Reviewed by Susannah Rickards
The Roman dramatist Terence wrote, "Nothing human is alien to me." It seems Kyle Minor shares his credo. No one is beyond the reach of his unsentimental compassion. His debut collection, In The Devil’s Territory, examines the lives of three generations of clergy and congregation at the Cherry Road Baptist Church, West Palm Beach, Florida. And what a brutal, spirited, spineless, self-deceiving, heartbroken, goodly bunch they are. From Florida himself, Minor claims in an interview that he wanted to write about the kind of people he came across frequently in life but rarely in literature. Don’t be fooled by this modest, apparent parochialism. Minor draws his characters with such tenderness and grace, such wisdom and complexity, that one's own understanding of humanity seems greater simply for having read about them.
Elsie Richter, protagonist of the title story, sanctimonious teacher and ruthless bully of one bumbling adolescent charge, was once a girl heroine, swimming East Berlin’s Spree River three times in a night to rescue her parents and aunt from death at the hands of the Stasi so they could attempt a new life in America. With a winning instinct for structure, Minor puts the act of heroism first, so Richter’s brutality cannot be redeemed in the reader’s mind by an explanatory flashback of her bravery and loyalty. Rather, we learn of it first and approach her cruelty to her pupils with insight but growing distaste.
It is key to his extraordinary power as a writer that Minor neither judges nor forgives his characters. With direct, unflashy prose, he simply unpacks their souls and that is more than enough to rivet us. His writing isn't overtly humorous but there's a mischevious relish at work below the surface: the narrator of The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party is scuppered when he can't justify, even to himself, the resentment he has for the two wombs that trap him - his wife's, carrying his baby in a perilous pregnancy that has her bedridden and close to death, and his mother's - conspicuously absent after a hysterectomy from which she recovers with martyrish speed in order to be at his side. His chagrin at the women’s demanding behaviour has to compete with her having travelled "eighteen-hundred miles to take care of my child and my household in the aftermath of surgery to remove her childbearing organs and a fibroid cyst larger than the child my wife is carrying." Against these women, committed to their unborn and adult children despite death risks, his "perceived wounds from childhood" and resentment of "overly specific ice cream requests" are inarguably peevish. One to the women. Minor's writing is shot through with the notion that women are the tougher sex. This may not be new or true but he's a frank writer and one is left with the impression he's not playing this for effect, but laying down on paper the world as it has presented itself to him.
In the elegant The Navy Man, a stylistic tribute to Chekov, Minor writes of one woman’s escape from the moral restraints of her Baptist headmaster husband, who is "always taking her emotional temperature and then [wanting] to pray together about whatever he could wring out of her.'"To her surprise she finds more than just sexual satisfaction, but companionship, respect, the chance of love, in the arms of a married naval officer during a short break in the Florida Keys. This story is one in an honorable line of short fiction holiday adulteries. Its opening is a cheeky, blatant nod to Chekhov's Lady with Lapdog, the romance that develops as unassuming but more joyous than Greene creates in Cheap in August. The confidence with which Minor draws on these classics adds weight to the story's theme. The modern outcome allows that the woman can walk away from an empty marriage into a happier liaison. But throughout the collection, never quite deserving a story in his own right, we catch glimpses of and references to her God-fearing, sex-fearing, life-fearing husband, who permanently binds himself to the ghost of their marriage, preferring to become a ridiculous male Miss Haversham awaiting her return, than dishonour God with divorce.
In A Love Story Minor reminds us that homosexuality may still be a lifelong taboo, even in the Western world, and shows a fault-line deepening throughout one man’s life, wrecking the lives of those close to him, when he takes advice from a mentor to repress his desire, advice his room mate blithely ignores with a bitterly different outcome. Western society, held to be liberal, disposable, immoderate, has Minor homing in on those unsung multitudes still hide-bound by rectitude and fear.
In this collection of excellent stories, for me the greatest was A Day Meant to Do Less. It sat next to an Alice Munro in last year’s Best American Mystery Stories and put her in the shade. A pastor takes on the task of bathing his incontinent, senile mother, unaware that she mistakes him for the cousin she witnessed murdering his brother years ago. Minor’s portrayal of this senile female mind, floating, fragmented, through the present to land with clarity on that day from her past, inspires awe. He’s a 33-year-old man writing with utter conviction from the viewpoint of someone few could begin to understand. All writers pitch in to see the world through unfamiliar eyes, but only a small handful catch it with such breadth of understanding. The structuring of this story is masterful. The pastor’s tentative, gentle attempts to soothe and clean his mother are grotesquely reinterpreted by her, locked as she is inside the memory of her sadistic cousin. Minor is a realist, an expressionist, who doesn’t need to veer into magic or fantasy because the strangest terrain is here on earth. That said, he has placed work in Surreal South and I’m fascinated to know how he might handle irreal material.
Everyone who reads or writes short fiction should take a look at this debut collection. Missing out on it would be like missing out on Greene, Carver, Munro, the greats he cites as his influences whose talent he already matches. His writing makes one newly, keenly aware how rare such talent is. Award it – buy the book.
Read a story by Kyle Minor in Plots With Guns.
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Publication Date: June 2008
First collection?: Yes
Author bio: Kyle Minor's work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, notably Best American Mystery Stories 2008, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, Surreal South and Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers: The Best New Voices of 2006. He has twice been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. He is co-editor of The Other Chekhov (New American Press 2008). Originally from Florida, he is now Visiting Writer at the University of Toledo, Ohio.
Read an interview with Kyle Minor
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