As his audience grows, the famed local storyteller's tales take on a greater depth after a brush with mortality.
The Great Hall at Carleton College is packed with grandmothers, fifth-graders and members of a hockey moms book club. They're here to see Kevin Kling, and to listen to his rollicking and offbeat stories about growing up in Minnesota.
They begin to clap as Kling bounds up to the podium. Skinny and disheveled, he's wearing a new brown shirt, his trademark 1950s glasses and a sheepish smile. Tucked under one arm is a copy of "The Dog Says How," a collection of his quirky stories that has just been picked as a community-wide book club selection here in Northfield.
He looks out at the crowd, and, right away, he makes them laugh.
"Someone asked me once what my dream was," he says. "This is it: I always wanted to be required reading."
At 50, Kling is transcending his stature as a long-beloved Minnesota storyteller. His new book, old plays, international storytelling festival gigs and National Public Radio commentaries have elevated him from local treasure to nationally recognized artist. This winter, he's been caught up in a whirlwind schedule of book signings, readings and performances, which haven taken him from Seattle to Michigan to New Mexico.
Kling has built a career on telling strong sense-of-place stories about ice fishing, 1960s Twin Cities suburbia and riding the Lake Street bus. But six years after surviving a near-fatal motorcycle crash, his tales have moved from hilarious nostalgia to something weightier and more spiritual.
"He has the ability to be genuinely funny, but he can also move you to tears," said Joe Dowling, a self-proclaimed Kling "addict" and director of the Guthrie Theater. "He's profound in the way he combines a natural genius sense of observation and humor with a real understanding of what it is to struggle, as he's had to do all his life."
Kling leans on the lectern, bracing the open book awkwardly with his left hand. The motorcycle crash left his right arm paralyzed -- particularly disastrous, since his left arm was born shortened, with no thumb or wrist.
"I used to call my left arm Scarlett O'Hara, because it did nothing but ask for chipped ice," he says. "Now it has to do everything."
The laughter stops as he explains why he's veering away from his text. "I've never found a way to properly write this next part," he says.
He takes the audience back to that crash, when he lay crumpled and bleeding on the pavement, bathed in gasoline. He said he remembers having a clear choice: He could go toward an amazing sense of peace. Or he could return to this world and face surgeries, pain and partial paralysis.
"Neither choice seemed wrong, and I've always wondered why I decided to come back," he tells the audience. "But there's the trip you plan, and the trip you take, and I'm thankful I've been given this chance to rework my ending."
A savory stew pot
The Andouille sausage chunks are starting to sizzle, and the smells of onions, garlic and thyme are mingling in Kling's kitchen. He chops celery, cradling a specially designed knife in his left hand -- the blade is at a sharp angle from the handle, to accommodate his hand. He bounces on the balls of his feet and leans his body into each chop.
His dachshunds, Olive and Fafnir, sniff around. "They have the most can-do attitude," Kling says, "with the least can-do bodies."
He might as well be describing himself. Born with that shortened left arm and a heart murmur, Kling weighed 86 pounds as an Osseo High School senior. But he grew up full of mischief, never missing a beat.
He's run Grandma's Marathon seven times and makes summer treks to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with a kayak he powers with his feet.
Kling wipes some steam off his glasses and his eye catches his basset hound, Dan (short for Percodan), rising up to sniff the counter.
"That's what we call counter-terrorism around here," he says, steering the hound away.
He tosses the celery and some paprika into the gumbo pot and whisks up a roux of flour and butter. He pinches a whisk between his four good fingers and slowly stirs, squeezing a ladle in the crook of his neck like a violin.
He jokes about launching a cooking show.
"Except that gumbo is all I know how to make so it would be like: 'Hi, Kevin Kling here, and this week, we'll be making gumbo -- again.'"
He and Mary Ludington, his partner of 15 years, share this 1913 brick house in south Minneapolis with a 16-year-old cat named Mr. Wilson, the two wiener dogs, and the counter-terrorist.
This evening of simmering gumbo is a rare moment of calm, an eye in Kling's hurricane schedule. These days, he has loads of public readings of "The Dog Says How." He's teaching a storytelling class at the University of Minnesota; he's adapted Richard Scarry's children's books for the Seattle Children's Theatre; he's collaborating with Twin Cities filmmaker Ali Selim, who wrote and directed the critically trumpeted "Sweet Land"; and his old trio, Bad Jazz, is mounting a comeback with Kling on tuba and euphonium. On top of all that, he's hitting a swelling lineup of storytelling festivals from Tennessee to Australia.
