Kun finds himself after writing about lost men

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Novelist Michael Kun writes about lost men: Men who become obsessed with television stars, resulting in restraining orders. Men who don't always know when they're lying and when they're telling the truth. Men who can only feel warm on the inside with the help of first-rate bourbon.

Kun, a former Baltimorean, isn't ashamed to admit that not too long ago, he was kind of lost himself.

He wasn't a drunk or a stalker. And he was someone who appeared successful to most people - he's a partner in one of the country's largest labor law firms. On top of that, he's a published novelist.

Kun's books, which showcase his well-honed sense of the comic, are a grown-up version of the Good Humor truck. Readers follow the faint pealing of bells, knowing that at the end they will get a treat. (The author will read from his newest, warmly received book, You Poor Monster, today at Clayton Fine Books.)

All the same, Kun felt unable to find his way.

"My editor was the first one to point out that lost men were my theme," says the 42-year-old Kun, over the phone from his car. "I hate to admit my editor's right about anything, but I was one of those lost men for a very long time.

"I have really struggled with my career. There can be so much dishonesty in the legal system. Before I met Amy [his wife of eight months] I had a long series of relationships that weren't as fruitful as I'd hoped. And my writing career seemed stalled. After I published my first book, I disappeared for 13 years. People thought I was dead."

They really did.

Online, www.amazon.com was abuzz with rumors about Kun's demise:

A) from a drug overdose;

B) while mountain climbing;

C) at the hand of a paramour's jealous husband or boyfriend;

D) in a sports-related accident.

In the Web site's reader reviews section, friends wrote that the lesson of Kun's death was "to always wear a batting helmet, even in the slow pitch cage." Former girlfriends assured the "deceased" author that they still loved him.

The rumors are a little sad and a little funny, and they seem to have been spurred by the 13-year gap in the author's publishing history. Come to think of it, the rumors sound like something that might happen to a character in a Michael Kun novel.

By combining sorrow with black humor, by experimenting with form and by making the author into one of the novel's characters, Kun's books call to mind children's book author Lemony Snicket and his Series of Unfortunate Events about three orphans fleeing from the evil uncle.

This is not to imply that Kun's worldview is childlike. You Poor Monster tells the story of the larger-than-life Sam Shoogey, who draws his divorce lawyer, Hamilton Ashe, into his chaotic and faintly disreputable world.

But what makes Kun's novel different from other new fiction are the 237 endnotes. They tell a second story that comments upon and subtly undermines the main narrative, with hilarious and tragic results.

"An issue I have with fiction is that there's always a wall there," Kun says. "Readers know that it's not real. With the endnotes, I wanted to make readers wonder if the story was true so they would like the characters more and worry about them more."

He also made sure to anchor the novel firmly in Charm City.

Kun jokes that My Wife and My Dead Wife, the third of his four novels and the only one not set in Baltimore (it takes place in Atlanta), is his only book to bomb big-time, "an international worst-seller," he says.

"I'm sure that if I'd set it in Baltimore, it would have been huge.

"Cities like Atlanta and Charlotte have become so homogenized. The restaurants and bars, the music stores and bookstores are the same. But Baltimore still feels like Baltimore, from the rowhouses to the skyline to the accents. Baltimore inspires me to write."

Sprinkled throughout You Poor Monster are references to such actual local landmarks as the Senator Theatre, The Sun, Bohager's and the Cat's Eye Pub. Also throughout are references to "historic" personages who never existed.

For instance, consider endnote No. 165: "As Marylanders know, Phil Van Marker eventually served a term as governor. He was defeated by Kurt Kiley in his bid for re-election."

Marylanders know no such thing - both Van Marker and Kiley are made up - but readers in the other 49 states may fall for that particular fib. There's nothing so confusing as a bit of truth mixed up with lies.

Both Kun and his mother, Beatrice, insist that Michael was not a particularly funny kid.

"He was always the most responsible child," she says. "He was very serious, very bright, and never got into trouble."

The author was born in New York. Because his electrical salesman father was transferred often, the family moved eight to 10 times before Kun was in his teens. "I think my creativity was a product of loneliness," he says. "I was always going to new schools, so I spent a lot of time alone, coming up with little stories to entertain myself."

Kun says that Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird inspired both his legal and writing careers. And he credits Stephen Dixon, his teacher at the Johns Hopkins University, with helping him publish several short stories as an undergraduate.

When Kun was a law student at the University of Virginia, an editor at Putnam Books suggested he expand one story into a novel. It became A Thousand Benjamins, which was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1990.

And then came the infamous 13-year gap - much of which was spent editing and rewriting a 650-page behemoth that he originally had published in installments in Baltimore's City Paper in 1993 and was called Our Poor Napoleon.

In 2002, a burnt-out Kun decided to drive up the coast of California and see if he could write a book in one week, as Mary Shelley famously did with Frankenstein.

"I made myself laugh for an entire week, and when I was done, I had a book," Kun says. "It was the beginning of what some people would call my 'comeback.'"

The result was The Locklear Letters, which was featured as a summer book choice for 2003 by Amazon.com and New York's Village Voice.

The success of Letters, which tells the story of a software salesman obsessed with Heather Locklear, reinvigorated Kun's efforts to reshape Our Poor Napoleon, which by then had been renamed You Poor Monster and trimmed to about 350 pages.

"If I hadn't written The Locklear Letters, I'd never be publishing You Poor Monster now," he says.

The Los Angeles Times describes Kun's fourth book as "the Great American Dilemma in novel form." Monster has been chosen for prime display in the Borders bookstores this month and in the Barnes and Noble stores in the fall.

Just as Letters was published, Kun met attorney Amy Toboco at a newsstand and invited her to a reading.

"I didn't know if I'd go, but I read his book and thought it was hilarious," she says.

The two became friends. Nothing romantic, at least not at first.

But last year, when You Poor Monster was in manuscript form, Kun showed Toboco the dedication he had chosen: "To my wife."

When she stopped crying, Toboco said yes.

Michael Kun

Age: 4

Residence: Los Angeles

Occupation: partner, Jackson Lewis LLC; author of four novels

Place of birth: New York

Time in Baltimore: 1980-1984 while attending college; 1988-1994 while working for the law firm Piper Marbury.

Education: bachelor's degree in political science, the Johns Hopkins University in 1984; JD, University of Virginia School of Law in 1988.

Novels: A Thousand Benjamins (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990); The Locklear Letters (MacAdam Cage, 2003); My Wife and My Dead Wife (MacAdam Cage, 2004); You Poor Monster (MacAdam Cage, 2005).

Next project: The Baseball Uncyclopedia: Everything You Know About Baseball is Wrong (to be published in March). A fifth novel is to be called Cool Your Jets.

Book reading

What: Michael Kun reads from You Poor Monster

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: Clayton Fine Books, 317 N. Charles St.

Admission: Free

Call: 410-752-6800

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