At 22, John McManus was the youngest recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award. You expect important things from an author whose previous story collections and novel (“Bitter Milk,” 2005) have been widely praised. His first book in a decade, “Fox Tooth Heart,” will impress readers, I suspect, although its nine stories won’t please everyone.
McManus’ characters are meth addicts, sadomasochists, registered sex offenders, even “teenage Satanist rest-area murderers.” Most of them live in the South — in Letcher and Pike counties in Kentucky, around Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in Atlanta, Yazoo City, Miami and Houston. They frequent gay bars and seek forgetfulness in the darkrooms of bathhouses. If underage, they hurt other boys for sexual pleasure or desire to be hurt. The book’s epigraph quotes a Tennessee Williams poem: “Cypress woods are demon-dark: / boys are fox-teeth in your heart.” The destructive impulses gnawing at McManus’ characters don’t ease until they black out from drugs and alcohol. Better to forget the past, they think. Yet in forgetting, they also remember.
In “Elephant Sanctuary,” Ike Bright Sr., a con man lying low near Texarkana, may or may not be involved in selling elephant tusks. It’s a hellish, rotten business where, among other things, a man offers his wife to Ike Jr., who himself may have left his cocaine-snorting girlfriend to die on a highway. Before blacking out (variations of the phrase appear over and over in the book), he tries to warn Gracie, the elephant, of what’s about to happen to her. Ike Jr., whose brain long ago “had ceased making new memories,” thinks that if he can save Gracie, then at least one earthly creature will remember him, for Elephants Never Forget. Perhaps Gracie is an alcohol-fueled illusion, though, a pink elephant.
In “Betsy From Pike,” a 12½-year-old lives with a sexually abusive neighbor who puts “her on Depo-Provera.” When the girl visits a veterinarian to inquire about her dog, she intends “to steal a shot of pentobarbital to use on” the molester. Like others in “Fox Tooth Heart,” she, too, suffers blackouts, hers caused by epileptic seizures. “All her life she’d been forgetting so much,” she thinks later in prison.
For McManus’ characters, remembering is the problem. Studying the elephants, Ike Sr. asks, “If you never forgot things, wouldn’t you want to die?”
A solution to the memory problem, the remembering, appears in redemptive moments near the end of “Bugaboo” and “Blood Brothers,” where self-acceptance and love hold the bad memories at bay.
McManus is a terrific writer. Regarding the “Southern decadence” in his stories, consider that Edgar Poe’s lunatics and sensualists also blacked out from opium, alcohol or fear; and that Tennessee Williams’ depraved neurotics, like the playwright himself, often ran from truths of the heart.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.