Born On A Train, the fine second collection of stories by 24-year-old John McManus, is psychologically complex, grotesquely humorous, and beautifully ugly. The author, who hails from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, has a terrific ear for the cadences and debased grammar of contemporary speech. His stories dramatize the small, daily tragedies of the marginalized, the poverty-stricken, the lonely. There is more than an echo of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy in his deadpan dialogue, his love of rural landscape and dialect, and his ability to bring us uncomfortably close to the minds of his characters.
For McManus, like O’Connor before him, there is a blurry line between evangelical Christianity and mental illness. And like McCarthy, he employs a searing, neo-biblical rhetoric which, in McManus’s case, seems to draw equally from Genesis, Jerry Falwell and Black Sabbath. His characters believe in God mostly out of fear, out of a desire to ally themselves with those most capable of doing them injury. In “Dog’s Egg” there is a remarkable scene in which seven-year-old Isaac witnesses a bizarre altercation between his abusive father, Jearold, and a radio preacher named Swortzel Swoope:
Swortzel Swoope looked like Isaac’s nightmare mother. His eyes made Isaac want for things to burn. When Jearold tried to slaughter blackbirds with the car, Isaac secretly liked it, and his mother screamed at his every snore to tell him he was hellborn, that she didn’t love him anymore, eight hours a night to keep him meek. He didn’t need that. Jearold wouldn’t make him do what God said, or what his mother said, or anyone else who didn’t make sense.
The prose here is electric; what it describes is astonishing and deeply unsettling. Motherless Isaac, at age seven, has decided to give in to his worst instincts and follow the lead of his violent, ignorant father. God is real, but the power of Jearold’s wickedness is enough to excuse Isaac from moral responsibility, from the haunting presence of his dead mother, who taught him to be a Christian–God as the ultimate tyrannical father.
McManus is particularly adept at writing from the perspective of children. In “Aurora,” a six-year-old genius accompanies his dysfunctional parents as they rob one gas station after another. Right from the start we know that young Sam’s intelligence and sensitivity will prove insufficient armor in a world that places little value on either. Like most of the characters in Born On A Train, Sam and his family are perilously close to devastation. As the fugitive family drives through the Tennessee countryside, they encounter mysterious “pink shimmers” floating through the air. Convinced that there has been a meltdown at a local nuclear power plant, the family becomes increasingly fatalistic. But radiation or no radiation, they are at the mercy the world. They seem to hope that a disaster of truly monumental proportions is taking place, a disaster that will obscure the everyday disaster of their ordinary lives. Sam’s mother gently warns him that when he starts kindergarten he will have to choose a color other than pink to be his favorite, because “this is a different place. People are different here.” Sam’s effeminate traits, in his mother’s eyes, mark him for abuse, for rejection, for failure. At the end of “Aurora,” the mysterious lights are disappearing. Sam hopes, “he wouldn’t forget what they looked like as soon as the next unlucky thing happened.”
McManus is not limited to the landscape and idiom of his home turf. “Cowrie,” (originally published in the journal Tin House) perhaps the finest story in the collection, exemplifies his impressive range. Two hitchhikers (an unnamed narrator, and his lover, Sina), find themselves on the coast of New Zealand at the eve of the new millennium. The two are haunted by the reality that Sina, an Iranian national and veteran of the war with Iraq, could be sent back to his country at any moment guaranteeing his imprisonment or death. Early in the story the two lovers encounter a local policeman and only escape disaster when Sina cunningly convinces his interrogator that he’s a native of Papua New Guinea. Sina, who’s survived a war, is the opposite of the anxious narrator; he cannot help but flirt with danger. Later, a pair of drunken sheep-ranchers pick the couple up, unaware that Sina, is, in fact, a man. The narrator squirms his way through the harrowing ride, at one point accidentally referring to Sina by a masculine pronoun. The driver Logan, and his buddy, Gass maliciously rib the narrator. Gass asks Logan, “Should we give them a beer?” and Logan responds, “We don’t got no pink drinks.” The irony is brilliantly conceived. The cross-dressing Sina is treated with deference by the roguish Gass and Logan, while the narrator is belittled for his perceived effeminacy.
McManus is well attuned to the sometimes-brutish idiom of male discourse. He understands the way many men use misogynistic language, not only to degrade women, but also to degrade other men. His world is one of victims and their victimizers, a world where there is always a winner and loser. The victimizers, desperate to be among the latter, reach out and destroy anyone unlucky enough to be in their vicinity. His victims, who know little other than mistreatment, become conspirators in their own emotional destruction.
“Mr. Gas” tells the story of Jason (a sort of contemporary version of Faulkner’s Quinton Compson) who lives with his shut-in mother and fantasizes about Shawn, a worker at the local gas station. When the two finally have a sexual encounter, Jason is disappointed that Shawn initially treats him with tenderness. It isn’t until the last paragraph of the story that Jason’s desire is met:
You little son of a bitch, said Shawn, rubbing his leg like he was the opposite of everything, and Jason relaxed, because Shawn was talking the right way now.
If this collection has a weakness, it’s that the division between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters is sometimes a bit too obvious. McManus’s “victims” seem entirely without agency. In “The Earl of Crediton,” a deranged, countrified patriarch leads his miserable family on a shopping expedition to K-Mart. There are moments of high humor as Pa, who fancies himself royalty, attempts to return a pair of his dead brother’s bullet-hole ridden blue-jeans, much to the chagrin of a series of increasingly incredulous K-Mart employees. Garrett, son of Pa’s murdered brother, urinates on an aisle full of toys. It’s shocking stuff with an O’Connor-like attention to the grotesquely absurd detail, but ultimately unaffecting. Caricature takes the place of character, and the voyeuristic thrill of watching ignorant people embarrass themselves in public seems a cheap one. Pa is so rotten that it’s hard to take him seriously, or feel much sympathy for his children, who are as cartoonish as their father.
That said, even the weaker of the stories in Born On A Train are worth a serious read, and each contain moments of undeniable, wicked brilliance. The best stories in the collection approach greatness. The author’s deranged, compelling voice is an island of terrible delights in a vast ocean of banality.
Emmanuel Boulukos is a student in the University of Texas’s graduate program in Creative Writing.