We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.
Now we may proceed to the aftermath. The removal of the body from his bedroom. The cleanup. The reading of the will. The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida. The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.
But the beginning is not satisfactory. The mourners are now parsing their theories of why. Did you know that he was brain-damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago? Look at his children grieving in the front pew of the funeral room. Why wouldn't they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money? Had his settlement money run out? And where is his ex-wife? Why couldn't she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?) Do you think it's true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge? ("The Question of Where We Begin," p. 3)
Kyle Minor's second collection, Praying Drunk, is not one of those collections where you can choose an interesting title at random and read out of ToC order. He admonishes readers who are considering to do this in his introduction, noting that there is a careful arrangement of stories whose themes, situations, settings, and characters build a larger narrative and thematic structure with each successive story. There certainly are resonances that can be found in reading these stories in sequential order that would be lost if the reader were to skip from the opening "The Question of Where We Begin" to say the opening section of Part II, "There Is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville," a title that immediately grabbed the attention of this native of the metro Nashville region. Tempting as it was to skip ahead, after completing the collection, it was worth it to hold off until the preceding stories had been read.
Praying Drunk is not a light-hearted affair. The opening story, "The Question of Where We Begin," immediately sets the mood for the collection with its description, through a backwards chain of events and questions, of a life "lost," of all of the things that could have been and weren't. Minor early on discusses chance and this statement establishes the tenor for the following tales:
"But this, chance, isn't story. Chance doesn't satisfy the itch story scratches, or not chance entirely. Story demands agency. But whose?" ("The Question of Where We Begin," p. 4)
In subsequent stories, this issue of chance/agency is explored in several ways. In the apparently autobiographical second story, "You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace," Minor relates a tale of middle school bullying. As he meticulously describes the torments and rages against this verbal and physical intimidation, the narrator makes the following observation years later as a friend of his dies:
"I didn't want to know. If this, dear reader, was a story like the kind I'd like to write, maybe there would have been a miracle. Most likely. Tony would die, but something else miraculous would happen. There would be a turn toward beauty that would reflect the joy-from-sadness in the prophet Isaiah's words, the comfort: You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace.There are no easy outs for Minor's characters. Again and again, they go through life's wringer, transformed into something else, not particularly better, if they survive. Yet despite these travails, despite these losses of faith, despite the failures to communicate with those they most desperately want to connect, Minor's characters persevere. There is the sense of something that moves many of them to strive forward, to try to create at least the illusion of agency in their lives. It is this quality that relieves the darkness, albeit temporarily in some cases, of their situations and makes these stories worth considering at length.
But I can't do it. Not this time." (p. 26)
In reading the thirteen stories in this collection, I was struck by the thematic and stylistic similarities that these tales had with Flannery O'Connor, Brian Evenson, and Donald Ray Pollock. In particular, the crises of faith that several of the characters have, such as the preachers who abandon their pulpits and perhaps their faith, reminds me in their execution of these scenes of several of O'Connor's stories, especially "The River." Minor's use of stark, often violent backdrops reminded me of Evenson and Pollock, particularly in the connections between violent ends and metaphysical matters. The sharp, emotionally raw prose creates this sense of creeping apocalypse, of doom coming to the characters. By the collection's end, as Minor revisits some of the characters introduced beforehand, the reader is left feeling as though she has been on a harrowing and yet ultimately rewarding experience. Praying Drunk, with its allusions to the unfocused faith of the semi-repentant sinner, is one of the more powerful collections that I have read in some time. Highly recommended.