In the final story in “Praying Drunk,’’ we at last catch the note of Faulkner. “As I Lay Dying’’ resounds clearly in Kyle Minor’s “Lay Me Down in the Blue Grass’’ through the burial fantasy of a sorrowful figure, one of many in this grim yet terrific collection.
A woman wishes for a coffin cut from the family pines and carried to a “high place,” where her relatives will “lower box and body into the ground with knotted ropes.” Not only do the trek and title recall Faulkner’s saga, in which a Yoknapatawpha family attempts something similar, but so does the back-breaking ritual. “[G]rieving must be physical,” argues this woman, “mourning underscored by exertion.”
Faulkner isn’t everywhere in these 13 stories, but throughout we sense the exertions of Southern Gothic, from the farmer’s grunt to the preacher’s hosanna. Dixie particulars enliven even the dialogue and help to link Minor’s narratives, as do the recurring incidents, deepening our sense of the terrain. The happiest of such incidents, wouldn’t you know it, occurs during a funeral oration. In three stories, a pastor whips up biscuits as a metaphor for God’s love, combining bitter and sweet. Still, to replace the Gospel with a cookbook — again, it’s visceral.
While Minor’s title suggests the same grotesque seeking after Jesus as in Flannery O’Connor, he gives the seeking very different form. This text has an experimental design, a narrative echo chamber.
Not only do incidents recur, such as baked goods served over a casket, but also every piece in the first half discovers its twin in the second, revisiting an earlier character or tragedy. Returning to the scene of the crime both fills in narrative gaps and calls attention to the nature of story, prayerlike in its effort to heal.
The book’s strangest pair are two brief pieces titled simply “Q & A.” Neither one names its interlocutors, and the second creates a cartoon fantasy of heaven. This, too, features Dixie materials: God’s grace, hard liquor, and violence. More importantly both pieces directly consider storytelling “the same things turned over again and again, as though turning them again will bring some new insight.”
Other pieces share little more than similarities of voice. But then voice proves Minor’s second essential tool for refreshing the Gothic. “Glossolalia,” entirely dialogue, brings off the ironic combination of Pentecostal speaking in tongues and two lovers’ failure to communicate.
The collection’s masterpiece, the novella “In a Distant Country,” works in epistolary style through a wide array of correspondents. All are connected somehow to a troubled Baptist mission in Haiti, and their community portrait, thanks to Minor’s ventriloquism, achieves tragic stature.
The collection’s women characters suffer some from lack of development. In “Distant Country” the love object is seen only indirectly, and the girlfriend in “Glossolalia” never establishes what’s in the relationship for her. Still, the blurriness of the women’s identities seems fitting. It suggests that knowing God’s Word doesn’t help us know the Other (Haitians, among them), and leaves us all praying drunk, striving to connect.
Such striving defines Minor’s greatest vocal act, which comes in “Distant Country,’’ when this highly skilled artist composes a letter from a woman barely literate. The woman’s a widow, and on top of that she’s lost her daughter Sheila, yet she reaches out to the daughter of the man she once loved: “Maybe you could of been a daughter to me. I couldnt take the place of your real momma or your daddy and you couldnt take the place of my Sheila but we could of still been like family to one another. Maybe theres still time.’’
John Domini’s latest novel is “A Tomb on the Periphery.’’ He has a selection of criticism, “The Sea-God’s Herb,’’ due in May.