Robert Day’s first novel, “The Last Cattle Drive,” appeared in 1977 and proved a best-seller.
It detailed the adventures of a Kansas rancher who resented modern-day shipping costs and decided to drive his cattle personally across the state to the Kansas City stockyards.
Day’s new novel, “Let Us Imagine Lost Love,” is largely set in Kansas City, but its narrator tells a less uproarious and more interior story.
He is a professional book designer with a daily life that seems several steps removed from everyday reality. His books are coffee table volumes devoted to esoteric topics, or books that contain only blank pages, marketed as diaries.
It’s in his contracts that he not receive design credit for his work or even complimentary copies, so when he sees one of his books marked down at the Country Club Plaza Barnes & Noble, he sometimes buys it.
One cashier thinks she knows him but can’t match the face with a name. He’s not married but has casual girlfriends; he calls them his “Wednesday wives.”
His life, spent in a Plaza apartment, seems entirely unaffiliated. Or, blank.
His narration includes the occasional obscure cinematic reference, evidence of a lot of time spent in theaters or with HBO.
During his 1960s youth, the narrator was a student at the University of California-Berkeley, where parts of “The Graduate” were filmed. Sometimes, when he watches his DVD copy of the film, he pauses it at the moment where he can be glimpsed in an exterior campus shot. The image apparently serves as a trophy of the one time he shared the same physical space with actress Katharine Ross.
Even more unsettling is his occasional practice of taking the physician’s bag that once belonged to an uncle and, upon arriving at a nearby hospital, putting on a white lab coat. With a stethoscope in his pocket, he drinks coffee in the doctor’s lounge before auditing the guest lectures.
“There is this modest motif in the novel about the nature of what it is to be vicarious,” Day said recently. “That idea fascinated me.”
So did the narrator. After years of working on the character and then leaving him alone, Day finally returned to him.
“He’s not at all like myself. He is not particularly likable but I sort of like him. I kept trying to give the book up but I kept coming back to it. You create these characters and they become like friends.”
The narrator also mentions, almost as an aside, that an old girlfriend from his Berkeley days — she since has become a celebrated artist — is coming to Kansas City for a Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art exhibit devoted to her work.
A potentially world-altering human connection for the narrator is on his horizon.
“He is either going to meet her or not meet her,” Day said. “It’s a love story.”
For about 30 years, Day taught at Washington College in Maryland. Today he and his wife live near Ludell, in northwestern Kansas.
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., Day sits down for a conversation with R. Crosby Kemper III, Kansas City Public Library director.
For more info, go to KCLibrary.org.