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BOOKS & THE CULTURE At the Mercy of the World htis tr$91? f;$ ;if it fit BY EMMANUEL BOULUKOS <1:41 .1 . 54..! AI:. ..A114 Born on a Train: 13 Stories By John McManus Picador 288 pages, $14. B orn 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 sevenyear-old Isaac witnesses a bizarre altercation between his abusive father, Jearold, and a radio preacher named Swortzel Swoope: Swortzel Swope looked like Isaac's mghtmare mother His eyes made Isaac want /or things to burn. When Jearold tried to slat ghter blackbirds with the cat; Isaac secretly liked it, and his mot -er screamed at his every snore to tell him he was hellborn, that she didn't love him anymore, eight hours a night to keep hint 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 ofJearold's wickedness is enough to excuse Isaac from moral responsibility, from the haunting presence of his dead mother, who taught him to be a ChristianGod 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 perhaps the finest story in the collection, exemplifies his impressive range. Two hitchhikers \(an 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 crossdressing Sina is treated with deference by the roguish Gass and Logan, while the narrator is belittled for his perceived effeminacy. 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/28/03