October 2008

D. Richard Scannell

fiction

The End of the Straight and Narrow by David McGlynn

McGlynn is a normal writer. The End of the Straight and Narrow, his first collection of short stories delivers made-for-TV plots in lucid, artless prose. You’ve read these stories before. Characters cope with debilitating diseases. Men lust after women. Families fall apart. Natural disasters force troubled characters into moments of recognition. Big Christian issues like adultery, abortion, chastity, and science are invoked. The stories are littered with narratorial intrusions, paragraphs explaining the significance of preceding paragraphs.

Sometimes McGlynn seems poised to transcend himself. “Deep in the Heart,” for example, depicts a terminally-ill boy whose Make-A-Wish request is to kill a deer, to experience something visceral and grisly. The scene is set with a strong future tense segment, elegantly drawing attention to the medium. What follows, unfortunately, is a strong kernel diluted in yet another broken home story. The reminders of the ambiguity of truth in storytelling that McGlynn fondly inserts aren’t enough to make a bland story interesting.

In “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second,” McGlynn explores virtue taken to the point of meaninglessness in Jonah, a thirty-something virgin. The story, stretched across forty-nine pages, feels more like a television show than a work of short fiction. Jonah is sexually attracted to the pregnant wife of his dead best friend. He’s also taken the troubled child of a junkie under his wing, earning him the adoration of his church congregation. Jonah’s chastity bears more literary weight that it can handle though. The resulting tone of the story is, “Just let the poor guy get laid already!”

In the second half of the book, McGlynn attempts a short novel-in-stories. Five stories told from varying perspectives portray a family coping with a mother’s blindness and subsequent cancer. The stories resemble episodes of an evening drama with complexity frequently confused with quantity of problems. The uninteresting prose and unnecessary explications of metaphors remain a problem as well, but there are high points worth mentioning. In “Sweet Texas Angel” McGlynn examines forms of sacrifice. Kay, the household helper, abandons nursing school, has one-night stands with blue-collar workers, commits adultery with the father, commits abortion for the children, and takes care of her mother on Saturdays. Though the story is ultimately a tool to give depth to a cliché, the adulterous babysitter, McGlynn redeems himself by drawing attention to the idea of sin as sacrifice, a gray area in Christian morality. In “Testimony,” an almost highlight, the father’s side of the story is delivered through the perspective of the son, years after the fact. McGlynn unfortunately deenergizes his layers of subjectivity and insults the reader with constant reminders that he is using an unreliable narrator. Also, the prose is strangely purple in this story with phrases like “her invisible everywhere” and “that lighthouse in your nostalgia.” Still, he does shows moments of strong imagination. The effort, in the scope of the collection, is commendable.

The chief problem is that McGlynn is not a short story writer. He has two primary resources at his disposal: research and character. He’d do best to focus on writing 250-page, character-driven novels that explore issues important to the Christian community and provide closure at the end. As it stands, he is pushing no boundaries in a medium that demands innovation.

The End of the Straight and Narrow by David McGlynn
Southern Methodist University Press
ISBN: 0870745506
228 pages