The Body of This
 by Andrew McNabb

Warren Machine Company 2008, 
First collection

Andrew McNabb lives with his wife and four young children in the West End of Portland, Maine. He grew up in Massachusetts and is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and New York University.

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"It was confusing the way she wouldn’t let him penetrate her but would wrap herself in all sorts of unusual positions to make him climax, each more lurid and depraved that the next; and then, not more than an hour or a day later, she’d have no problem going up and sticking out her tongue to receive her Christ."

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

The title of this tightly packaged collection captures the tension and the contradiction at its heart: The Body of This deliberately echoes religious phrasing, while simultaneously foregrounding the notion of bodies, in all their messy, embarrassing corporality. The book appears to be pitched as a Catholic book by a Catholic writer. However, while many of McNabb’s characters are indeed Catholic – from priests to ordinary people struggling with faith – the religious dimension did not seem to me to overwhelm the writing and never descended to dogma. Admittedly, I was born in Ireland and raised Catholic, so my frame of reference prejudices me, but I felt McNabb avoided doctrinal nitpicking in favour of a wider, more inclusive spirituality.

Certainly, McNabb seems keen to show that despite any spiritual achievement we may attain, we are still very much flesh and blood. His writing has a Rabelaisian enjoyment of physical grotesquerie, corporeal frailty and, particularly, the indignities of age. Several stories focus on female aging, which on a first reading made me wonder if this was not mere distaste or even disgust with female physicality and/or sexuality. Their Bodies, Their Selves describes “the revealing heaviness of that sagging breast, pointing south to the melting of her inner thighs”; in Bride of Christ, “her breasts were…flat and dangling”; in Habeas Corpus, Dee Dee holds her “paunch in hands”.

It’s a close call. Sharp observation makes this more than a vehicle for misogyny; who could resist a presentiment of fat in the “hint of a shimmer” in Dee Dee’s teenage thighs? More, importantly, there is balance. Male bodies too are unreliable and prone to decay: in The King of the Tables it is Frank who wakes “soaked in his own urine”, while Rose “just seventy” is “so carefree, banging the tray against her leg like a schoolgirl”. Finally, the structure prevents these grotesque descriptions from being mere acts of degrading voyeurism; within the stories they are transformed to moments of triumph. There is tenderness in Their Bodies, Their Selves where Sarah’s geriatric striptease saves her husband from mortification, and opens the way to of intimacy after a marriage devoid of “romantic undressing”.

There is also, most appealingly, a gleeful, mischevious lightness in much of McNabb’s writing. From the naming of John Thomas, a character desperate to circumvent his girlfriend’s prohibition on pre-marital sex, to the conclusion of Habeas Corpus where Dee Dee’s anxiety about being overweight vanishes when she realises that her beautiful friend has aged and thickened also: “paunched and primed, and on she came, throwing open her arms, lunging herself into physical human contact. They touched, deepened belly button to deepened belly button like two mouths engaged in a French kiss; and the result was no less profound.”

It’s What it Feels Like
is a lighter, more rambling tale, after the tight poetic control of shorter pieces. In this portrait of small-town life, bodies swell to roundness with happy appetite or slim to a brittle, unfaithful thinness. Eventually Lance gives up a winning lottery ticket to keep his unfaithful girlfriend, preferring to enjoy the sensuality of fingers that “glisten with oil and when they reach a maximum grease level, she licks them and goes back for more.” The bible may condemn adultery but rather than judge, Lance continues to love simply and steadfastly, finding his answers in the comfort of rounded flesh.

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson's short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and, among others. She has, finally, completed her novel, The Examined Life and is wondering what to do next.
Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"
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