Praying Drunk, by Kyle Minor. Sarabande Books. 192 pages. $15.95, paper.
In Praying Drunk, his second book following In the Devil’s Territory (Dzanc Books, 2008), Kyle Minor forays beyond the realm of literary realist fiction and into conceptual work even as he makes hay from the material that literary fiction has monopolized: suicide, cancer/terminal illness, lives changed irrevocably by events lasting only seconds, travel to the third world, and so on. Gone are the homages to Munro and Chekhov, replaced by more playful experiments in short story structure. Praying Drunk, an at-times novel-like collection of ten years of different writing projects, bridges nicely the darker stories of Territory to Minor’s forthcoming first novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, a book that promises to be an exciting read.
Praying Drunk demonstrates a vast range of ability. For instance, the novelette “In a Distant Country” is a heart-pounding mystery told from seven different points of view in the form of letters zipping back and forth between Florida and Haiti. One can easily see it adapted for the screen, which, as Minor has suggested, isn’t out of the question.
Though like his fellow OSU alumni Donald Ray Pollock and Claire Vaye Watkins Minor writes semi- and outright autobiographical gritty realist stories about working class whites, his background in the church gives him license to be unique. Southern Baptists don’t often become writers, much less writers with three master’s degrees (Iowa most recently) and the level of discipline and attention to craft that come with them. Writing about people living in flyover country is important because until the prevalence of the MFA degree at state schools the only history we had of them were wills, old ledgers and diaries and photographs, and dried out Osage orange fence posts. Minor is, like his character Else Richter, in Territory, an escapee from behind enemy lines, in his case the insular, dogma-drenched fundamentalist South. He insinuates in a chapter of Praying Drunk that his erstwhile community has rejected him for his choice to become a writer. The tension from that schism resonates beautifully behind his stories.
Because he has things to say that almost no other author can say, Minor puts a premium on reaching readers. His writing style flows from snappy sentences to long, lyrical passages. Although he doesn’t do a lot of dialogue he does virtuoso work in point-of-view, as in the letter from Tina Brocken of Loxahatchee, Florida, to Miss Anna Ratliff, West Palm Beach, in “In a Distant Country:”
Sheilas daddy and me thought there was pros and cons of going to Haiti and not Europe. On the one hand it would be a good cultural uplifting experience to see Paris and London and Big Ben and the Eyeful Tower and that one class a few years back got to go to Omaha Beach where Sheilas granddaddy almost died fighting for our freedom that would be a good thing to see.
Characters and places reappear often. Minor’s universe comprises a set of autobiographical details told and retold as fiction or nonfiction interchangeably. A fundamentalist mother, a doting father, a working class upbringing in West Palm Beach, the Cherry Road Baptist Church and its school, a Principal Ratliff who uses his cuckolding as a teaching point about love and fidelity, a terrifyingly cruel (but intriguing) bully, an ancestral background in Kentucky, a bible college and a brief career in the Baptist ministry, mission work in Haiti, a stint in Columbus, a musician brother who lives hand-to-mouth, and two suicides in the family. Behind it all, steady as a heartbeat, is the sound of laughter, agonized but also free, ruthlessly shocked at how bullshit the world is—his world but also The World. It’s an enjoyable thing to hear as a reader. The funny in Minor’s work is so subtle that it’s almost not there. But it is there, and Minor cares about this element in his fiction. He’s told Used Furniture Review he hopes his upcoming novel is funnier than his earlier works, and he’s a fan of comedy podcasts.
Minor brings this subtext to bear most poignantly with reproductions of the language he soaked up as a child and student, words that one feels still leave him boggled at times, words like “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” The absurdity of going on about purity in late-stage capitalist America is what Praying Drunk is all about.
The book’s central image is a pair of white hands cupped around a black man’s tumorous junk. The author/narrator travels to Haiti as a missionary and the locals, incredibly, believe he has the power to heal the old man. The author/narrator knows he can’t but he lays on hands anyway and prays. He’s going to fake it until he makes it—the modus operandi of late-stage capitalist American life. The man’s penis grazes his wrist. It’s “as cold as a slab at the morgue.” His hands are covered in puss from the tumor. He knows he has already abandoned God but when nothing happens he discovers again what he has known all along, that God has abandoned him, too, and that one thing is just as meaningful as another. Later in the story, he writes, “I could see myself, in a few weeks, sitting on my couch in Florida, watching football. The job was over. There was no reason for me to stay.”
But the thing from this book that I can’t stop seeing is not this scene but rather one in which Minor, his brother, and this dude, Liam, and a couple other musicians drive around in a black SUV looking for places to do a band shoot. The story, “There is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville,” is absolutely devastating, layered with images of a decaying city and “borrowed Diesel jeans and tight black Western shirts” and little tidbits of action striking for the vapid materialism they betray:
Liam said he was hungry. We detoured to a soul food place around the corner. Liam said we all had to eat chitlins and we did. We ate and Liam talked and ate. He said his parents were missionaries. He said he was a missionary kid. He ate chitlins and said he fucked eight girls this week. He said somebody blew him while he was doing blow…He left the table for a few minutes and talked to some church ladies drinking coffee two tables over. They gave him hugs before he left their table. He came back and said, “Tell you what. These yellow tablecloths are the shizz.”
Indelible, perfect writing. Reading Minor trains you to always expect more story, and a page later Liam screws Minor’s brother out of thousands on a co-write credit for a hit song.
A couple of stories in this collection I felt had indulgent endings that had effects on me that I don’t think the author intended. In “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” for instance, the setting is quickly established, with strange specificity, as Friday, September 17, 2024. Many pages later I suddenly realized that I’d totally forgotten I was reading about the future. The payoff comes when story ends with a twist, but the twist doesn’t seem so innovative or dramatic if, like me, it makes you think of Cinco Boy.
Of note given the title of Minor’s next book is the role of sex in his work. In Territory, there is a sexual assault in a Kentucky field, affair intercourse where the scene ends before the underwear hits the floor, and a closeted gay priest who won’t reciprocate the blow job his wife gives him and his subsequent affair where, again, the camera remains in the hallway. Minor is capable of writing sexy stuff , but in Praying Drunk, there is even less sex, unless you count the noisy, unseen sex in “In a Distant Country” that advances the plot, or the frustrating relationship in the all-dialogue piece, “Glossolalia.” As the author/narrator asks on the second page, “What if sex was not, as my grandmother once asserted, a nasty thing forced upon her in the night, but rather a thing of love and passion?” What if?
Every story in this collection is satisfying, however. And, thankfully, with Minor, there is more story, then more. Minor recently told Vice magazine “I don’t think that stories about the lives of the people I came from, the people who were manipulated by power to back the George W. Bush regime and all its disasters, could be any more timely.”
Jeremy Hauck’s work appears in The Molotov Cocktail, Penduline Press, TINGE Magazine, and on the Ploughshares blog, among others. When he is not changing his and his wife’s newborn baby’s diaper in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he teaches essay writing at Temple University and dabs at a novel-slash-memoir about his Appalachian Trail thru-hike. On Twitter: @DickHumbird.