The rich, brutal history of Kansas ignites — and propels — the eight stories that make up Andrew Malan Milward’s accomplished second collection, “I Was a Revolutionary.” Following the author’s debut, “The Agriculture Hall of Fame: Stories,” this new collection begins with the bloody 1863 raids of William Quantrill and then integrates other pivotal moments in Kansas history, including the gruesome 2009 murder of George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was shot dead while at church in Wichita.
In addition, Milward tackles highly charged issues of identity, race, and sex. Despite the dramatic nature of this subject matter, the emotional tenor of contemporary fiction — quiet loneliness, heartbreak, and despair — preside over these inventive stories. At first glance, it’s a lot to take on, particularly in the short-story form, but Milward pulls it off.
In the opener, “The Burning of Lawrence,” the narrative is broken into 16 sections, toggling between distilled moments of the Quantrill raids and a history major and her relationship with a fellow undergrad who will soon be deployed to the Middle East. Similar to David Means’s wonderful short story “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” the enumeration creates narrative pauses, allowing the reader to gather her breath and reflect on the deliberate juxtaposition of time on the page. The skillful interplay generates an unexpected energy of the zeal and realities of war — both in the distant past and on today’s front lines.
“At first it seems the majority of the dead are colored, but they’re mostly charred white men,” writes Milward about the raid’s aftermath. “All over town, long wailing cries trouble the air like the caterwauling of animals in the rut. A makeshift hospital is raised in the only church that survived the onslaught, but the remaining doctor is little more than mortician and bartender, dispensing whiskey to the newly amputated or slowly dying.”
“The Americanist” places John Romulus Brinkley, a scheming doctor advertising a cure for male impotence with injections of goat testicles, alongside a failing relationship between two aging men: Michael is floundering to find work after losing his archivist job, and Will works in Tiller’s Women’s Health Care Services. In the meantime, historical echoes from the preceding stories ring out with Michael’s ties with Kansas history and obsession with Brinkley’s story. It makes for a strange coupling of material, but Milward effectively animates the protagonist’s inability to love his partner. His isolation and loneliness are further compounded by the reader’s knowledge of future events that will unfold for Tiller and the clinic.
“Hard Feelings” recounts an African-American family during tumultuous times, rotating perspectives among the parents, brother, and sister over 18 years. Once again, the historical layers of the Sunflower State are at play here. “We turn onto Mass Street, driving slowly past South Park, where there’s some sort of demonstration going on,” writes Milward about the son who has turned into a liberal activist. “A hundred years ago, this was the street Quantrill’s guerrillas rode up and down, looting stores and killing townsfolk in the name of the Confederacy. The [stuff] you remember from school, even when you’ve dropped out.” Taken altogether, the story exhibits novelistic qualities of scope and depth, but the author deftly manages to compress the intergenerational tension and damage of war, race, and politics into 25 pages.
The title story concludes this impressive collection in what the reader comes to expect from Milward — the past, the present, and all of the human complexity in between. “I Was a Revolutionary” charts the downward trajectory of an untenured professor and former activist through the last stages of his broken marriage. All of the tropes of academic narrative emerge, but nothing about the story is clichéd: The professor sleeps with the edgy student; the ex-wife gets a choice teaching position at an Ivy League school; the professor gets fired. Instead, historical milestones and movements illuminate the character’s interior life and throw the preceding stories into sharper relief.
The aggregate of this collection is powerful. The stories create a kind of conversation with each other that produces a satisfying symmetry and cohesion to the overall narrative. By its conclusion, the reader is left considering many questions of history, identity, race, and how we retell these stories to others and ourselves.
I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY: Stories
By Andrew Malan Milward
HarperCollins, 247 pp., $24.99