Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor

Praying Drunk BY Kyle Minor. Sarabande Books. Paperback, 192 pages. $15.
The cover of Praying Drunk

“These stories are meant to be read in order,” notes the disclaimer that opens Minor’s latest. “This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.” Readers would do well to abide by this petulant command, since Praying Drunk plays out like a concept album for which someone has pondered the arrangement of tracks and how certain tonal or thematic patterns surface, submerge, and reappear. There are epic barnstormers, minor-key ballads, and no small amount of filler. Unfortunately, the collection fails to pull together in a way that truly justifies Minor's opening caveat; despite a commandingly raw, poetic voice, these stories read like a succession of experimental false starts.

Minor’s main subject is death, and death comes often here: at the barrel of a shotgun; wrought by angry Haitians during a mid-’80s uprising near a missionary outpost. (The aptly named “There Is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville” opens with a terse, two-word sentence: “Another suicide.”) Minor's secondary subject is the ways in which literature tries (and generally fails) to transform all of life's tragedies—the bully-beatings, the chronically wayward siblings, the overdoses—into something cathartic, or at least more manageable. His stories are therapy machines, ones that open their own hoods and invite readers to inspect the emotional sleight-of-hand. They are all circling the same, presumably autobiographical source material, testing out different tactics—the interview format, sci-fi, epistolary exchanges between Christian functionaries—in an attempt toward personal resolution. One is left with the feeling that fiction is not the best vehicle for such a thing; or that if Minor found a more discrete way to sublimate his own traumas, he might then be able to move forward, toward better stories.

Praying Drunk recycles and recirculates a handful of traumas, passing derivations of an anecdote from one character to the next, with slight alterations: the same nephew shoots himself in the head; the same homeless woman is found, dead beneath a sheet in the street. In “Q&A,” a two-part interlude set in heaven, an anonymous interviewer asks “Why do you often tell the same story two or three different ways?” Minor (or Minor's narratorial stand-in) responds, “It's not done with me yet. I forgot something important, or I hadn't learned it yet.” As a result, most of the pieces in this collection are provisional, inchoate. They are sketches toward understanding. This might be intentional, but it doesn’t always make for good reading. “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace” focuses on the narrator's schoolyard bludgeonings at the hands of one Drew McKinnick, a junior sadist with a knack for bloody wedgies. The narrator in this instance is a young Kyle Minor. “I tried, a few times, and less as less as years went by, to tell this story,” he writes. “But no friend ever wanted to hear this story. The past, they would say, is the past. Or: That was a long time ago. Get over it. Or: Nobody likes victim stories.” It's admittedly hard not to side with these anonymous peer-critics; or rather, to expect the author to have moved on—not to have forgotten, necessarily, but to have built something better, more considered and nuanced, to recall this lingering childhood hardship.

The best stories in Praying Drunk are those that stray from the overly earnest and diaristic mode. “The Truth and All Its Ugly” finds Minor stretching his legs a bit, adapting the recurring trope of a nephew's suicide for a futuristic America where families can scan their loved ones and re-create them later in case of death. The piece owes a bit too much to George Saunders, Ben Marcus, or any other purveyor of the quirky and quasi-post-apocalyptic—we're in the aftermath of “the African wars”; our narrator “got radiation poisoning from the Arabs in Yemen”; the nephew, reprinted as a five-year old facsimile, cuts himself, exposing sad robot circuitry—but the retreat from heart-on-sleeve realism makes this one of the collection’s most effective pieces. “In a Distant Country” is also a stand-out, the story of an ill-considered love affair told via letters between missionaries in Haiti and church officials. It’s something of a companion piece to “Seven Stories About Sebastian of Koulev-Ville,” about the uneasy alliance between a foreigner and a Haitian hustler.

The vignettes are evocative, but too often they lack movement and energy, making Praying Drunk a mixed bag. At times Minor seems defensive of his own liminal stance. In the second part of “Q&A” we come close to the book’s mission statement:

Q: What is the purpose of this book?
A: A catalog of stories and sadnesses, beginnings and endings, the stuff of childhood, death. Nothing new can happen here, so all you do is think about the days of life when possibility hadn't been ripped from your forever, when anything could happen, and wonder why so much was squandered, so much wasted.

By constructing such a catalog of despair in a nebulous zone between meta-fiction and memoir, Minor unintentionally proves his point. His is a prayer that, however well-intentioned, rings hollow, and offers little that can be considered new.

Scott Indrisek is the executive editor of Modern Painters; he also runs Shit My Cats Read, a website for which two kittens review books and interview authors such as Chris Kraus, Tao Lin, Sam Lipsyte, and others.