The Butterfly Collector
 by Fred McGavran

Black Lawrence Press
2009 Paperback
First Collection

Winner, 2008
St Lawrence Prize

"So I made a vow of silence to the butterfly, but not out of devotion. Like some illicit intoxicant, it brought unimaginable joy, then died and left me alone. If Alzheimer’s were only a disease of the memory, I could forget. […]  We do not mutter to ourselves and shamble through the halls because we don’t remember, but because we have seen too much."

Reviewed by James Murray-White

McGavran’s debut collection proves him to be an accomplished storyteller. I will go so far as to say he is a master "getter-inside-of-characters’ psyches"; whether this comes from his innate sense of story, his training in creative writing, or his legal practice, I could not say, but most of the stories have a natural ease about them, and an insightful understanding of what makes people tick.

The lead story, The Butterfly Collector, is the first story I have encountered where the writing is from inside the mind of a dementia sufferer. I have a personal connection to this strangest of diseases, and am about to make a documentary exploring the issues it raises. Plenty of stories abound about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but this is the first where we hear and understand life from Walter’s perspective, as he gently reveals his mind-state, preoccupations, and reflexive defensiveness against his wife's and mother-in-law’s machinations. It is wonderful to re-visit Walter near the end of the collection in the 13th story, Lillian, and see the mental space his mind now occupies. It is a continuum of memory from his youth and the early days of his marriage, and I resonate with the reflective flow from Walter’s perspective, and note its similarity with, and subtle shift away from, the style of the earlier piece. They are stories about loss and disintegration, yet contain real beauty, as shown in the sequence with the butterfly, and insightfulness.

We do visit Walter mid-way through the collection, in a subversion of time and sequence, but I’ll leave it to the reader to find which story this occurs in. Take this as my recommendation to read the collection!

The Beautician and Two Cures for the Phantom Limb show McGavran veering into a quirky-funny macabre territory, told with both a gentle and a dry wit. Two Cures felt very filmic, full of taciturn men in the American west, and a son describing arcane medical practices! "After an amputation, the doctor enjoyed a good cigar" is a great start to a story, and it stays at this quirky level throughout.

Breaking Cover and The Deer are sadder stories that deal with death and divorce, loyalty and manhood, and edge toward ways in which humans could live closer to the wild and earthy aspects of life, but invariably don’t. The closing line of The Deer; "I am eager for the dreams to come," uttered from the mind of the therapist central character, sums up the messed up events (and a tragedy) he got enmeshed in, and all of the characters wish to escape. There are shades here of later Updike stories, and elements remind me of wonderful story-telling with an Irish flavour, by masters such as John McGahern and more recently Thomas Lynch. Perhaps, and I am only theorising here, McGavran is positing the idea in his debut collection, that Walter’s mind is the calmest place to be, despite exterior misfortune and calamity. This contrasts with the supposed sanity and reason of the professions of lawyer, judge, therapist, estate agent and doctor, as his other characters reveal themselves to be. Here is an example of Walter’s sharp mind at work, in straightened circumstances:
Meals are difficult. Everyone seems to concentrate on something that is happening somewhere else. People stare across the room, or at their food, or chew without putting anything in their mouths. (From Lillian)
The styles of the stories range from fluid and light, through to dark and savage and plain peculiar (in Not Until Everything’s Perfect) which for me is the sign of an engaging talent, born of an inquiring mind that has watched people over many years, and puts him in a league of those writers mentioned above.

McGavran gives us a taste of the legal world in which he spends much of his time in the story A Gracious Voice, which explores the politicking within a legal chamber. This is a weaker story in terms of plot and structure, but nonetheless full of rounded and flawed characters, full of insecurities and human savagery. It feels like the story has been included to round out McGavran’s worldview and show the writer’s range.

My only gripe with this collection is that I felt Lillian should have been the ending point – the final story The Annunciation of Charles Spears is quite weak and unformed compared to the others: not a strong point to end on, whereas Lillian has a rounded metaphorical and gently metaphysical conclusion. Aside from one or two spelling mistakes (the publisher’s mishap, not McGavran’s), I’m left enjoying the journey I shared with Walter and some of McGavran’s other characters and scenarios, and will certainly look out for his future work.

Read a story from this collection in Storyglossia

James Murray-White is currently mid-way through an MA in Media in Bristol, and freelance ‘media making’ for various projects, personal, commercial and community. After all this he hopes to get back to creative writing in some form or t’other.
James' other Short Reviews: "Sea Stories"

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

"Park Stories"

Peter Wild (ed) "Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths"

"Ox Tales: Earth, Fire, Air and Water"

David Constantine "The Shieling"

John Updike "My Father's Tears"

Thomas Lynch "Apparitions"
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Fred McGavran served as an officer in the Navy. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he practices law in Cincinnati, Ohio. He won the 2007 Writers Digest Short Story Contest in the horror category, the 2004 John Reid/Tom Howard Contest, and the 2003 Raymond Carver Award from Humboldt State University. His stories have appeared in Pearl Magazine, Rosebud, Gray's Sporting Journal, Dreams & Visions, Storyglossia, Third Order, and other literary magazines and e-zines.

Read an interview with Fred McGavran