”
Killeen will be spending time on the road in the weeks ahead to promote the new book, including a working vacation that will take him back to the lake-resort towns of Michigan. Maybe he’ll have more time to reflect on the adventures of Patrick Cantwell, the stories that are yet to be written, and the view of the world from the back of a Buick.
“In the way-back seat of the station wagon, you sit facing backwards and saw the past fleeting. The kids who sat in the middle seat became accountants because they were looking forward, but the sentimentalists came from the way-back seat.”
And thanks to my friend, Kevin, I remember how marvelous a view it really was.