Robert Garner McBrearty has authored two previous collections, A Night at the Y and Episode, winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award. In this third collection, published by Conundrum Press, McBrearty continues to prove himself a master storyteller.
His stories tend to be about isolated people hacking it out, doing their best to feel upbeat about things, reinventing themselves if necessary, clutching onto imaginative possibilities. The urgrund of McBrearty’s fictive world is invariably the absurd: a primordial principle of chaos—the anomalous, the bizarre—governing the nature of the human lot, often originating from without, but sometimes from within. Out of his rich sense of the absurd, McBrearty creates a comic vision that swings between two poles: the zany, outrageous, and the more subtle, sometimes darkly comic.
The zany is certainly represented by McBrearty’s farce “The Dishwasher.” Here, a young college man tries to put the best possible face on his dishwashing job:
I’m a dishwasher in a restaurant. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m not bragging. It’s just what I do. It’s not the glamorous job people make it out to be.
Note the voice—self-dramatizing, quasi-brassy—reflecting one hallmark of McBrearty’s energetic prose style: staccato, clipped, well suited to capture the improbable, the loony. Indeed, this dishwasher’s vision of his job as glamorous and prestigious in the public eye is so outrageously at odds with the facts that one might suspect verbal irony, but no, he believes what he’s saying—or, at least, he wants to believe. Yet to judge this character as merely delusional is to miss the point of the dramatic irony: the importance of mythmaking, something McBrearty’s characters often resort to in order to create a world closer to the heart’s desire. One feels the human need here to clutch onto fantasies that redeem one from the oppressive—and, in this case, chaotic—quotidian. If the characters themselves are not in touch with this truth, as is so often the case with farce and satire, McBrearty’s readers surely are.
Mythmaking takes the form of reinvention of self in “The Helmeted Man,” a more darkly comic story. Here, McBrearty insightfully deals with the slippery line between memory and imagination. Like other middle-aged characters in McBrearty’s fiction, Alex feels his life has stalled out, and so he has “coasted” on his memory of an important event in his life—stopping a robbery in progress. As he revisits and rethinks this seminal event in a college composition assignment, he realizes how much his imagination had shaped, and indeed recreated, his memory. An eerie sense that nothing is quite what we, and others, make of it undergirds this story and provides a dark counterpart to a number of quirky elements that give it its forward thrust. And yet McBrearty makes us see that we sometimes need our mythmaking to give us a sense of dignity and self-worth.
In “The Acting Class,” a much darker story, McBrearty’s protagonist, who has a penchant for telling stories, skillfully weaves the fabric of an imagined past for his girlfriend, Annie, who thrives on an adventurous spirit. His “whopper of a lie,” about Vietnam—he’d never been in the military at all—piques his girlfriend’s interest, and, in fact, the more he amps up his story with romance and tragic loss, the more emotionally affected and the more in love with him she becomes. If, when she discovers the lie, she ends the relationship, he later realizes that she had, in reality, depended on his mythmaking. Notice the lyrical passage that closes the story:
Once, we fell madly in love for a day or two. Finally she slipped away for good, fell into that void where old friends and lovers go, lost to time. But, after all, she’d never really been mine. She’d loved a man who stared down tigers, and I would forever be a poor substitute for him.
This is a second arm of McBrearty’s prose style—a voice plaintive, impassioned, haunting. In this story, one senses an undertow of desperate pathological need (a primary setting for the story is, after all, a mental hospital), one that becomes drug-like and destructive. We can’t help but see that McBrearty’s mythmaking has two sides: the light and the dark—the innocent and the potentially corruptive.
The darkest story in this collection is represented in the title story, where a misfit, who feels slighted in life, captures a woman’s children and declares themselves a “family.” His victory is short-lived, and life isn’t likely to get better for this man. Clearly this deluded individual is a target for McBrearty’s dramatic irony, and yet we can’t help but feel, as we do in all his stories in varying degrees, a shared sense of humanity. McBrearty doesn’t create totally unreliable narrators or protagonists who are subject to ridicule. Even if they make life more chaotic and absurd than it needs to be, we can’t help but enter into their imaginative visions, get caught up in their problems, and feel sympathy, or at least empathy, for their plights—even that of the misfit, who stakes everything on getting his own way.
McBrearty’s comedy comes in different packages. It’s sometimes the oddity or quirkiness of character, as in his own version of Crane’s “The Open Boat”—“Hello Be Thy Name”—where Hooter, an innocent, well-intentioned, life-affirming hippie, does his best to cheer up his fellow life-boaters, regardless of how dismal and hopeless their prospects of being saved. Sometimes it’s the oddity of incident, as in “The Dishwasher,” or in “First Day,” where a young man, like Sisyphus, has to push around a “big thing” his first day as a warehouse dock worker. And often it’s the juxtaposition of language. McBrearty’s prose style, ripe with linguistic surprises, is well attuned to his comic vision. Here’s an example from “Houston, 1984,” where urban violence has raged during the hot summer:
“The cops don’t even come out unless you get killed. Do you want an aspirin?”
“Do you have a gun? We could go after them ourselves.”
“I don’t have a gun.”
“I’ll take an aspirin.”
This is McBrearty—bizarre juxtaposition, a third stylistic beacon in his forceful prose style. We run on to these language surprises, and laugh. Sometimes, in the midst of dire circumstances, here suddenly comes the jarringly comic. McBrearty’s take on the world isn’t philosophically nihilistic, or absurdist in the sense that nothing makes any sense, though it certainly plays with the possibility.
Jack Smith's novel Hog to Hog won the 2007 George Garrett Fiction Prize and was published by the Texas Review Press in 2008. His articles, reviews, and interviews have been published in numerous literary magazines and publications.
Let the Birds Drink in Peace
Robert Garner McBrearty
Conundrum Press, 2011
$14.99 paperback, ISBN: 0971367825