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DA VID-McGLYNN VVi t ‘ie,W0t :;:”NV’M’ n’? BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN The End of the Straight and Narrow By David McGlynn Southern Methodist University Press 228 pages, $22.50 MIThough 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 sightimpaired 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 commoh. with Nathan Englander’s anguished orthodox Jews in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges 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 ity \(drowning, congestive heart failschooled 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 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 Blind Guilt 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 9, 2009