JANUARY 29, 2014
LIKE MANY OF US, I have a habit, while reading, of earmarking pages on which I find particularly brilliant lines or passages. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my copy of Minor’s second collection of stories, Praying Drunk, now resembles an accordion. Reading a Kyle Minor story feels like watching a Coen Brothers film: you have no idea where you’re being led, but you know it’s going to be good. Kyle Minor, a writer in full control of his narrative, formulates heartbreakingly honest sentences with remarkable simplicity. His characters are vulnerable and odd and spectacular, and his rendering of dialect is masterful. Most of all, Minor knows how to structure an emotional experience for his reader. Consider the writer confident enough to include this stern directive to his reader: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. Don’t skip around.” If such bravado weren’t fully earned in this book, I might have room to be irritated and rebellious. Lucky for Minor, by the end of the first story he’s got me strapped in and fully committed, suspecting that he must have good reason to be so bossy. And he does.
The collection begins with a bang, quite literally. The narrator’s uncle “takes a pistol and blows his brains out.” The fragility of human life turns out to be a recurring theme in the collection. The narrators fixate on the pain of existence, questioning whether there is any order to the chaos that leads to inevitable death. In “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” a troubled young man entertains whiskey-fueled revenge fantasies with his father, shellacking dead yellow jackets and affixing them to his absent mother’s figurines. Finally, one night, the boy sets off for her home with a shotgun. In one of many lines earmarked in my copy, Minor’s narrator — the boy’s father — states, “I guess he knew well enough what ended up being true, which was that there was something worse for a mother than to be killed by her son.” The boy then blows his brains out on her doorstep. At the funeral, the preacher tries to make sense of this death by chalking it up to a “misfire” in the young man’s brain. “But I think that’s the kind of thing people say when what they want to do is make themselves feel better instead of look straight ahead at the truth and all its ugly,” the narrator tells us. With this line, Minor begins to drill this discomfiting idea into his reader: do not try to explain the chaos in these stories with platitudes. With Minor’s background studying religion to become a minister before turning to writing, it’s hardly surprising that this lack of resolution is only deepened through the ever-present undercurrent of conflicted spiritual questioning throughout.
Halfway through the collection, we really begin to understand Minor’s directive to read the stories in order. In “There is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville,” which features several deaths, our narrator tells us, “No more deaths…I want all of us to live forever.” And what follows the story that ends with “No more deaths”? More deaths, of course: “First, The Teeth,” a story of a grandfather’s death that centers around human fragility and dignity via the objective correlative of a set of false teeth, and the utterly brilliant epistolary story (arguably the collection’s strongest), “In a Distant Country,” which culminates in the violent death of a missionary and ultimately, the death of his naive young bride.
In one of two modernist “Q&A’s” with the author, Minor speaks to us from heaven while an interviewer on earth asks him pointed questions about the book. “Q: What is the purpose of this book? A: A catalogue of stories and sadnesses, beginnings and endings, the stuff of childhood, death. Nothing new can happen here… Q: How does Big G spend his time? A: Ducking our questions.” One could argue that this move to reveal the take-away of the collection is a bit redundant; the preceding stories, after all, have (more gracefully) revealed this very same theme. It’s the only moment in the collection that I feel slightly mistrusted as a reader to reach my own conclusions. On the other hand, this modernist interjection also provides a well-timed reprieve from all the heartbreak and death to assess the situation in a humorous way that simultaneously underscores the absurdity of the human condition with its premise. And it’s nice to see Minor’s lighter, sillier side. For example, during this “Q&A,” the writer in heaven tosses a little good-natured ribbing in Joyce Carol Oates’s direction, stating, “I’ve written 397 books so far, but that’s nothing. You should see how my friend Joyce works. She writes so many thousands of books I’m not sure even eternity will be time enough to read them.”
Humor, which runs throughout the collection, is the counterbalance to all this death and pain. Like the aforementioned Coen Brothers, Minor uses humor to reveal the flaws in his characters. In “Seven Stories About Sebastian of Koulèv-Ville,” Sebastian tells the narrator about the village elder feeding a woman’s feet to a pony for being unfaithful. When the narrator asks another villager about it, the man takes him to the pony. “He petted the pony and said, ‘The lies they are telling about you.’…‘Do you think this is a village where we feed the parts of people to animals?’” When the narrator tells Sebastian of the incident, Sebastian replies, simply, “‘Don’t believe it. I don’t trust that pony.’” As with Sebastian in this passage, the humor in Minor’s characters frequently comes from their disarming naïveté. In the story, “In a Distant Country,” the 42 year-old missionary who returns from a vacation in the United States with a (surprise) 18 year-old bride in tow and six suitcases of her girlish supplies ill-suited for missionary life is described in laughter-inducing earnestness by the director of the Haitian mission where they shack up. The director somberly grapples with the unexpected situation and attempts to remain nonjudgmental in his letter to the Foreign Mission Board: “I did not and will not begrudge a man nice things, especially nice things made nice by the sweat of a man’s own brow. The problem with the bed was not its luxury. The problem with the bed was the noises that came from it…” As this religious man attempts to recount the noisy sexual escapades in respectful terms, it becomes increasingly comical. In fact, the several letters from various characters in this incredibly crafted story each reveal flaws that are both hilarious and tragic in turn. To employ the old cliché, it will in fact make you laugh and make you cry.
As a jealous and deeply insecure writer, I wish I didn’t have to report that these stories are enviably brilliant. But sadly, this is the fact of the matter. Kyle Minor has elevated the short story collection for me. These are not disparate stories gathered merely for the sake of gathering into a book. These are stories that layer upon one another to speak to the most fundamental questions, the unanswerable questions that we continue to ask, that make us human, questions about death, God, love, good and evil, justice and injustice. They are, as per Minor’s “Q&A” section, “the same things turned over again and again, as though turning them again will bring some new insight.” There’s nothing certain in life but death and taxes, as the proverb goes, and we’ll never get the answers. Still, we seek meaning, turning these stories over, looking for insight. Thankfully, Minor makes the turning a deeply satisfying indulgence, something to make us feel a little less alone in our relentless quest.
Mieke Eerkens teaches creative writing to undergraduates at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Sun, Best Travel Writing 2011, The Rumpus, and Creative Nonfiction magazine.