Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor (Sarabande Books, 2014)
Does God exist? The question is either a non-sequitur or deeply important depending on your worldview. In many ways, the existence, or more relevantly, the absence of God, is the central concern of Kyle Minor’s very strong collection of short stories, Praying Drunk. Literary fiction has mostly answered the question of the existence of God with a rather resounding no. The disaffected pastors and seekers of Roth and Bellow have been replaced by the sad college professors and bird lovers that populate the work of Franzen or the would-be writers and sad working class folks in nearly every short story. If the most compelling evidence against the existence of God is His silence, then, by and large, literary fiction has weighed in as well, and the silence is damning.
Into that silent void steps Minor’s collection of short stories, Praying Drunk. The collection begins with “The Question of Where We Begin,” which revolves around the suicide of a mentally damaged uncle. Rather than explain the death in a dramatic arc, Minor explores who is to blame for his uncle’s death. Minor explores whether it was the accident that caused his uncle’s brain damage, or if it was some other inconsequential event of that day that caused him to be there at the moment of the accident, or maybe it was something else, his birth, or his parents’ meeting. The infinite regress eventually extends back to a “God with agency sufficient to create everything and set it in motion, and apathy enough to let it proceed as an atrocity parade.” Is it an atrocity parade? In the stories that follow where death, suicide, and beatings are administered, the evidence supports that supposition.
The majority of the stories in the collection are told in the first person, making them seem autobiographical. Story tellers are God-like, and it is through narrators looking back with a knowing eye that Minor seeks to retell his own creation story. His prose is strong, though not necessarily pretty. It is a rugged prose, where words and sentences are used to sharpen paragraphs into full emotions that will punch you in the gut.
Minor says he doesn’t want to tell a series of sad stories. He says he wants to tell stories as Henry James would, with a boy and a girl who are destined to meet. However, the list of atrocities, sadness and suicides eventually overwhelm and seep through into every story. But, to my mind, what separates this collection from the garden variety, beyond the excellent writing, is the religious element that is often absent in literary fiction. The characters in these stories are not flat or disaffected. They are angry at the state of the world and, importantly, still trying to understand it. There is an element of hope in that kind of sadness.
The stories in Praying Drunk are set mostly in Kentucky and Indiana and revolve around events that are semi-autobiographical. Thus, characters and narrative structures recur throughout. The story of a pastor who bakes biscuits during a eulogy appears on three separate occasions in the collection, and his story accrues more meaning and context with each recurrence. The stories all contain a kernel of sadness that can be extrapolated beyond the stories themselves to the larger story of the human condition. Minor’s desire to find a different way of revealing truth is actualized during an interesting story set, “Q and A.” These sections appear twice in the collection and involve the author answering a series of questions about the preceding stories. Within the context of the collection these “Q and A” stories work to effectively close the distance between the real and the fictionalized world, leaving the reader to understand that it is a very thin line.
Though the stories in Praying Drunk are religious, they are the narratives of characters who are resentful, ambivalent or angry at their religious heritage. Questioning God is as old as the Christian faith itself, but it has gone out of style as religion has become a less central part of our society. In “You Shall Go Out With Joy And Be Led Forth In Peace,” the narrator describes the praise music that made him happy in church. However, these descriptions of happiness are paired with sections that detail the variety of ways that other religious groups are wrong and headed for an eternity of damnation. Minor imbues his narrator with the confused shock of a man just stepped from out of darkness into the light, dazzled by the world, struggling to make sense of its contours.
Minor experiments with form and content in other stories as well. In “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” a teenage boy’s suicide is first introduced as a major plot point. The narrative is set in the future and the son commits suicide. The father attempts to replace him by buying a replacement model through the wonders of science. His dream of replacing his son with a fake version are quickly shattered as his synthetic son falls to the ground and literally begins to fall apart. He online casino is, like the world that Minor was taught as a religious youth, a pale imitation of the real thing. The next story, “Glossolia,” is told strictly through dialogue and it highlights why Minor’s book is more incisive in its critique of religion than many weightier tomes. In it, an unnamed character asks questions of the girl he’s dating: for instance, what exactly is she saying when she speaks in tongues? The story successfully interrogates her religion without stooping to polemic. The questions are artfully crafted, an inquiry rather than an inquisition.
