Praying Drunk: Stories by Kyle Minor
Sarabande Books, 2014; 192 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
Disclosure: I once spent a weekend in the company of Kyle Minor. It seems a thing I should let my reader know, so that they can contextualize and maybe temper my review of his newest book with that knowledge. He came to UNT as a joint venture between our visiting reader series and our graduate student conference; this was several years back. In that time, I found him to be kind, thoughtful, and more excited about writing than anyone I’d met before. He was also a fun person to share a drink with (although when I mentioned that I didn’t care for Philip Roth, I got quite the earful). So: I like him as a person, but his writing paved the way and cemented that liking.
There’s a use of the word true that I like: true as in ring true, as in a thing that is well-shaped and beautiful in its honesty. I suspect Kyle Minor puts more stock in this use of the word than in the more common use, and that’s what’s exciting about Praying Drunk, his new collection of short stories. He is placing a bet on empathy/beauty/a kind of consciously driven willingness to allow the grief of being alive to wash over you as a reader so that grace, in its small way, will come, and in order to get that done, he’s willing to mess around with the reader’s expectations.
Minor shows he’s willing to toe the line of the reader-author contract in order to hold on to his idea of true in the opening pages of Praying Drunk, which includes a note to the reader: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.” Whether you’re the kind of person who sees this as a bold, gutsy move or as an author up on his high horse will probably inform how much of Kyle Minor’s narrative and structural shenanigans you’re willing to take. As for me, I’m all for shenanigans, and I think the kind of conceptual play that Minor is engaging in throughout the book tempers the very dark subject matter of his stories in a way that invites you into his worldview and allows for a sense of relief.
The book is indeed A Book, and it’s divided into two parts. The inattentive skip-around reader likely won’t notice the way the stories echo and mirror each other, but it’s there, as is Minor’s metatextual teasing out of ideas across stories. By throwing down the challenge to the reader to see the short story collection as a whole, he’s inviting them to see the ways a conversation happens between reader, author, and story. This is something that happens anyway when we read, but the self-conscious acknowledgment of it is part of Minor’s project. The opening story in the collection, “The Question of Where to Begin,” starts with an uncle’s suicide before sprawling back to the beginning of the universe in order to decide not just where this story begins, but where any story begins, and where Kyle Minor begins, where his need to explain comes from. By focusing on the needs of narrative, Minor breaks out of the old cliché of chance vs fate and moves it into the very real and pertinent question of what we should do about chance’s meaninglessness, fate’s inexplicability. How are we going to make sense of anything once we carry with us the knowledge that “making sense” implies and demands a kind of creation on the part of the individual?
This questioning is carried forward into the rest of the book, sometimes literally, as several stories are structured as question and answer sections or as dialogues. Minor’s religious upbringing and apparent disillusionment is a big focus in the book, as is the idea of missionary work, and the doubts and fears of his characters are shot through with and informed by an echoing of those doubts and fears by the authorial persona. The two stories that most people would be familiar with, “The Truth and All Its Ugly” and “Seven Stories About Sebastian of Koulèv-Ville,” take on new meaning in this context, and the formal playfulness of the work draws the reader into Minor’s worldview.
In some ways I could argue that this is almost a book of theory masquerading as postmodern storytelling: Minor is working through what kind of work fiction can do in the world, and whether or not it’s worth the trouble. Elif Batuman, in her essay “The Invisible Vocation,” says that literary writing is a vocation that writers are inclined to feel shameful about because of its powerlessness in society; here’s Minor’s take in “You Shall Go Out With Joy and Be Led Forth With Peace,” which is about a young Minor being beaten up: “I will grow up to become a person who will be able to make things like this not happen to other people. And I will tell this story. This story. I will make sure everyone knows.” The narrator goes on to admit that he did not grow up to become that person, and that stories are both incapable and still desperately striving to make some kind of wholeness, some kind of meaning, out of our loneliness and grief. The real power of Minor’s work is confessional: he’s admitting, in front of us, that stories don’t do it. They don’t erase pain, or change the world, or prove anything. And that’s okay, because they make sense, because they’re true.