January 2014

Nina MacLaughlin

fiction

Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor

Praying Drunk begins with brusque instructions: "These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON'T SKIP AROUND." Well, then. I scowled when I saw this; it read like a warning, almost a threat. It made me realize that part of what I love about short stories, about collections, part of what drew me to them as a younger person, was the small thrill involved in starting a book on page seventy, in moving forward and backward within a book according to title or story length or whim. That minor rebellion against the order of things, that small pleasure. You don't always have to start at the beginning.

The unspoken or else in those instructions involves missing the way Kyle Minor's stories heap and coil, the way the strands knot tighter and tighter as you move forward through the book. Which is to say, the orders are worth following.

Minor's first collection, the dark and excellent In the Devil's Territory, revolved around secrets, about the price they exact, about how they burble up, twisted and unbidden, no matter how deep they're buried. (The whole collection is strong; it's worth finding a copy for the novella A Day Meant To Do Less.) Secrets are quiet kin of lies, and Praying Drunk circles around those lies -- lies regarding miracles, answered prayers, God's plans, the lies (the stories) people tell to make themselves feel better -- in an effort to expose them. That's Minor's mission and he's explicit about it. Two stories in the book take the form of short Q&As, one with the "fiery angel," a stand-in for the author as god. "...these awful stories I'm writing are also an expression of love," he explains. "How?" asks the questioner. "Because I see them as a correction of the untruths I was told as a child about how the world works." The truth is, for Minor, there are no miracles and "God doesn't probably answer our prayers." Minor's perspective echoes Chekhov's from his story "The Student": "The same leaky thatched roofs, ignorance and anguish, the same surrounding emptiness and darkness, the sense of oppression -- all these horrors had been, and were and would be, and when another thousand years had passed, life would not be better." Hope itself is hard won in Minor's world.

In exposing truths, he aims his flashlight in the dark places we make extraordinary efforts to avoid. This is a sad book and a dark book. It's violent, sometimes gruesome. Death seeps all through it. People put guns to their heads and shoot, take too many drugs, get beaten, get cancer, get crushed in the back of a garbage truck. Is it too much? Almost. It is almost too much. "There Is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville" opens with a suicide, moves on to the narrator's brother quitting music to work at a trucking company, then another death (motorcycle accident), another (leukemia), another (a vagrant picked up with the trash and crushed), another (suicide again), another (again, suicide). And within it, the narrator's baby cries and cries, and the only way to soothe it is to drive it around, and their cat has had a litter of kittens, and when the narrator, agitated from a crying baby, gets into the car, he backs over a kitten, and in that moment, the weight of it all is almost too much to bear.

The story has the ring of autobiography, something personal repurposed, wrestled with, made true. The distinction between fiction and non- is an irrelevance in Praying Drunk. "You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth With Peace" was anthologized in the essay collection Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers and appears again here. It centers on a brutal bully Minor dealt with as a child, testicles slapped, anus torn.

Regardless of how based in fact these stories are or not (one involves the bringing back of a dead son in robot form), the impression it gives in its totality is not memoir and not "just a collection." Instead, it is the lightning-lit moments of someone on his deathbed looking back, the wholeness of life illuminated in the large moments (the fear and rage and deaths) and the small (the bean bag chairs, the pet hamster named Eddie, the song coming out of the tapedeck in the car). It's a blinking through of a life, of lives, snarled and linked by love, blood, and chance.

The momentum collects as the stories continue. The sense translates that these were stories Minor had to tell. The affecting epistolary piece "In a Distant Country" involves Haitian missionaries, love and sex, mystery and misunderstanding. It's a story told and retold in a chorus of voices, none of them with any answers, except maybe this: "It doesn't matter how much faith you have, the same bad things happen to Christians as pagans."

Minor echoes Virginia Woolf, as she writes in The Waves: "In order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story -- and there are so many, and so many -- stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true." What all the lies about God and heaven and people being in a better place once dead have lead Minor to believe is that the world is empty of meaning, "so people must tell themselves stories about how and in what ways everything means." And none of those stories are true. In one of the Q-and-As, the subject is asked what the purpose of this book is. "A catalog of stories and sadnesses, beginnings and endings, the stuff of childhood, death. Nothing new can happen here..." I found myself wondering, at first, whether these Q-and-A interruptions too much reveal the puppet strings, are too explicit a blueprint for what the author is trying to do. More so now they bring to mind the postcard pauses in the Lars Von Trier film Breaking the Waves, serving as a moment, amidst the pain, amidst the "atrocity parade," in Minor's words, to rest, calm the brain, step back. He's helping us try to understand.

Mostly absent are moments of redemption. Mostly absent is hope. There is little talk about the transcendent power of love (though it is there). And so this book is difficult, and so this book gets at things that are true. Just because so many bad things have happened doesn't mean there isn't more to come. "You still believe in something as old-fashioned as meaning-making?" the fiery angel is asked. "Maybe the biggest fiction I want to create is that it all matters. It matters so much. It matters and matters." Redemption for Minor, for us, if there is any, is found instead in the act of the telling.

Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 978-1936747634
192 pages