Reviewed by Melissa Arnold
It becomes clear when you speak to Jack Kohl that he does nothing part-way. The 46-year-old Northport native is completely immersed in the arts, with an extensive career in music composition, piano and theater. Now, Kohl is sharing the stories that have captivated his imagination for decades. His first book, “That Iron String,” was critically acclaimed by reviewers. In late July, he released “Loco-Motive,” a philosophical novel that pays homage to his two greatest loves: Long Island and running.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kohl about his latest venture. Both of your books are set on Long Island.
Were you born here?
Born in Manhattan, but we moved to Queens right after I was born, and then out to Northport when I was three. Except for a few brief periods of living away for work or school, I’ve always claimed Northport as my native place.
What do you love about this area?
What makes Long Island so remarkable is that whenever you go to the shoreline, you have all of New England looming in the distance, and at the same time, to the west, you have the whole of our republic, with so much to explore. I’ve never exhausted what the Island holds in my imagination.
Did you always want to be an author?
I think so. I was always a big pen-and-paper letter writer, and in my early 20s I had the will to write in large prose forms. A novel poured out of me about my happy childhood that was also set on Long Island, but it was never published. I grew up with my parents, particularly my mother, reading aloud to me from Dickens and Melville. I think the music of those two authors was inside me from very early on.
What are some of your other interests?
Most of my income is from my work as a pianist. I studied piano in pre-college in Juilliard and went on to get my master’s and doctorate in piano at the University of South Carolina as well. I teach some courses as an adjunct and do freelance performance as opportunities arise.
Are ‘Loco-Motive’ and your first book, ‘That Iron String,’ connected at all?
They are, in terms of setting. And if one reads both books very carefully, they’ll find that characters from “That Iron String” appear in the background of “Loco-Motive,” particularly the character Portsmouth Gord. I don’t intend to compare myself to Faulkner in any way, but he employed a similar weaving and overlapping of characters in his work as well.
Tell me about the story line.
I would say it’s a portrait of my experience learning to be a runner. I turned to running to help lose weight during my time in graduate school. I created a character who uses running in an irrational way to try to set the world’s problem’s aright. There are two very ordinary runners who, suddenly, during a race very much like Northport’s Great Cow Harbor 10K, break the world record significantly.
Part of the novel involves finding out why that was possible, and the great coincidence of those two people being in the same place. It also explores the almost sinister preoccupation of one of those runners with coaching the other to be even faster. The great theme of the book is whether or not improving our physical abilities can prove that the body (and physical matters) are superior to spiritual matters. The main character makes an argument that the physical realm is what we have to fight for.
What inspired you to write this book?
The narrator’s love affair with running is very much autobiographical. It’s a portrait of my experience learning to be a runner, as well as all the experiences I’ve had with the Northport Running Club and all of the wonderful characters I’ve met through running and fitness on Long Island. Of course, the town of Pauktaug is a stand-in for my own native village and so many other villages on the North Shore.
Even if one doesn’t quite follow all of the philosophical ideas in the book, I still think that people will enjoy its recognizable settings and the affectionate fallibility of the characters. They have a humorous preoccupation with their finish times, their fitness routines and all of the things that come with being a runner.
What do you like most about your books?
There’s so much literature out there about running, and I agree with the cliches — it makes you feel better and improves your way of life. I’ve made the majority of my best friends through running. But I think this book explores the psychic and spiritual elements of running like no other.
What is the target audience for this book?
I think adults or even a thoughtful older teen who enjoys literary fiction would be able to grapple with the book and enjoy it. There are no themes in it that would be inappropriate for children; it’s more a question of whether they can be successfully grasped. I’ve been happily surprised by the variety of people who responded positively to this book … you don’t need to be steeped in Fitzgerald or Melville to appreciate it.
Your books are published by Pauktaug Press. Is that your own company?
It is, yes. I had read about successful authors that went the route that eliminated the middle man in publishing and, after some difficulty finding a publisher for my first book, chose to pursue that myself. I also take pleasure in creating a recognizable place that exists mythically in the book. Pauktaug Press is a newspaper that exists in “Loco-Motive,” so it’s fun to create the illusion that it also exists in the real world. Some people don’t even question its reality.
What’s on the horizon for you?
“That Iron String” and “Loco-Motive” are part of the Pauktaug trilogy of books. Their successor, “You, Knighted States” takes Pauktaug and sets it back in 19th century Long Island and the Old West. It uses many of the same themes while focusing on the families and ancestors of the characters in the first two books. That book is in copy editing now and should be available in the spring.
“Loco-Motive” and “That Iron String” are available at www.jacksonkohl.com, Amazon and other major online retailers. Copies are also available at the Super Runners Shop, located at 353 New York Avenue in Huntington.