Exploring Kyle Minor’s “Praying Drunk” (2014)
Kyle Minor begins communicating with his readers even before the table of contents of his second published collection of short stories, Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books, 2014). A note advises readers to read the stories in order (like a novel) and ends with the warning, “DON’T SKIP AROUND.” An epigraph, a translation of a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, follows: “If I lose my demons, I will lose my angels as well.” This is Minor foreshadowing his perspective, which is somewhere between the sacred and the profane, but beholden to neither.
Minor’s stories are heroically unflinching expeditions into the geography of a painful existential borderland between belief and unbelief, which given their semi-autobiographical nature is also where he himself has lived. Minor has chosen seminal events from his life experience and worked them into tales that are often reworked in subsequent stories — hence the admonition to read straight through the book. These events come from his childhood, which was marked by a traumatic fundamentalist Christian upbringing and education (“You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace”), his early adult life, his family members (such as a musically-talented brother, in “There is Nothing but Sadness in Nashville”), his brief but intense experience as a pastor, and the time he spent among the people of Haiti (“Seven Stories about Sebastian of Koulev-Ville,” “In a Distant Country”). Even in the more fictional pieces, such as “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” a near-future science-fiction piece which Minor wrote in response to a request for a story involving a robot, one can find setting and plot elements (such as Kentucky and suicide) and themes (such as loss of faith) that are present in the more autobiographical ones.
Poetry’s connection to Minor’s prose runs much deeper than his Rilke citation. The title of this volume, as well as some of its section titles, is drawn from the poetry of Andrew Hudgins, specifically “Praying Drunk” and “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought” from The Never-Ending, which Minor advises his readers to “immediately seek out, buy, read, and treasure.” Minor’s “Seven Stories about Sebastian of Koulev-Ville” both quotes from and paraphrases “Praying Drunk.” One should heed Minor’s advice to immerse oneself in Hudgins’ poetry, not only for its own sake, but for the purpose of gaining deeper insight into Minor’s own work. Poetry is not just an inspiration for Minor, but an element of his craft. In a post on his blog entitled “Advice to My Younger Self,” a Rilke-like exercise, he recommends that the aspiring prose writer not only “write in other genres,” but also “study poetry as much as you study prose.”
As the book’s subtitle (“stories, questions”) intimates, Minor’s stories raise many questions. The second piece, “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace,” considers the question of whether or not suffering is rewarded by joy and peace. Its narrator reflects on the connections between his terrifying experiences as a bullied Christian school student and the frustration of his attempts as a young adult to overcome the trauma of severe abuse and to care for others. The stories in the remainder of the first section, “I Wish My Soul Were Larger than It Is,” and in the second, “As I Fall Past, Remember Me,” raise other thorny questions about the apparent futility and meaninglessness of human existence and experience. In addition, Minor includes two pieces, each entitled “Q & A,” which are imagined conversations between writer and reader. In the first, Minor defines the writer’s task as a kind of meaning-making: “to identify the distance between the story we’ve been telling ourselves about our lives” and “the story that experience is revealing about our lives, the story that is more true.” Although the “facts are the same in both versions of the story,” it is the “the reckoning that changes. The narrative itself is the reckoning.” This is one reason that Minor will “often tell the same story two or three different ways,” as he does in this volume: “It’s not done with me yet. I forgot something important, or I hadn’t learned it yet.” An example is the book’s coda, “Lay Me Down in the Blue Grass,” which revisits the themes of theodicy, suicide, mourning, and meaning-making to voice an important new learning in its final paragraph:
The day Danny was born, Dan saw that the boy had no fingers on his right hand. Dan cursed God and drove away into a storm. He says a bolt of lightning struck a telephone pole and an arc of blue electricity briefly danced upon the hood of his car before dissipating into the ground. Tonight it is dark on our mountain, and we are far enough from the city lights to see the milky plenitude. To be sure, we are hoping for a sign. The distances between stars are now calculable but what passes for mourning is harder to measure. We have photographs and folklore. We have words and hands. We can sell the cherry tree. We can fix the water pump. We can build a new dam. We can dredge a new path for the creek and make it a canal. We can shout out into the quiet of the hollow and hear our own voices echoing: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The words come back plaintive, longing.
Disclosure: I obtained a pre-publication copy of Mr. Minor’s book through a subscription to the Rumpus Book Club, for which I paid a monthly subscription fee. I also participated in an online chat between the author and the club’s members on November 25, 2013. The review above is an edited version of the original, which was posted first to one of my legacy blogs.