About two-thirds through Praying Drunk, a widow and seasoned survivor of missionary tragedies follows up a list of brutal deaths with this curious line: “I don’t know what to do with any of it.” She wants her moribund world to make sense, but is given nothing. Kyle Minor’s new book of short stories is so full of death that eventually his characters are pushed to this, a sort of nihilistic throwing up of hands. There is so much destruction and so few reasons for it, Minor seems to be wearing down the reader or at least slowly preparing them for their own inevitability. Seems.
The total effect of the book does, however, respond to this helplessness. And Minor, it becomes clear, does know what to do with those brutalities. He has a plan, even if his characters don’t. Minor fights loss and its meaningless by implementing a multitude of perspectives. One story in the collection—one about the death of wayward son who kills himself in a drug-induced plea for redemption—gets several retellings. The boy, the dad, and (a version of) Minor himself all weigh in. Why? Minor is not repeating himself out of apathy or lack of material. These retellings reopen the boy’s life and unearth secrets that loved ones knew about the doomed boy. They provide new information. Minor seeks to walk around the tragedy and view it from many mindsets because in doing so, he’ll know what happened, know why it happened, know, hopefully, what it all means. And that’s his answer to tragedy: to know it completely. For to know is to no longer fear it. It’s immersion therapy.
Like in the first story, “The Question of Where to Begin,” Minor, as writer (and God, a little bit) takes the reader on a mission to figure out, as the title suggests, the origin of the story of when his uncle shot himself—yes, another death. The prose flies through the uncle’s life, recent and distant past, and then into his parent’s life—Minor’s grandparents. And then back and further back into Kentucky’s history, and then America’s, and then Man’s in the primordial ooze. And then he turns the blame on himself, asking why to share it this way, ending the story with a glimpse into the beautiful but imagined life his uncle might have lived. And by that point, there’s no need to begin anywhere; the reader now knows the uncle and understands what it means to lose him. That’s the great—trick? mystery? remedy?— that Praying Drunk offers. Just like inoculations are bits of the virus itself, Minor solves the problem of suffering by staring at the sufferer.
This thematic weight accumulates in part due to the structure of the book, which feels like there is a music quality to it. Or, more appropriately, there is an album quality to the book. There are two distinct parts—”I Wish My Soul Were Larger Than It Is” and “As I Fall Past, Remember Me”—that work almost as sides of a record, each with its big “single”—the two Haiti-based stories—and each with a separate appeal back to the heart of the book. Between each story, there’s a black, a barrier, working like the end of the track, the part where the boombox makes the mechanical whirr and moves on. The first story opens like a call to arms at the beginning of a good punk record. There’s a little Q&A story on each half that echoes those moments on records where the musicians are discussing the song they are about to play—an in-studio conversation. And like a vinyl enthusiast, Minor pleads at the beginning, in a Note to the Reader, that these stories are meant to be read in order since it is a book, not just a collection.
This purpose mostly works out, but that is perhaps the most obvious detraction from the book. Occasionally the stories don’t complete themselves, they only open a different kind of dialogue with other parts of the book. The Haiti stories most fully reach the end of the traditional story, while the others point around, running on synergy but not their own energy. I can’t imagine what it would mean to read one of these alone and outside of the book. And a few just fall flat in the face of other big motifs working; for example, “Glossolalia,” an all-dialogue story about a guy unintentionally ruining his relationship with a Christian girlfriend, can’t really extend its themes of God to the rest of the book nor does it really arrive at any new feeling other than the frustration the first page hinted at. In essence, Minor traffics in such gritty and full ideas that it becomes clear when stories can’t rise to the occasion. But these stumbles are rare in the book. Minor is powerful writer, capable of confident prose and vulnerable subject matter. Add to this Minor’s deft control of his dynamic structure and it becomes clear that Minor and his approach to both telling stories isground-breaking and exciting.