Typically, I don’t like “dark” stories about suicide, drug addiction, or cancer because those themes are emotionally loaded. The work is already done for the writer. There’s also this false assumption that a lot of writers fall into, which is that dark things—suicide, drug addiction, cancer—are serious, and all serious things are profound. Having said that, Kyle Minor’s new short story collection Praying Drunk, Stories, Questions is, well, dark. The characters in Praying Drunk struggle with love, suicide, religious institutions, abuse, and drug addiction. Every conflict comes from, or leads to, the frantically sublime. But somehow, all this “dark” heavy stuff plays well with me—even when he starts one of his stories with eye-rolling seriousness, like the first line of “The Sweet Life” which reads, “The boy in the casket was my wife’s nephew.” The drama is recursive in a weird way too. For instance, Minor repurposes the same suicide in numerous stories, and a pastor uses the same crude biscuit analogy to describe death at every funeral. It becomes clear after the third or fourth story that Minor writes from his life and thereby breaks the logic of the false assumption. All this “darkness” is his experience, and as it happens, that is profound.
Sprinkled with instances of “meta writing,” the collection reveals a narrator who is confounded by his own morbidity. In the appropriately named opener, “The Question of Where We Begin,” the narrator launches into a philosophical meditation of causality and the elements of a good story after his uncle’s suicide. Minor writes, “Perhaps he wouldn’t have killed himself if his children had more demonstrably loved him.” This “what if” rhetoric leads to a wildly electric paragraph in which the narrator tries to find the root of his uncle’s trouble, from his breakfast decisions the day he killed himself, all the way back to the pre-humans and everything in between. In his mania, the narrator asserts that God lacked agency after the fall. Eventually, the hysteria drains the narrator and prompts the reflection, “…what does it say about me, the god of this telling, that I have to take it to these dark places?” All in all, a roundabout way of avoiding self-criticism. The narrator plays the messenger, and the message is, “life sucks.”
The collection’s primary concerns are tethered to religion. Minor, an admitted ex-evangelical Christian, writes about the struggle of adjusting to a secular lifestyle. He grapples with the debt he owes the people and culture that inspire his stories, the desire to make them real people instead of political reductions of Middle America, and his own indignation at having the burden of the soul/debt relationship to God placed on his impressionable shoulders. In “You Shall Go Out With Joy And Be Led Forth With Peace,” the narrator (also named Kyle) is an ex-pastor recently divorced from his faith. He gets a call from Tony, an old disciple from his congregation, saying he has terminal leukemia. As he visits Tony in a Florida hospice, Kyle has trouble finding words for comfort in a new vocabulary. “…I didn’t tell him what I had learned,” he says, “what life had taught me, which is there’s no such thing as miracles. God probably doesn’t answer our prayers.”
Most of the characters in Praying Drunk are or were evangelical Christians. At times, the writing borders on religious exploitation, the mining of evangelical beliefs for shock value. In “You Shall Go…” the narrator mentions something disquieting about Christian private schools after describing complex Old Testament geopolitics involving Isaiah and the Assyrians. He writes, “Twelve years old, and I know all these things. They teach us these things at my school.” A similar moment occurs in “Glossolalia” where a character explains to her atheist boyfriend what it’s like to speak in tongues. This is a tricky political minefield. Fortunately, Minor focuses his criticism primarily on the institutions and not on the characters. The characters are portrayed with genuine respect and tenderness, despite their radical beliefs and values.
The most impressive story of the collection, “In a Distant Country,” features some of the more exploitative features of the book, but also the most developed characters. Set in a Haitian mission during the 80s, the piece talks about the dangers of religious certainty through the form of correspondence letters. “…What I was hearing—clear as day—was the word from the Lord: This young woman, this Shelia Broken, is the one I’ve been keeping for you.” This is a letter from a middle-aged missionary named Sam, talking about an 18-year-old student who went to Haiti on her senior mission trip. If the story ended there, with Sam’s inappropriate interest in a girl much younger than himself, with only Sam’s voice telling the story, then it would be a pretty standard case of character-used-as-political-device-makes-blanket-statement-about-culture. However, the piece is complicated with many voices and contrasting opinions. It turns into a series of critiques of morality inside a standardized system of morality. Minor evaluates the situations on his characters’ terms, without dismissing the vocabulary outright, despite his new religious consciousness, and I find this to be one of the most generous gestures of the collection.
There is also a “Q&A” in the book, an interview Minor conducts with himself, another one of those meta-fiction moves I mentioned earlier. “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.” I can’t tell you how annoying it is for me to read this, to hear an author who uses so many dramatic “dark” clichés interview himself and call his work the “truth.” What a God-like ego. And what’s even more annoying, I think he might be right.
Kyle Minor is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize and the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction.
Praying Drunk, Stories, Questions was published by Sarabande Books in 2014.
Daniel Phelps—intern for Sonora Review Issue 66 (2014)—reviews Kyle Minor’s book Praying Drunk, Stories, Questions (Sarabande Books, 2014).