Lynn Crawford’s novel Shankus & Kitto demands attention from its readers, and they are richly rewarded for their efforts. Crawford delves into the lives of four characters related by either blood or marriage. Her narrative deftly establishes connective threads between them. Each chapter is told in first person by one of the central characters, allowing Crawford to present multiple subjective points of view. As the novel progresses, the overarching story coalesces, but Crawford does not present events chronologically. The story moves back and forth through time, providing perspectives from both the Shankus and Kitto families. Past, future, and present are fluid entities, and set the stage for great and small narrative revelations
The story begins in the middle of a series of events, and is narrated at first by Ily McGee. We learn of her travels to Italy to study cooking. She “hopes to meet locals, chefs, cultivate patrons.” Instead, she has difficulty meeting Italians, and befriends an American man named Dino Shankus, also in Italy to learn local culinary tradition.
Ily’s connection to food is deeply sexual. As she sits in an Italian café, she listens to a couple speaking and hears “the words: organs, drop.” The word organ “hits home” as Ily has come to Italy, like Dino Shankus, to “study ways to prepare and cook traditional offal.” She then hears the woman tell her companion that, after forty, “I feel out of love with my vagina.” This woman associates reproductive organs with youth as “the height of their reproductive powers.” Shortly after hearing this conversation, Ily begins an affair with Dino. He arrives at her “dispiriting garret,” and they grip one another “on the mattress, with bad bedding, or on the floor.” The garret is hot, and there is no shower or running water. When they have sex, the act quickly becomes an animal event, drenched in body fluids and odors. Ily observes, “once we start we do not care about greasy hair, soot, gossip, bird droppings, sopping clothes, body odor. I never feel dirty or sad or alone. Until he leaves. Then I do. And it is bad.”
Ily wants to be the best chef she can, trying to find a balance “between engaging the world and keeping myself apart from it so my ideas are fresh.” In the process, the relationship with Dino withers away. Yet the groundwork for their eventual marriage has been laid in Europe. Years later, after he has married another cooking school classmate, Meg Kitto, “unhappy Dino gets a weekend job offer upstate, from a restaurant specializing in meat.” It turns out that Ily owns the restaurant. They quickly begin another affair, ending Dino’s marriage.
The next narrator is Dino’s brother, George. The Shankus brothers are the children of Greek immigrants and were reared in their parents’ small restaurant, named “Shankus.” Dino continues the family tradition by establishing his own restaurant, “Shankus, Two,” with Meg Kitto. Meat is the staple of both Dino’s cooking and his entire worldview, but “Shankus, Two” is located in a gentrified neighborhood where Dino and Meg make “a small fortune off their organic smoothies” and “white and green teas.” They regularly sell out of “squash soup, beet salads, kale stir fry, red lentil patties.” Dino is unhappy cooking vegetarian food for yuppies and, in the next chapter, narrated by Meg, we realize the inevitable outcome of his frustration.
Meg Kitto details the events that led her to divorce Dino, and his embrace of Ily, “who[m she] met in cooking school years ago in Paris.” Meg struggles to connect the threads of her life. As a child, her primary method of learning had been building dioramas, of which her father had been in full support, reasoning that it taught her “the real connections to things.” But her problem with connections is evident from her reflections on her elementary school experiences:
All that time in elementary school I wondered if some neurological disorder prevents me from connecting the discreet pieces of information (equations, time lines, grammar). Now I wonder if it is psychological. An aversion to/fear of linkage.
Despite her fear of linkage, Meg has a nuanced perspective of her life, in contrast to Dino, who she says “does not think abstractly.” Like his culinary fixation on offal indicates, Dino Shankus is an earthy man, while Meg is ephemeral and dreamy. After their divorce, she works in her aunt’s clothing store called “Simply Separate.” The name is apt because, after years of entanglements, Meg yearns for independence. Still she continues to dream of Dino’s return. She explains, “I want to be the woman of his dreams,” even though she knows this is all but impossible. Meg fights her own nature, “spending all this time trying to be something I am not rather than settling into my flaws, fortune, visual acuity, and sweet, smoky vagina.” She fights against an embodied life, the fact that we may simply be genitals and offal.
In a broad sense, Crawford’s novel depicts people as reflective flesh. All the characters in Shankus & Kitto vacillate on this point: are we simply sweaty, unctuous bodies who eat other fatty bodies, or are we more? And do our connections to other people elevate or strangle our individual lives? Crawford’s intricate novel does not answer these questions, because ultimately they have no sure answers. We are both flesh and spirit, alone and together, and our lives are a constant struggle to balance these conflicting states. Crawford’s deeply moving novel details our struggles to find that balance. In the end, the author embraces our all-too human failures in order to explore the questions of our earth-bound, social reality.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel, and short stories.