Though he answers to the name Rowdy, the narrator of five of the stories in David McGlynn’s new collection is an obedient and subservient son. However, a glimpse of his father in a compromising embrace with the family housekeeper distresses him. Beset by a tangle of emotions, Rowdy pushes his sister Jill off her bicycle, breaking her arm. Though not yet old enough for a license, he drives Jill and their sight-impaired mother to the hospital, cataloguing the occupants of the car as “The blind, the injured, the guilty.”
All three adjectives, but especially “guilty,” apply to the characters in McGlynn’s debut book. Most are devout Christians who look to faith to absolve them of guilt, though it’s often the transgression of religious strictures that sparks their guilt in the first place. In “Moonland on Fire,” Gary, a successful insurance agent whose torturous remorse over an impulsive burglary leads him to run off with an evangelist, finds himself wondering “if what he claimed was faith was ever anything more than the echoes of regret and shame.” Those echoes resonate throughout the nine finely calibrated stories assembled in The End of the Straight and Narrow.
What distinguishes this book from most other recent American collections of short fiction is its focus on believers. McGlynn’s characters may have more in common with Nathan Englander’s anguished orthodox Jews in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999) than anyone else since Flannery O’Connor stopped baptizing fervid zealots. McGlynn, however, lacks the irreverent wit that led Englander to imagine a rabbi moonlighting as a department-store Santa. He is intent on serious business: testing the faith of his Christians against natural disaster (wildfire, landslide, hurricane), infirmity (cancer, blindness) and fatality (drowning, congestive heart failure). Though some of his creations are schooled at Bible colleges, few are able to reconcile the fallen world at hand with the promise of the world to come. One man sees Jesus in an inflatable backyard pool but nowhere else.
One of the few flippant moments in The End of the Straight and Narrow comes when Rhonda, who haunts airport terminals and fast-food outlets trying to corner and convert the heathen, starts to proselytize 17-year-old Nolan, whose father she has snared and brought to Southern California.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Rhonda begins.
“About Jesus?” says Nolan.
“That’s right. Have you heard about what He did?”
But Nolan needs no explanation. “I’m from Texas,” he replies.
Though he now lives in Wisconsin, McGlynn is also from Texas, and he knows these people, and respects them enough to be attentive to their ways of being and not being in the world. McGlynn sets his stories in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Baytown and Galveston, as well as Utah and California. The cover of The End of the Straight and Narrow is a photograph of the Texas Gulf Coast, and the end of the title story leads a character into the waters off the tip of Galveston Island. McGlynn was a champion high-school swimmer in Texas, and his fiction plunges a reader into depths where questions about human agency and responsibility lurk.
Consider “Landslide,” the second story in this collection. Its unnamed narrator is a senior at Southland Pacific University, a Christian institution founded to serve the glory of God, when he and his roommate Greg find themselves trapped by a landslide on the Pacific Coast Highway. Whereas Greg is a math major whose active mind seems drawn perilously close to skepticism, the narrator is an aspiring preacher. (When he spots the girl he intends to marry singing in the praise band at a local church, he delays contacting her until after he has sought out her father and promised not to kiss his daughter before their wedding day.) At the site of the landslide, a baby is recovered alive from an automobile wreck that mangled its parents. The narrator is ecstatic, convinced that he and Greg have witnessed God’s handiwork.
“Sure. Right,” Greg says through gritted teeth. Like most secular readers of the story, Greg does not view this one exception to catastrophe as a demonstration of divine intervention in the natural order. Years later, the narrator, a successful televangelist, reaffirms his faith by recalling and celebrating the apparent miracle. “I couldn’t fathom anyone would see it otherwise,” he says.
The narrator appropriates the landslide episode into his sermons as parable of providential action, but he finds himself puzzled and a bit guilty for having erased Greg from the story. The story that McGlynn makes of this is rather more complex than the preacher’s tidy homily; it provides a lucid take on what the preacher saw, but also what he failed to see. It allows us to fathom how the same experience can induce awe in some, anguish in others.
The five interconnected stories that constitute the second part of the book, beginning with “The Eyes to See,” are centrally concerned with sight, as visual perception and as metaphor. Cory, the mother of Rowdy and Jill, went blind when her retinas ruptured the moment she went into labor with her son, endowing him with congenital guilt for her condition. But McGlynn does not resort to the conventional literary paradox of linking Cory’s sightlessness to insight, the way ancient Tiresias’s blindness is linked to his wisdom. Cory is as confused as her husband and children, and considerably more depressed, at least according to Rowdy’s account. “Since I’m the keeper of these stories,” he declares, “I decide how they are told.” They are told through the prism of a martyr’s repressed resentment. “My entire life I was concerned about my role in the suffering of others,” Rowdy says. In a startling comment that concludes the five-story sequence, he reveals an additional layer of culpability.
Guilt over adultery with their housekeeper Kay drives Rowdy’s father, Lee, into the arms of the Pine Creek Community Church’s Reverend Bunting. A neurobiologist at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, Lee researches how a deficiency of the chemical GABA triggers epileptic seizures. But after his affair with Kay is exposed he flees to Pineland, in East Texas, to teach “creation science” at Victory Bible College. His son comes of age knowing “that guilt is a force equal to love.”
That law of sentimental thermodynamics applies as well to “Deep in the Heart,” a story set in Austin that features another wayward father, Andre Proudeaux. This is the only story in the collection that lacks a character who is explicitly religious. The unexpected osteosarcoma that is killing the 9-year-old boy might have seemed like divine retribution to characters elsewhere in the volume, but for Andre his only child’s fatal cancer seems simply the burden he must somehow bear for cheating on Wesley’s mother. All too conscious of his flaws as husband and father, Andre feels unable to veto his son’s last request when the Make-A-Wish Foundation offers a final favor to a dying child and Wesley asks to shoot a deer.
“Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second,” a story that draws on McGlynn’s own knowledge of competitive swimming, also demonstrates the physics of guilt. Jonah is tormented by his conviction that he might have saved his best friend Charlie from a poolside death. For many years, Jonah had finished fractions of a second behind Charlie in the races they both swam. In their final contest, Jonah gloated when he unexpectedly pulled ahead of his friend, but his glee quickly turned to grief when Charlie suddenly stopped, dead in the water of heart failure. From then on, Jonah, whose name recalls the Biblical figure burdened by a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to escape God’s directive, blames himself for Charlie’s death:
And replaying the scene of Charlie’s last, gasping seconds, he saw a thousand instants in which he might have saved him. Had he only pulled Charlie’s face out of the water faster; had he breathed into Charlie’s mouth before sliding him from the water to the pool deck; had he not stopped CPR compressions to catch his breath. He stopped for no more than ten seconds after eleven minutes of compressions, but he was certain it had made a difference.
Jonah attends the Summit Bible Fellowship, whose members are taught “stealth evangelism” within the largely Mormon community of Salt Lake City. He lusts after Charlie’s willing widow, Abby, but lingering guilt over his role in his friend’s death and belief in the virtue of celibacy combine to paralyze him emotionally.
No good end comes to the straight and narrow of whom McGlynn takes meticulous measure. The End of the Straight and Narrow can’t exactly be called a guilty pleasure, but it offers readers the refined pleasure of gauging and engaging guilt.
>Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.