Reviewed by Glenn Deutsch
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press 172 pp. Sept. 2020
When I was making my way towards literary writing from careers in journalism and corporate communications, I dipped my toe into the serious waters by taking courses at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. There were only five or six students in the week-long class I took with John McNally, including a guy John Waters might have cast if he had directed Goodfellas. We were too few, not well-read enough, and our exercises too unpromising for workshops, so John came in each day with photocopied short stories and took us through how the writers achieved their effects on the page. Before that week, I’d read John’s debut collection, Troublemakers, which I liked for its clean style and Chicago Southwest Side characters and settings, which reminded me of my teenage years on Long Island. Equally important, he worked his butt off leading a class that probably looked more like detention than a gathering of adults with literary aspirations. In hindsight, this was the point at which I needed to see the importance of work ethic in imaginative writing. Toward the week’s end, I wrote six pages of something that seemed like a story, but it was too late to share in class. The last day, I was at a payphone in the student union dealing with bullshit back at work, and John walked in. I cupped my hand over the mouthpiece and asked if he’d read new stuff. He agreed—again, that work ethic—and his comments helped me develop a story that would get me into Western Michigan University’s creative writing program, and its way into print. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve shared his work with students and friends, though maybe not enough, considering what he did for me. Now, not that it will necessarily make up for missed opportunities, I’m here to say John McNally’s new story collection has reenergized me as a reader and a writer, and I fully expect it will exert those powers on you.
One of the hardest-working serious writers in creation, McNally’s oeuvre includes two earlier collections, three novels, a memoir, three writing guides, and six anthology editorships in twenty years. As he’s mentioned on social media, next up is a textbook/reader on point of view.
Marvelous in light of McNally’s pending mavenhood, the opening story in The Fear of Everything is “The Magician,” which deploys perhaps the boldest of all POVs: the collective first person retrospective. The “we” in this exemplar are sixth-grade boys, who all have a crush on the same girl and all consider their classmate Stu Bronson:
cool, cooler than any of us, and far more handsome, with his blue eyes and dark, curly hair. He was in love with Katy Muldoon too, maybe even more than we were in love with her, and Katy loved that Stu loved her. We saw it in the way she blushed after he whispered to her, in the way she snuck glances at him during test time, and in the way she’d reach up to touch the scar on her forehead when she spoke to him, as though she were feeling it pulse in sync with her racing heart.
The story centers on a surprise class visit by a magician. McNally has long mined the theme of adolescent longing, which he successfully fuses here with magic realism. As for “Stu Bronson,” I’m only speculating, but it’d be an almost impossible trick for McNally to pedestal himself beside the most exalted of all contemporary Chicago-identified authors, Stuart Dybek, who for around half a century has written alpha male protagonists, and who a decade or two ago bore a passable resemblance to the 1970s tough-guy actor Charles Bronson. In naming his character after them, McNally has pulled off a doppelgänger allusion—in my reading anyway.
McNally is successfully ambitious in various ways across these nine new stories. In “The Lawyer,” he gives perhaps the most frighteningly twisted reasoning to a character since John Milton wrote Satan himself. Karen Hayes, the first-person protagonist, is referred by a former boyfriend to Taylor Lewis, Esq., for help in fighting a rather steep speeding ticket. It turns out Lewis presently represents corporations against animal-rights groups. In a three-and-a-half page (950-word) monologue, he recounts his life and career. “God is rewarding me,” he tells Hayes:
for all the good work I did putting child molesters in prison. I already paid my dues. I prevented countless other molestations. So what does God do? He offers me a taste of the forbidden fruit at no charge. He offers me my best friend’s daughter. He offers me money. He, not Satan, is the snake, and the Tree of Knowledge is my law firm. What I taste in my mouth isn’t sulfur. What I taste is flesh.
It’d be a crime to reveal the ending other than to say Hayes’s meeting with the devil ends in a paradise lost.
The title story is a Beckettian tragicomedy that opens, disconcertingly, with a clichéd midlife crisis. Larry, fifty-two, a newly single “solid B-minus of a man,” calls it quits as a bank vice-president to become a retail clerk, grows a handlebar mustache, shaves his head, gets one arm tattooed “Hey” and the other one “Baby,” and buys a Mustang convertible. At night, Larry toils away on OKCupid. He’s amenable to a ménage à trois with a married couple, a man and a woman, but then finds out one of them suffers from “pantophobia: the fear of everything.” The condition also can be defined—I looked it up—as “a vague and persistent dread of some unknown evil.” It also has other names—panphobia, omniphobia, panophobia—but given the plot, only “pantophobia” is bleakly funny when you say it out loud. “The Fear of Everything” suggests our essential natures are immutable. We forever are what we were. For writers reading McNally in order to learn from him, how he gets that across, through Larry, is what’s uplifting.
“The Phone Call,” a work of post-genre speculative fiction, appeared in 2012’s Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle. The tale not only conjures the seeming unreality of death, but also suspends, unsettlingly, the materiality of setting. A man and his mother hold the same receiver, though separated by time and space. Along with rising eeriness and grief, McNally serves up mordant observations. At one point, upon hearing sad news, a woman’s “face droops, as if sympathy and muscle control are incompatible.”
