You are admonished, upon opening this book: "DON'T SKIP AROUND." And indeed, as the note to the reader explains, this is not just a collection of stories. It is a performance — a reckoning, really — taking the facts of a life through the permutations of narrative in one form and then another until they make a sort of sense or at least a good story.
At the center of it all is someone named Kyle Minor, from a tough Kentucky family just a whiff away from hillbilly, who transcends his rough beginnings only to revisit them as a writer — looking this way and that at his "material" and then at his way of looking at it. This may sound self-reflexive in the extreme (and it is), but it also produces some profoundly moving stories, and somehow manages to make the process of doing so moving as well — no mean feat.
One of the stories that recurs is that of the 12-year-old Kyle being brutally bullied, and being haunted by it — not just the experience but the failure to find a way to tell it — until now. And even now, the story has to be retold, from a different angle. As a voice in one of the Q & A sections of the book says, "It's the reckoning that changes. The narrative itself is the reckoning. The choices you make about what is or isn't significant, and what it all comes to mean."
The other recurring story is of suicide (there are plenty: One story begins, "Another suicide") — a boy, the nephew of the narrator's wife in at least one instance. Seen from any angle — once even from a futuristic perspective involving robotic reproduction that, in a grotesquely humorous way, makes no difference — this is a painful picture of a family self-destructing, sparing the one member whose sad task it is to bear witness.
Another strain running through the book involves a mission in Haiti — only ever so loosely linked to the other stories, although in the telling of one tale, through a series of letters from parties once removed from the main drama, the need that drives the narrative finds its most forceful expression.
At one point the narrator, compelled to pray, recalls the ending of a poem (the poem that gives this book its title, as it happens), where a "drunk, praying, thinks of himself as an old-time cartoon character, a poor jerk who wanders out on the air and then looks down." It's a fitting image for this book, for Kyle Minor's remarkable writing, which maintains the illusion of moving forward, even as it shows us the chasm below.
Ellen Akins teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University http://www.writingfdu.org