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Dave Wood's Book Report, April 9, 2008

Charley Kempthorne has spent more than half his life teaching other people how to write, first as a college English professor and later as the founder of the first reminiscence writing workshop in the nation, back in 1976.

He's helped all manner of folks get published, including a charwoman in Kempthorne's hometown of Manhattan, Kan., who was given $1,000,000 for her manuscript. The old lady didn't share her good fortune with her mentor, so he and his wife continued to work as a successful painting contractor in Manhattan.

Kempthorne has an M.F.A. from the highly acclaimed writer's workshop at the University of Iowa and so it's about time he began writing fiction. So here's his first novel, "Gary's Luck" (Pygmalion Press, 2530A N. Tustin Av., Santa Ana, CA 92705, $20 paper).

Gary is Gary Williams. It turns out he's a small town contractor in a town called Manhattan, Kan, "a place where you'd like to live, but wouldn't want to visit." Gary has a lissome wife and two kids, whom he adores, but he's in big trouble. He's had business reversals and he can't pay his bills or his taxes.

The IRS is on his tail for non-payment of withholding taxes and Kempthorne introduces the reader to a really slimy IRS agent whom Gary visits in Topeka.

Gary's only out is bankruptcy, which would mean he'd have to move from Manhattan to restart his contracting business. Lissom wife likes the idea, but Gary likes Manhattan. His humorless father, a Kansas State University number cruncher won't help out and Gary Williams sinks into depression, especially after lissome wife leaves him and takes the kids along.

So what does he do? He knocks over a supermarket and comes up with oodles of dough. The robbery is not reported and Gary slides right along, sort of like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, whose immorality is never punished in that classic novel. At least that's what we think.

But Kempthorne has a surprise up his Kansas sleeve in an ending that will make lots of sense.

Kempthorne tells his story from three points of view, a la "Rashomon" and his creation of dialogue, of the trials and tribulations of small time contractors, of blue collar disdain for KSU academics, of good things to eat and of human nature in general, is zero to the bone.

Kempthorne's middle name is "Roosevelt." He was born in the 1930s so it's a good bet that he wasn't named after Theodore, but after Franklin. And so it's appropriate to pair the review of his book to one of FDR's creations.

"American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA," by Nick Taylor (Bantam, $27) is a book I really needed to read. When I was growing up in the Anti-FDR atmosphere of western Wisconsin, I heard all manner of bad things about the alphabet soup agencies that Roosevelt created. The NRA, the CCC, and, of course, the WPA. Our rightwing neighbor even claimed he Roosevelt was going to create the "SH-T."

So much for him. But his legacy lives on. Enemies of WPA still call it "We Piddle Around. Some piddle. Taylor's book tells us that this so-called boondoggle gave eight and a half million people work when there was no work to be had and built La Guardia Airport in New York City, the Camp David Presidential Retreat, swimming pools and libraries all over the country, a place I grew to love, the Toledo Zoo. Beyond that it employed writers like Conrad Aiken, Nelson Alger, John Cheerer, Ralph Ellison, Zorn Neal Huston and Studs Terrell.

For all the complaints later on in my home town, WPA even did something for it. When the federal government asked if Whitehall, Wis., needed a swimming pool, the Norwegians who ran the town said, "No, we need a ski scaffold of mammoth proportions, so we can hold Olympic tryouts. WPA came in and built it.

For several years during the Great Depression, ski jumpers from all over the nation came for tryouts. They rented rooms in the homes of poor widows, ate in the restaurants, drank in the bars and practiced for the big day. People came from all over the Midwest to watch the show and, according to my Republican father, spent more money than the town had seen since the 1929 crash.

After the war, the scaffold was re-opened in 1950 I saw the last tryouts there on a bitterly cold day. The old wooden jump was replaced by the elaborate Snowflake jump in Westby, Wis., but the memories linger on.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.