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Tip of the Hat

The debut novel from writer Harry Kollatz Jr. has a freakish lead character who’s very Richmond.


For good or ill, when some locals think of Richmond personalities over the last 30 years a handful stand out. To wit: Douglas Wilder, Dave Brockie, Donnie "Dirt Woman" Corker and … Harry "the Hat" Kollatz Jr.

In Kollatz's case we'd certainly put him in the good column, for myriad reasons, not least of which is his new novel "Carlisle Montgomery."

A veritable Richmond renaissance man, Kollatz is widely known as a journalist for Richmond magazine, historian, actor, speaker and dubious but nevertheless "the most trusted name in weather" with his Lee's Chicken Sign Weather Report on YouTube. And though he's also a great dancer he is, sadly, not a musician.

But the title character of "Carlisle Montgomery" is.

In his debut work of fiction, Kollatz deftly shows he knows musicians. He captures their banter, their complicated lives, the self-doubt that arises as they struggle to survive while trying to stand out, and the imposter syndrome that often comes with success, whether arriving via a sticky, beer-soaked stage or the red carpet. He writes from the experiences of shows from dive bars to huge New York venues, from Hasil Adkins to Bruce Springsteen.

The title character of "Carlisle Montgomery" is a freak. This is not a judgment but rather a characterization she chooses herself. Redheaded, gap-toothed, 6-foot-5, and congenitally missing her left ring finger, she has been the subject of gawking her whole life. Her parents, both musicians earning livings as an urban landscaper and a music teacher, do their best to instill a sense of beauty and belonging. But from an early age, the only beauty and belonging Carlisle feels is when playing music.

However, that's not the only thing at which she excels. Kollatz has created a memorable female character who defies stereotyping. She's a mechanic, brawler, arm-wrestler and voracious lover of both men and women. Again, musicians lead complicated lives. Carlisle is created in the mold of an Amazon warrior, ripped from the lore of ancient Libya, filtered through Scots-Irish ancestry, rolled down from the Blue Ridge Mountains and rooted in Richmond. Her weapons of choice are the acoustic guitar slung across her back and her mouth. She also possesses a mean right hook.

Kollatz has peopled "Carlisle Montgomery" with memorable characters and he spares little detail in forming them. His gift for the descriptive is fully realized whether creating interesting profiles or zany situations. Also, his experience as an actor enables him to craft a quite visual novel, while his understanding of regional history and places makes it easily imaginable. Native Richmonders will recognize familiar places and people — some gone, some enduring — whose names are changed, while others appear as themselves. The book benefits from a serialized feature on Carlisle in the fictional Virginian magazine that aptly serves as foreshadowing and propels the plot forward. Readers may find this helpful, since the book clocks in at a hefty 731 pages. 

So what is "Carlisle Montgomery" about, and what is Kollatz' motivation for such an epic first novel? Is he a James Joyce? David Foster Wallace, sans footnotes? Tom Robbins? Or Greil Marcus? All these writers come to mind when reading the novel, not only in terms of the sheer length and descriptive detail, but also because Kollatz is writing somewhere in the realm of them all. Like the title character, the book is a lumbering, creative and engaging romp — although, at times, readers might have wondered if a keen-eyed editor might not have made it a bit easier on the eye, like Carlisle's girlfriend helping with her hair and makeup.

Surely, Kollatz' intent was to write about a certain 30-year span in a certain place, focusing on local music as a way to tell the story. But whether intentionally or unwitting, through Carlisle he creates a metaphor for Richmond itself. 

Let's indulge a bit: Admittedly, the city has gone through changes in the past three decades. And it continues to dabble in transforming to a culturally diverse, progressive city worthy of national attention. Its identity, like Carlisle's, is a bit janky and fluid. And like her, Richmond is at it core folksy, but also punk. It's a city that's a bit awkward, at times seeming like a small town. Just like the title character, Richmond is authentic and resistant to change, but willing to try. But as it progresses, the city seems to doubt efforts and lament the losses. It accepts growth, but only with a sturdy base of familiarity and appreciation for what is gone — as does Carlisle.

Over the course of the book examples of change are charted. A one-off TV commercial jingle for Montgomery Motors ("put the vroom vroom back in your ri-i-de!") leads to cassette mix tapes, EPs, LPs, then CDs; pay phones to pagers, shoe-box sized cellular to palm-sized mobiles to flip phones. We see production of handmade band flyers move to boxy Mac computer graphics, 35 mm cameras to digitals, and the introduction of Geocities as introductory social media. We also see neighborhoods like Scott's Addition, once a mixed-use, all-white, working class enclave now transforming warehouses into studios, hip businesses and urban apartments with newcomers mingling with older homesteaders. 

Carlisle is Richmond, her public persona tends to aw-shucks rural, but underneath she's insightful and informed.

Carlisle Montgomery is not a beach read. It’s a sit by the furnace in your Fan apartment, where the rent has increasingly gone up without improvements, on a grey winter day book. A let’s-break-and-walk-to-Babe’s-for-a-beer book. And it’ll be waiting for your return back from the freaks and mayhem that lurks out there, just like Richmond does for Carlisle. These are, after all, your people.