(Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2015)
In his new collection of stories, Fox Tooth Heart, John McManus puts his arm around our shoulder and walks us out to the margin, calmly pointing out all the unfortunate souls who have stepped across the thin line. When he turns us away from the grotesque, toward the homes his characters can’t find their way back to, the familiar is dizzying in its sway.
All nine stories feature fatality—death by suicide, homicide, accident, and, of course, natural causes. If I were ticking off boxes on an existential score card, I might be able to make a case that the luckiest of the bunch is a ‘free-solo’ climber who on El Capitan recklessly hoists himself up on ‘fifty-fifty thimbles’, meaning the protrusions of rock that have a fifty percent chance of giving way, certain death a false hold away. He survives the odds of fifty percent of fifty percent of fifty percent, arriving at the summit able to affirm his newly regained singlehood by refusing the flirtations of a fine young thing—her reptilian brain jazzed by his throbbing muscles. But this state of well-being is temporary, as he plans further iterations of this feat, leaving us to contemplate how many times you can multiply your chances by point-five until they are effectively zero.
McManus frequently features a cause/effect inversion that subdues the significance of the most major of events—like in “Gateway to the Ozarks” the sudden death of the mother, which is disclosed as a complicating element in the main character’s attempt to find the source of the Y in his DNA. This character, Carl, intuits “that he wouldn’t be asking Marissa about the letter, now that she and Willy and two of their friends had driven off a cliff.” But the mind has to be occupied with something, and so his frustration at being unable to imagine his mother, or his close friend Silas (who died after asking Carl to kick him in the balls), in heaven causes grief to sublimate into apocalyptic fantasy. What else is there for Carl to do but resume old habits, including obsessing over the lost father, who turns out to be the genetic donor to four other boys, who turns out to be our father too, the “father of liberty.” That’s right, Thomas Jefferson himself. These ersatz stepbrothers prove to be a collection of snarky assholes, poor siblings indeed, and so only serve to reinforce Carl’s sense of marginalization. Denied this second opportunity at family, denied his second attempt at confessing to Silas’s mother his role in her son’s death, Carl contemplates his power to mutate history—not through the traditional fantastical mechanisms, like time travel, but through the manufacture of online encyclopedia entries—strangely reassuring, in that this seems a game we can all play to distract from our own terrifying isolation.
“The Gnat Line” is my favorite story in the collection, and the most structurally complex. In seven numbered sections the story shifts perspectives from one convicted sex offender to another, all of whom, because of a Georgia law stipulating they can’t live within one-fifth of a mile of places children might congregate, find themselves living together in a camp on a tract of public land. The most sympathetic of the offenders is a middle-aged gay man named Stephen who, with a grief-addled mind after the death of his lover, attempts to kill himself with cocaine, and then coffee. The resulting heat flashes cause him to open up the windows, and then, in what might not simply be a matter of bad timing, stand naked at his living room window, the December air cooling his body “ripe with sweat” while a school bus stops to drop off a girl.
Stephen’s response to a sudden murder/suicide at the camp and the resulting chaos, the story’s pivot point, shows us something about our glitchy limbic system—sometimes we fight, sometimes we flee, and sometimes we cope with the horror of violence by guzzling one of the dead men’s malt beverages and drunkenly passing our eyes over the words in a novel. I found myself rooting for Stephen to get out from under the weight of his grief, or at least energize enough to plant his fist in the “soft pudgy face” of a guy named Bruce who had just thrown his book in the fire, saying, “Somebody’s got to show you how it is.” Instead Stephen stands there staring at Bruce, wondering at why he exposed himself like he did—I assume weighing the cosmic justice he masochistically desired against his sins. “Show me,” Stephen says in the last line of the story, “replying to what Bruce seemed to have already forgotten saying.”
There is no language to account for some experiences in this world. Fortunately I didn’t have to feel alone watching this, as I could feel McManus’s comforting authorial presence, the squeeze of his hand on my far shoulder, nodding his head at what he knows I’m feeling.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.