Minor’s book begins with a note to the reader that the stories are meant to be read in order. And the “Q and A” sections highlight the importance of reading them sequentially as they answer narratively important questions.
“Q: On the cover of the book it says ‘fiction?’
A: That’s what people write when they want to get away with telling the truth. When they want to convince you of a lie, they dress up some facts and call it ‘Nonfiction’ Either way, people from the past send angry e-mails.”
Minor’s response to the angry e-mails is that his stories are “an expression of love” and a correction to the stories he was told as a child. The collection, then, has a rather grand aim. It seeks to subvert or retell the grand Christian narrative, to turn it into something truer, smaller and sadder.
In “The Sweet Life,” the narrator describes the suicide of his nephew’s suicide, providing a template for these differing, religious and non-religious, views of human life. The preacher describes death, “No one knows why these things happen, but everything happens for a reason. All things work together for good, to them that love God, to them who are called according to His righteousness.” The narrator, sitting in the pews with his wife, is unable to accept this simple narrative structure, “In the moment before the musicians started their music, there was silence. To me the silence seemed our natural state, bitter and forever. There was a burning smell from the oven. I did not want to give it meaning, but we have been conditioned to give everything meaning.”
Some critics of the book, religious and non-religious alike, have pointed to its unrelenting bleakness. And I freely admit that while I was reading the book I thought of Kafka’s old dictum, “There is hope, just not for us.” And yet, the characters are constantly encountering sadness, but they are not numb to it. The characters still have enough passion to shake their fist at the sky, an agency that gives them life. I’d submit that apathy in the face of sadness would be much worse. These characters distinguish themselves by their sadness because they still perceive and feel that they have lost something greater.
“There Is Nothing But Sadness In Nashville” is the finest in the collection. In it, the narrator recounts the story of his brother who transitions from traveling musician into a life at a desk job, collecting pay checks. And then, after a few years, his brother changes his mind and heads back out on the road, unable to resist the allure of a life with more possibilities. The story is a concise piece of art that illuminates life’s passions and failures, from the major to the mundane, and it is just about as succinct and piercing a rendition of that struggle as I’ve read in a mere sixteen pages. It is a story about growing up and about family and about love; about work and about death. “Everyone says the same empty words they always say about heaven and God and the way all things work together for good. I have heard them so many times, but now what they mean to me is that life is empty of meaning so people must tell themselves stories about how and in what ways everything means.”
The weakest story in the collection, “In A Distant Country,” is unfortunately also the longest. The story is told through a series of letters, and it focuses on the tale of an older missionary and the young high school girl he weds after she visits with her high school group. In the other stories, the emotions feel raw and untended. The characters in “In A Distant Country” lacks the freshness found in other stories in the collection, and the characters never quite round into a recognizable shape.
On the whole, Praying Drunk is a very successful collection of short stories that illuminates the complicated religious heritage of many Americans. The stories simultaneously relay universal stories and themes that are integral to any human experience, religious or not. Minor’s success at operating between a pole of belief and disappointment is symbolized by the title. Imagine praying drunk, two opposite actions. “And do not get drunk with wine” coupled with, “pray to the Lord your God.” Can you do both? I’m going to end with Minor’s words because they are powerful and strong, taken from the last story, “Lay Me Down In Blue Grass,” which revisits dealing with the death of the narrator’s nephew nephew. The family is gathered on the top of a mountain, putting the body in the ground and trying to deal with it, “We can shout out into the quiet of the hollow and hear our own voices echoing: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The words came back plaintive, longing.”