Turning 50, especially after the harrowing motorcycle crash, jump-started this whirlwind pace.
"All of a sudden, I thought: What do I want to get done in my life? What do I want to accomplish while I'm still on this earth?" he says. "Before, it seemed like the sky was the limit. The accident changed everything. It focused me in a way I have never focused.
"I'm really thankful for that."
Kling's upbeat attitude hasn't changed, nor has his candid sense of humor, despite the daily challenges of living with his physical handicaps.
"Doorknobs still suck," he says.
Now, he wants to teach and write novels based on his plays about ice fishing and religion. And when other offers pop up, "the opportunities are just too amazing to say no to."
Ludington, an award-winning photographer and artist, smiles between her spoonfuls of gumbo. Later, she talks about the differences she's observed in Kling since the accident and the three marathon surgeries that followed.
"It's all made him more introspective and given him more depth," she says. "He has a way of reminding people that their own lives are extraordinary."
Enough was enough: Dora Kling was tired of her sons bringing home dead rodents and birds. She signed up 11-year-old Kevin and his little brother, Steven, for Mike Damyanovich's taxidermy class.
It was the late 1960s, and the Klings had moved from Missouri so their dad, Von, could mine the area's untapped demand for, well, industrial paint. They moved first to Brooklyn Park, then to still-rural Maple Grove. As the middle child, Kevin spent most of his time with his big sister, Laura, who primed his imagination with make-believe wagon train rides while mom took care of baby Steven.
Kevin was a tiny kid with a tinier arm, but he had a super-sized dose of determination. His mother said they had to find already-dead creatures for the class. "He ended up bringing in a doggone chipmunk," recalled Damyanovich, now an associate school superintendent in suburban Chicago.
No one was sure how long the creature had been on the road, but when little Kevin opened it up, "it cleared the room," Kling recalled.
While other kids meticulously stuffed ducks and pheasants, Kling rubbed Borax into his chipmunk's hide and stuffed it with twine and straw. From its 3-inch size in life, the chipmunk corpse grew to 11 inches as Kevin diligently stretched the hide.
"At the end of the session, the kids would have their mounts out and I would go around and grade them," Damyanovich said. "I came up to that foot-long chipmunk with the highway stripe down its back and fought to stifle a big laugh, because he was dead serious about this. He was bound and determined."
'Spirit of irrepressibility'
Perched on an isolated hilltop above the Minnesota River town of St. Peter, Gustavus Adolphus College was an unlikely but perfect spot for Kling to develop his craft in the mid-1970s. The 90-pound freshman from Osseo barreled into the school's close-knit theater community like a freight train.
"He was a little powerhouse, and nothing was going to hold him back," said Steven Epp, now artistic director at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Epp was cast as Tweedle Dee to Kling's Tweedle Dum freshman year. "He was voracious in the way he fed off those college years."
At off-campus college parties, in the brick and clapboard river houses, you could count on one thing. "Inevitably, at some point, Kling is telling stories and a crowd is gathering around him," Epp said.
Rob Gardner was a Gustavus theater professor for 36 years, and also Kling's residence hall adviser. He, like the rest of the campus, was quickly bowled over. "He was an unlikely acting prospect, this tiny kid with a deformed arm," Gardner said. "But right from the beginning, there was this spirit of fun and craziness and irrepressibility."
All of which got Kling cast in show after show, from "The Owl and the Pussycat" to William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," set in a dilapidated San Francisco saloon. One old crotchety character stumbles into the bar, looking like Kit Carson, and starts spinning wild, outrageous tales. Kling got the part.
"I've always thought that was the start of Kevin's storytelling," said Gardner, now retired from the college. "Here's this big Mark Twain-ian yarn-spinner shooting the bull, and Kevin did it brilliantly."
The role proved to be a natural for Kling. Storytelling was laced in his genes, growing up listening to his parents and grandparents weave tales.
"When you go to a movie, the audience stares at the screen," Kling says. "When you're acting in a play, the energy is exchanged between the performers. But when you're telling stories, 100 percent of the energy is exchanged back and forth with the audience.
"To me, there's no better way to truly live in the moment. I just love the job of storytelling because it goes back to where you're from, what's funny, what's sacred, and it's all tied in to how you fit in your world."
Since building and rebuilding go-karts while growing up in Maple Grove, Kling has always loved motors. As an adult, that translated into a 1963 BMW R69S, named motorcycle of the century by Cycle World magazine.
