Once, many years ago, I was sitting up late one summer night with some friends, and, as will sometimes happen given enough Old Milwaukee, One of Those Questions was posed: “Do you believe in God?”
“Yeah,I think so,” Randall said slowly. “But I don’t think it’s anything you’d want to call ‘faith.’ In my case, it’s more like…paranoia.”
There’s no such overt theodicy in McBrearty’s latest collection of stories (three of which first appeared here). It is elegiac and gently absurd and its characters are less likely to rail against Fate than to stand slack-jawed and flummoxed before its leavings. There is a manic quality in much of it; comic violence erupting upon domestic tranquility (or is the calm an illusory lull in the disorder which is the fundamental nature of things?). In the individual stories, and in aggregate, the collection invites the reader to settle, to reach conclusion, and continually frustrates any attempt actually to do so. To what end? This is something that transcends the juvenile impulse (familiar to everyone who has ever taught a creative writing course) to announce and celebrate The Meaninglessness of Things (thus claiming credit for wisdom without actually having to experience much of anything), and the absolute certainty not only that Things Mean Something, but that I know What They Mean (familiar to anyone who has been a fiction reader for a literary journal, especially in the Bible Belt). Those impulses are the obverse and reverse of the same neurotic coin, ways of dodging full acknowledgement that our admitted inability to determine the meaning of things, or whether they have meaning at all, does not disoblige us from continuing with the inquiry.
That’s an abstract of sorts. To make it concrete: in the title selection, two brothers confront each other in the family kitchen. One of them is “off his meds,” and ranting about bloody things that he believes happened, as much as a century before, in the space they occupy. Except that space is defined by the kitchen, which of course did not exist at the time of the massacre…and we have no compelling reason to believe that it happened at all. It is a story in which what is most important are the absences – the Comanches in the house, a boy killed at nineteen and suddenly remembered, fifty years on by the friend who survived him, and for whom a hypothetical unlived life suddenly comes to a reality as full as anything else that resides in consciousness.
Still too abstract? “The Real World” narrates a faustian moment which comes (as faustian moments so often do) in undramatic form. How often does the invitation to surrender one’s dreams announce itself as such? How much more often does it present itself as commonsensical, reasonable, the mature choice? Forget about this writing-business. I’ll teach you plumbing. You can be my apprentice. Except the would-be master and role-model turns out to be incompetent, dishonest, and unable to acknowledge those facts, even when they are as difficult to ignore as the geyser of sewage which stands as the objective correlative of all the representations he’s made: all his blandishments turn out to be a load of shit. The carefully crafted plot keeps any such crude formulation of the poetically just conclusion from rising too quickly to consciousness, and the balance of strict realism and circumstantial scatology allow us to nod ruefully and move on.
A key phrase in the story, “the labyrinth beneath,” suggests the affinity of this tale to less overtly comic moments of the collection. The labyrinth refers to the network of pipes, inflows, outflows, stacks, vents, beneath the protagonist and the man who would be his teacher, mentor, role-model and surrogate father. The dark maze is there, both know it, both have some responsibility for managing it, yet neither has a clue how that’s to be done. This is what it has always been between fathers and sons, teachers and students. And such dyads abound. In the more darkly Kafkaesque “The Half Penny Man” we find another father/plumber/teacher who similarly seems in equal measures to offer wisdom and misdirection.
Many of the protagonists have a poignant desire to please teachers and fathers (or substitutes therefore). We as readers sometimes feel the objects of these longings are unworthy, but there may be something deeper and less familiar afoot, something that accounts for the felt sense of duty. We typically interpret the line “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” as directed to learners. But might it not also be that the presence of the ready learner offers fulfillment, even redemption, to the teacher? McBrearty seems deliberately to alternate between these poles, which are much more explicitly foregrounded in “Teach Us.” This time the speaker offers the viewpoint of the teacher, and we are forced to recognize that the role is often thrust upon the unwilling and unready. These figures seem to others, occasionally and fleetingly perhaps to themselves, to have something worth passing on, but “I don’t know how to teach it.” Where the stories are most painful is during the failed sacraments, when the human connection is allowed to slip unconsummated into the backstream of time.
But it’s not a collection constructed around such readily identified tectonics. Age and time recur, but only as reports, not detailed backstories. Things have happened to these people. What exactly? Hard to say. Might not even matter. Things. Not particular things. Accumulations. In “The Bike,” it’s clear that there are events which mark and segment the steady process of loss, but we’re not to understand them as the causes, which aren’t discrete or even intelligible. “What crime had he committed?” the protagonist wonders, and though it is not a rhetorical question, it is not subject to answer either. It was asked on the way out of Eden (I have always thought that the stupidity of the prohibition – c’mon, a piece of fruit? – was meant to point us to the absurdity of the question. We all get kicked out of the house. Grow up). A child dies accidentally. A spouse gets a new job, a new bike, new friends. At what point exactly did the marriage wither to nothingness? If no answer is imaginable, yet a response is not only possible but required, and in this strangely uplifting story, the protagonist proves capable of generosity, surrender, acceptance and release.
And that’s the problem, over and over again, of course, from Gilgamesh onward. From the time we realize that when people ask us “can you still hit the fast one?” (in “The Comeback”) it means, quite unequivocally, that you cannot (“No one comes back, kid. That’s bullshit. That’s the movies”) we begin asking where and when exactly it all went wrong. That’s why we work both sides of the street, teacher/student, parent/child, trying to sort the unforeseeable contingencies which nonetheless carry a whiff of justice just sufficient to make the comfort of chaos untenable. We cycle through roles – we are the teachers and parents of our elder selves, and there are moments when it seems almost possible for that older self to reach backward and offer something to the earlier us. It can’t be, of course; in an expanding universe, the arrow of time points in one direction and one direction only and the past has as little reality as anything else held in consciousness. But the longing is real enough, and taking it seriously lends a sustained dignity to the whimsy characteristic of McBrearty’s stories.
McBrearty’s collection won the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award; he is also the recipient of a Pushcart. He teaches at the University of Colorado-Boulder.