This morning I trashed e-mail from an organization called Kentucky for Kentucky. I have bought a couple shirts from the organization: “Lincoln is my Co-Pilot” and “Kickass Commonwealth since 1792.” This morning they were advertising a new poster, the Bluegrass alphabet:
A – Ali, B – Bluegrass, C – (Kentucky) Colonels, D – Derby, E – Ernest, F – Fried Chicken, G – Goldenrod, H – High Five, I – Isaac Murphy, J – John Jacob Niles, K – Keeneland, L – Lincoln, M – Mammoth Cave, N – Natural Bridge, O – Opossum, P – PawPaw, Q – Quilt, R – Rosie the Riveter, S – Shaker Village, T – Turtle Man, U – United We Stand, Divided We Fall, V – Vault (Fort Knox), W – Wigwam Village, X – Moonshine, Y – Y’all, Z – Zombie.
I am not usually so taken with statehood camaraderie, except perhaps after growing homesick watching Winter’s Bone or later today, when I finally finished Kyle Minor’s new collection of stories, Praying Drunk.
I’d read the first story in the book, “The Question of Where We Begin,” in a collection of flash nonfiction essays. The second line reads, “My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out,” and the following paragraphs wrestle with why, maybe this, maybe that, cause and effect, driving backward from the personal story, the family story, the national-historical story, to the mythic, big, beginning story. Here is an excerpt:
We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.
Now we may proceed to the aftermath. The removal of the body from his bedroom. The cleanup. The reading of the will. The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida. The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.
But this beginning is not satisfactory. The mourners are now parsing their theories of why. Did you know that he was brain-damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago? Look at his children grieving in the front pew of the funeral room. Why wouldn’t they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money? Had his settlement money run out? And where is his ex-wife? Why couldn’t she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?) Do you think it’s true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge?
I read “The Question of Where We Begin” months ago and said, simply, “Wow.” I had not read anything that good in a long time. Not only was the structure interesting—as it echoes the questions that we ask ourselves sitting in a pew, whittling down the suicide to the most basic and complex set of questions we can ask about character, choice, and death—but I recognized the people, the poverty, the darkness lingering at the edge of the forest.
As I said above, I read the first story in a collection of essays. This book is an interesting, episodic roman à clef that meditates on suicide, Christianity, Kentucky and Haiti, poverty and addiction. Anticipating the audience’s expectations, Minor has threaded a couple Q & A sections throughout the stories. In the first one, he writes:
Q: On the cover of this book it says “Fiction.”
A: That’s what people write when they want to get away with telling the truth. When they want to convince you of a lie, they dress up some facts and call it “Nonfiction.” Either way, people from the past send angry e-mails.
In an interview with the Rumpus book club, Minor says,
“There are many failed books represented in it — essays, memoirs, short stories, novellas, an aborted novel. After about ten years of that I noticed how all the best of all of that was a kind of circling around the same stories, the same themes, the same obsessions. These pieces were in conversation, so I started to look for a form in which they could talk to one another.”
And somehow the genre-bending is perfect, because these pieces do speak to one another, hitting sometimes on the same scene—a preacher’s sermon/cooking demonstration after a nineteen-year-old boy’s suicide—adding or taking the context away in a psychological stutter. I could not help but to read it as a collection of essays with some imagined extras. Whether the story began as an memoir or a fiction is not important if it lands again on the subject the author cannot move past. Again, in the Rumpus interview, Minor says,
“I think that I grew up awash in stories — the traveling preachers, the King James Version, the colonial missionary tales, the Chronicles of Narnia, all varieties of musicals and puppet shows, allegories, fables, lots of didacticism, lots of 19th century British inheritance, lots of God-and-guns America stuff. The thing that was shocking, when I encountered literature, in my twenties, was the difference in the reckonings, which pushed past the received story, in the direction of the more complicated story that experience reveals. That’s where I wanted my allegiance to be pledged — that harder examination, that unwillingness to accede to the community-sanctioned conclusion, that stretching out into the questions and the irresolvable things.”
And the irresolvable things are here, as sequels, the examined life reexamined, the story told again, this time inside out. The themes and questions rise again a dialogue about speaking in tongues, a story about a childhood bully, an unlikely friendship in Haiti. These stories are as darkly comic as Faulkner, a kind of distilled but contemporary Southern Gothic.
Several pieces are titled after or otherwise reinterpret the poem “Praying Drunk” by Andrew Hudgins, which begins:
Our Father who art in heaven, I am drunk.
Again. Red wine. For which I offer thanks.
I ought to start with praise, but praise
comes hard to me. I stutter.
By the time I finished this collection, I’d grown homesick. My evening ended pouring a prayer of Makers Mark and remembering a quote by former KY Governor Happy Chandler (1889-1991), “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking of going home or actually going home.”
To purchase a copy, check out Sarabande’s website here.