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Detailed Book Review
   
   
   
Episode         
Episode
By Robert Garner McBrearty
ISBN: 978-1-929763-42-9
Price: $14.95
Shipping: $4.00
        
Robert Garner McBrearty was awarded the 2007 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award for stories included in this collection.

Episode is also available as an ebook on Amazon.com for the Kindle.

        
Book Review Details:
        
Reviewed Appeared In: Prairie Schooner
Reviewed By: Jack Smith
Text Of Review: In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern states, ‘‘American comic fiction tends to be serious, satiric, and, often, a bit grotesque.’’ It takes a master stylist to pull all this off, Stern emphasizes, and certainly Robert Garner McBrearty, winner of the 2007 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, is one such master stylist in Episode. As in his first collection, A Night at the Y, McBrearty’s Episode is peopled with antiheroes slogging through life the best they know how, sometimes mounting a valiant struggle, at other times pretty well petered out, engulfed by a kind of Carveresque bleakness. Whatever the mood or tone of his story, McBrearty is a very serious writer, zany in his seriousness, brewing up a compelling mix of the quirky, absurd, ridiculous, and improbable. The major emphasis in McBrearty’s fiction tends to be on the alienated self pursuing some sort of meaning, importance, victory, or basic human happiness. How can life be more bearable, more livable?—this is the central question in a McBrearty story.

McBrearty’s light stories tend to be Thurberesque, cartoonish almost, but they represent only a small portion of this collection. Most of the stories drift toward the dark, dealing with characters who have failed themselves or are experiencing life somehow failing them. Things are deteriorating, decaying. If in the lighter stories comedy functions to intensify our amusement at the outrageous and zany, in the darker pieces it works to color our sense of the lived experience as often laughable yet paradoxically, at times, eerily sinister. McBrearty’s out-and-out farces (which all of his work seems to hover on) are allegory at its best, sheer comedic performances that zero in on psychological and social phenomena in ways not accessible through straight realism.

‘‘The Real World,’’ a story light in mood and tone, has a compelling Chaplinesque quality to it, calling to mind the bizarre victimization of the hero of Modern Times. Here, as in other stories in this collection, McBrearty’s protagonists find themselves in the midst of a world they can’t quite handle, one without a suitable place for them. Jim, the beleaguered protagonist in this story, lives in some friends’ garage, and when winter comes he faces the prospect of sharing his already cramped space with their car. ‘‘It was a small car, though, and I was hoping I could adjust.’’ This kind of outrageous setup, with the protagonist’s deadpan response, is typical of a McBrearty story, in which the limits of ordinary, experienced reality are stretched. Needing work, Jim accepts a friend’s offer to try out the plumbing business, a vocation his friend glorifies and even gets him to glorify, against all evidence to the contrary: ‘‘Sewer and drain cleaners really were lonely saints of the underworld, engaged in a noble battle.’’ The use of mock epic, a typical McBrearty device, serves here to deride any touted wonders of achieving success in the ‘‘real world.’’ There’s certainly no glory in the plumbing business for Jim; with savage irony, McBrearty’s protagonist wishes at the end to return to his ‘‘humble garage.’’ Unlike ‘‘The Real World,’’ ‘‘Transformations,’’ though in many ways comic, is a rather dark, disturbing story. The story tests out a central tenet of fiction writing: character change. As fiction writers, editors, and readers, we say we must have it, but does life really work that way?—do characters actually improve, get better? The narrator declares himself a skeptic. McBrearty’s protagonist, Paul, begins the narrative (the so-called fictional equilibrium) as ‘‘a hard thug of a guy who’s drinking in a bar with some of the boys,’’ a bar where those who are not watching the television are ‘‘puking, fighting, or engaging in sex acts in dark corners.’’ In the midst of this freakish mayhem, Paul is about to have his first glimpse of meaningful transformation: he suddenly notices a woman on the tv, who is ‘‘saying something nice to a young man who is distressed.’’ She is stroking ‘‘his hair in a gentle sort of way.’’ Reminded of a nice girl he’d once known, Paul suddenly decides to take action—to revisit a place from his dark past, a place where he had participated in a burglary at the age of seventeen. We can’t help but laugh at the cruel irony that ultimately results from such good intentions, and yet McBrearty’s humor is here, as elsewhere, always humanizing, always causing us to sympathize and never to ridicule. And perhaps there’s hope for Paul after all: because of his painful revisiting of his past, we can imagine a kind of epiphany, expressed or not, in spite of the narrator’s stated skepticism. An even darker story is ‘‘The Director.’’ At the story’s outset, McBrearty’s lowly part-time English instructor protagonist, teaching in a school in a marginal area of the city, suddenly gets offered the director of humanities position. It’s a truly meaningless, laughable position gained by his looking ‘‘concerned and thoughtful at recent faculty meetings.’’ McBrearty’s director has no real duties since the dean doesn’t want to share his power, yet he sails along, with new vigor, confidence, and amusing innocence, blessing the panhandlers and the homeless, his fellow humanity— as curiously befitting his title as director of the humanities. There’s an odd mix of the breezily skating, unperturbed Chaplin with the protagonist’s more ponderous realization that this is ‘‘very snooty, really, this sort of munificence.’’ The story takes a series of dark turns, with the director ending up losing his position, yet there is nonetheless some light in what he learns about the dismal plight of the homeless—those whose needs are greater than any single director can provide. Overall, McBrearty’s story is a compelling mix of off-beat comedy and tragedy, each mode functioning seamlessly together to portray the complex double-sided nature of our existence as humans in this world.