McNally also commingles genres in “The Creeping End,” the only story that left me a little cold, but which plays nonetheless to his strength at conveying gesture and mood in a lean sentence. A detective named Jankowicz finds 7,142 photos of the same penis on a dead man’s phone. Ruminating in his unmarked squad car about an art class he once took, where the instructor “saw penises in every painting he showed them,” Jankowicz recalls breaking up with a girlfriend that same semester: “After she delivered the news, she reached over and pulled a thread off his shirt, as though cleaning him up before sending him out into the world alone.”
Evil, religious extremism, misogyny, and immigrant identity, as well as regional identity during the Civil War, are among the themes of “The Devil in the Details,” a Southern Gothic–influenced near-novella set in southern Illinois, beginning in 1853. McNally deftly shows the consciousness of the protagonist, Mary Flynn, maturing as she grows from age ten to eighteen in unmerciful circumstances. The sweep, the violence, the setting: the tale cries out to be read in one sitting—and cinematized for those who fail to read it. “The Devil in the Details” also is one of two pieces in the collection that involve a child’s relationship with a hostile father and outcast grandfather figure.
The other is “The Blueprint of Your Brain,” which, moreover, like “The Phone Call,” involves an unreliable or delusive phone connection. A boy named Jimmy uses a new phone service that links latchkey kids to elderly people; before long he tells his parents he wants a white German shepherd like his phone “grandpa” has:
The next day, Jimmy’s father came home with a dog. The dog was white, but that’s where the similarities between it and Perry’s shepherd ended. While Perry’s shepherd must have been eighty pounds, this one looked about ten. Eleven pounds tops.
Jimmy was sitting on the couch, eating pretzels from a bag. He stopped eating and said,
“It’s your dog,” his father said, still holding the leash.
Jimmy said, “It’s not a white shepherd.”
“You know what?” Jimmy’s father said. “Sometimes people go to the car dealership wanting to buy a red two-door car, but all they’ve got in stock is a blue four-door. So that’s what people buy. That’s how the world works, Jimmy.”
“What kind of dog is it?” Jimmy asked.
“A miniature American Eskimo.”
“Isn’t that a person?” Jimmy asked.
His father said, “Does it look like a person?” He shook his head, let go of the leash, and walked out of the room.
McNally also serves his glum with wry. In “The Next Morning,” the narrator makes multiple trips up a hill with a handcart to move his ex into her new house, wrecking one knee. An orthopedist diagnoses a torn meniscus after twisting the knee once and listening to him howl:
“Do I need an MRI?” I asked. “How do you know?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I teach grade school.”
“Okay then,” the doctor said, perking up. “If you see a boy with a big wet spot on his crotch, do you know what happened?” He smiled.
I said nothing.
The doctor said, “Let’s get you scheduled for a surgery. […] You’ll be in and out of there before you know it.” He clapped my back and said, “It’s possible the boy spilled soda on himself, but this? It’s a torn meniscus.”
In the more introspective, close-third-person “Catch and Release,” Jason’s chief flaw as a boyfriend is “the penchant to cling”; his “devotion often came across as pathetic desperation.” He’s like that too when trying to domesticate feral kittens in his backyard. Grief, long a leitmotif of McNally’s fiction, is literalized in the form of a dead possum that “had been run over so many times […] [i]t looked as though the road itself had begun to sprout a patch of fur.” The sight of it:
brought to mind all those times Jason rode his bike in grade school past dead animals, so many dead animals that he became immune to the sight of them—unless it was a dog or a cat, in which case he would stop his bike, get off, and check for a collar. If there was a collar and a tag identifying the owner, he would find the owner’s house and, like a miniature soldier during wartime, deliver the unfortunate news of the death to the person who answered the door. Often, the response was anger or disbelief. Sometimes, it would be laughter, as though his presence were part of a larger gag orchestrated by friends. Occasionally, the response was hysteria, and Jason would watch as his existence to the bereaved disappeared entirely in the face of grief. More than one grade school teacher had told his mother that he tried too hard.
There’s a twist, meanwhile, in Jason’s relationship with a lover named Marie; suffice it here to quote: “Jason knew why he loved her. It was a simple thing, really. He felt he’d known her his entire life, or at least since they were children, even though they’d met only six weeks ago.”
Often for McNally’s characters, the remedy for grief is to imagine the future. So it is for Jason; he envisions a brand new housemate—who “looked unlike anyone he had ever met”—as “someone from his future, someone he would meet and fall in love with one day.” Sadder still, the son in “The Phone Call” needs to tell his mother “about the life she always dreamed of, the life he’ll never live, and he can tell by the way she laughs or sighs that she’s happy about how her son’s future will turn out.”
Around the time I was reading The Fear of Everything, I came across a blog post about the coronavirus pandemic by a Minnesota therapist named Leah Corder. I highlighted: “The feelings that we feel as we navigate this new world—anger, frustration, exhaustion, confusion, depression, anxiety, to name a few—all fall under the umbrella of grief. We are collectively grieving the loss of what used to be and what should have been.” The same is essentially true for John McNally’s characters in this superb collection. That they have those feelings sans viral pandemic is why a reader will almost magically forget the dread that lies beyond its covers.
A former managing editor of Men’s Health and former editor of Third Coast, Glenn Deutsch’s prose has appeared in Post Road, Confrontation, and The Literary Review, among journals, and in other publications including Poets & Writers, Harper’s Bazaar, and Newsday. Following twelve years at two Michigan colleges where he taught creative writing, journalism, and literature, he left academia in 2018 to write full time. He and his wife and rising sixth-grader live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where summer camps began emailing in mid-May to announce they’re canceled due to COVID-19.