On Aug. 11, 2001, he snapped on his helmet and headed out to a Fringe Festival performance of "21A," the acclaimed play he wrote in the late 1980s about eight people on the Lake Street bus. He plays all eight characters.
At Lake and Lyndale, an uninsured car turned left and crashed into Kling. The driver received a $30 ticket. Kling clung to life, or straddled it.
He never saw the proverbial light, but he says he knew death was waiting. "I was given a choice to follow the sense of peace, or return to this plane of existence and face the consequences," he said. "I knew there would be consequences."
His right eye was hanging from its socket. His facial bones were shattered. His teeth were dislodged and his nose was twisted so he couldn't breathe. A nurse told him he sustained only minor brain trauma because his head used his face as an air bag.
Surgeons peeled back his face to reset the eye socket and teeth, leaving a road map of scars framing his face. A photograph was brought in, so surgeons would know where to set the eyeball.
"My buddies were worried, because the picture was with me and my dog," Kling jokes.
After the surgery, his friends had to leave the hospital room so he wouldn't see them break down.
"It was excruciating to see what he was going through," Epp said.
"He looked like a pumpkin," said Mick Stephens, another friend since their Osseo days. "We didn't know if he would live."
There were surgeries to reconstruct his face, and trips to Virginia for grueling operations to rekindle the nerves in his right arm. The Virginia surgeries didn't work, and Kling grappled with acquiring a handicap at age 44. This was vastly different from having a defect since birth.
Where marathon running once provided a way to test himself, now doorknobs created challenges. And as he adapted to a world with one semi-able arm and no thumbs, his work reflected his transition.
"He's had to confront his own mortality, and that's really altered him in a significant way," said Gardner, his college theater professor. "He's deepened his perceptions, and he's delving into more serious aspects of the world and his own experiences."
The humor is still there, as is the boyish exuberance. "But there's a new depth and resonance," Gardner said. "He's an artist, and he's developed his own art. It's the art of himself, and he's cultivated it masterfully over all these years."
A national fan base
At a Minneapolis coffeehouse near Bryant Avenue and Lake, Kling's four left fingers fall gracefully on his laptop keys. He's doing something he was long reluctant to try his hand at: writing.
Today, it's an essay for the Minnesota Historical Society magazine about why he loves living in Minnesota.
The east is too traditional; the west too wide open. Sitting in the middle just feels right. "There's a sense of tradition here, but also an air of possibility," he says. "What better place to live in the moment?"
Greg Britton, director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press' Borealis Books, approached Kling to write a book. Britton was met with skepticism.
Kling prides himself on being a storyteller of the oral tradition, an art form as old as Homer and still popular enough to draw crowds at festivals. Invisible threads hold oral stories together -- a raised eyebrow, heightened pacing or slight intonations can change the rhythms, no matter how often they've been told.
Sorry, Kling told Britton, but the art of writing requires different skills than those I possess.
Britton soothed his apprehension, arguing that good writing is good storytelling. "It took a couple of beers, and he was ready," Britton said.
But the publisher had his own apprehension when he set up his exhibit at the Book Expo trade show last year.
"I'm standing in Manhattan, promoting Kevin Kling's book and wondering how many people have heard of him," Britton said. "I wasn't sure if I was selling a Minnesota book, or a national book."
Then people started showing up at his booth from Vermont, Georgia and California. They'd heard this guy on National Public Radio and were waiting to read the stories.
By the end of the weekend, Britton was convinced Kling had a "small but devoted" fan base that was only growing. He ordered a first run of 20,000 books, a company record, for "The Dog Says How."
The quirky title comes from the voice-activated computer he bought after the accident. When his dogs bark, the words "how, how, how" appear on his screen. When the cat responses with a meow, the computer displays "why, why, why."
'That's Kevin Kling'
It's a Monday night fundraiser at the sumptuous new Guthrie Theatre. There's a silent auction table with the "Complete Works of William Shakespeare," signed by Ian McKellen, going for $1,000.
The community's wealthy art patrons have shown up to see the Guthrie's top performers put on a Parisian-style Cabaret, with torch songs, dancing and duets.
But when Kling ambles on stage with his bouncy gait and silly grin, something changes. For the first time of the night, after a dozen other performers have done their things, the audience is applauding Kling before he recites his ice-fishing poem.
"That's Kevin Kling," someone whispers.
Up on stage, Kling shrugs sheepishly and unleashes a grin. He made his decision to come back to this world. As the spotlight zeroes in on him, one thing is clear: Kevin Kling is relishing every moment of this rebirth.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767