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Real Lives Magnified

by Philip K. Jason

AS I READ Magic and Grace, the highly entertaining, often thoughtful, and strategically humorous new narrative by Chad Hautmann, I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not there was any significant separation between the main character and the author. While most authors exploit their life experiences, Hautmann seems to have gone further than most – into the realm, perhaps, of creative nonfiction. In the end, it might not matter. Chad Hautmann traces Gibb Chapman’s late-blooming transition from a long-delayed adolescence to a semblance of maturity at early middle age with compelling insights, vivid details, and gentle satire.

Like Hautmann, one might conjecture, Gibb Chapman had been in some kind of emotional holding pattern since shortly after the publication of his first novel, What Keats Would Do. A modest, short-lived success (like Hautmann’s Billie’s Ghost), the book had a fame-to-fizzle path that disoriented Gibb, as did the divorce from his adored ex-wife. He is stuck in a place of grief and unrealistic expectation.

Gibb’s brief flush of flame had gone to his head, and he had behaved insufferably. After discovering that Gibb had been unfaithful, his wife threw him out – and Gibb went on a year-long bender. Now, in an attempt to right himself and win her back, Gibb has moved into a house across the street from his former home where he can be close to Laura and their daughter, Asia. He is off the bottle, but he has a lot to prove to them and to himself.

The main part of the book shows Gibb’s uncertain progress toward growing up at last. His job is to become the person he once aspired to be and to avoid the temptations that had made him into someone else. Tragi-comic episodes abound in Gibb’s attempts to repair a major roof leak; in his battle with the tourist trolleys that, in his view, terrorize drivers and pedestrians; in his confrontation with an evangelical group headquartered in a nearby town dedicated to the Virgin Mary; in his attempts to take responsibility for ending his aging mother’s auto thievery (she escapes from her assisted living home on a regular basis); and in his hospitality to his old, often stoned or drunk, college chum who one day just shows up and moves in.

Some readers may have guessed that Naples is the setting of Magic and Grace. Hautmann presents not a disguised, but a heightened version of this small city, magnifying its charms and foibles. In that way, Naples is treated just like Gibb Chapman, a man of many charms and many foibles.

Dedicated to walking Asia to and from school, he too often gets her there late. Concerned about religious literature being handed out as children leave school, Gibb manages to have his house picketed by overzealous do-gooders. Curious about how Laura is managing her life, Gibb violates the terms of their divorce and her privacy by entering her home without permission and rummaging through her intimate apparel.
Can this end well? Perhaps it can.

If you know Naples at all, you’ll enjoy Chad Hautmann’s portrait of a place where mostly ordinary people live unspectacular lives. Too often, Naples is exploited as a setting for a crime thriller or for a foray into the lives of the rich and famous. In Hautmann’s book, centered on modest Lake Park rather than Port Royal or Pelican Bay, readers can enter a more accessible and essential Naples where citizens live under the radar of celebrity.

One could say that Magic and Grace almost didn’t happen, or that it happened twice. Hautmann’s editor at Penguin, publisher of Billie’s Ghost, was interested in the new book but didn’t stay on at Penguin. An editor at Random House was interested, but didn’t stay on at Random House. A small publishing house – Evermore – agreed to publish it, but closed up soon after having the book printed in 2008. Magic and Grace was now an orphan. Other publishers, considering it previously published, would not consider it. Finally, Hautmann was able to make a deal with Fingerpress in London. •

Chad Hautmann, who has taught writing courses at Florida State University, Tallahassee State College, and Edison State University, is scheduled to teach classes this fall at Florida Gulf Coast University. He recently returned from a reading/book signing at the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland. •

from the September-October 2011 issue

If you know Naples at all,
you’ll enjoy Chad Hautmann’s
portrait of a place where
mostly ordinary people
live unspectacular lives.
Hautmann presents a
heightened version of Naples, magnifying its charms
and foibles.