The darkest story in this collection is surely the title story, ‘‘Episode.’’ Here, the situation involves a debilitating sense of deterioration and bleakness with things rapidly spinning out of control. Len, who is bipolar, is having another episode, and his younger brother, Kenneth, the narrator, is struggling to deal with it, knowing he must somehow get Len to the hospital against Len’s wishes, fearful of what might transpire if he doesn’t. Mc- Brearty’s darkly comic touches shape the story beyond a predictable psychosis narrative. Len crosses into the next-door neighbor’s yard and soon mounts the neighbor’s trampoline, springing up and down, to the chagrin of the neighbor, who’s nervous about the insurance risk. Len’s loony trampoline workout, as comic as it is, paradoxically makes things even darker. And yet, even in this darkest of works, once again we see a glimmer of hope in the protagonist’s spirited attempt to help his brother, however futile this seems. McBrearty never dooms his characters, nor does he yank them to safety. He finds ways to affirm their essential humanity. McBrearty’s penchant for the ridiculous and outrageous is given its fullest expression in his works of sheer farce. ‘‘In the Bar’’ pits the ‘‘throw back writer,’’ who still writes with a pen and paper, against the new breed—the laptop user. The protagonist enters the bar with his proclamation that he is about to write with his pen—which causes a stir on the order of a gunslinger in the Wild West suddenly making his dramatic, staged entrance. Essential to the ritual of the writing act is to pour a glass of whiskey over his head. In this bizarre allegory McBrearty lampoons the new technology that allows what you ‘‘Save’’ to possibly be quickly and irretrievably lost. But more important, one gathers, is the loss of the visceral in the transformation from pen to keyboard—from Slim, the tool of an earthier, more independent, self-resourceful age, to laptop, the tool of a more technological, more dependent, more effete age. This story, like ‘‘The Real World,’’ comes close to social criticism. In this way it is closer to the work of T. C. Boyle, though less acerbic in tone, than the rest of the stories in this collection.

Even in rather sober stories with little humor—in a straight realistic story like ‘‘The Bike,’’ say, in which a husband loses all touch with his wife and lives to regret it—McBrearty is the master of incongruity, of now-and then strategically placed verbal surprises, suggesting a world somehow decentered. In all of McBrearty’s work, we feel this decentering as the world becomes absurd, at least in terms of our ability to make sense of it. The locus of McBrearty’s fiction is the subjective consciousness. His characters are mostly antiheroes, alienated but not happy in their alienation. They want redemption. They want relationships. They suffer painful losses. They attempt to pull their lives together, and we see a measure of hope in their struggle and what they ultimately come to feel and know. McBrearty barbs their circumstances with various incongruities, and as readers we can’t help but laugh, often out loud, just prior to the introduction of various sobering realities—or even in the midst of them. It’s this superb mix of the dark and comic, interwoven seamlessly into the fabric of his fiction, that establishes McBrearty as a master stylist in this collection and in his work as a whole.
Date Reviewed: 2011
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