Kyle Minor’s second book of short stories, Praying Drunk, published to rave reviews earlier this year. It has been well covered, and rightly so, as this heartfelt collection brims with craft and wisdom. I’ll admit this is a tough one for me to review, mostly because Minor undoubtedly knows so much more than I do—about writing, about life, about faith; the way it guides us and tears us apart. This book will slap you in the face with its talent. Kyle Minor is that good.
Praying Drunk begins with this note to the reader: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.” (For the record, I don’t know anyone who skips around, but perhaps I need fewer type-A friends.) Within this cheeky introduction lies one of the book’s many risks. Thirteen stories jump around in time and place, revisiting narratives and characters in a way that is cleverly cohesive. The pauses that take place between stories offer a curtain call to specific moments, moments that are later revisited to complete an arc or provide a different lens to the same narrative. “In a Distant Country,” the longest of the book’s stories, a Haitian missionary and a young American woman fall into a questionable May-December relationship, illuminating a previous story in the collection that was also set in Haiti.
In “Q&A,” an apparent interview with the author himself, Minor addresses the way his collection mixes autobiography and fiction. He asks himself why there is a robot in a story about suicide, and discusses the childhood bully who tormented him in his youth, two threads that fall forward and back within the book. In “Q&A” this exchange occurs:
Q: Did the things in this book actually happen…?
A: It’s like Kazuo Ishiguro said: “I’m more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened.”
Q: Don’t hide behind Kazuo Ishiguro.
In this way the book is intensely self-aware of what it asks of its readers. To me, this is the thesis behind Minor’s collection, the idea that a book examining faith in all its beautiful, ugly, and difficult variations, asks you to exercise faith while reading. Minor examines the idea that stories are about the meaning that exists behind them, that by mixing truth with fiction a greater truth is revealed. You will find yourself wondering, Isn’t this what reading is supposed to be about? The answer to that question is: YES.
To me, Kyle Minor is in on the secret that makes for great writing, and reading Praying Drunk is like binging on that secret. He has been compared by other reviewers to Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, and here I’ll offer my own comparison. To me he invokes Donald Barthleme. A true writer’s writer, like Barthleme, Minor explores form and function by calling the two together to elevate his work. An author interviews himself, a suicide becomes a science fiction story, facts become fiction. Our real lives inform our stories and our stories help us make sense of our lives. This is a book my grandmother would not enjoy because this isn’t a book for everybody, but for anyone who cares about writing it feels essential. Minor knows his shit. We can learn a great deal from him.
I’ll end by saying if you follow Kyle Minor on social media or have read any of his recent interviews you immediately sense he is a writer ready and willing to break the mold. In a BuzzFeed interview he says:
I think that American literature is still in the long process of crawling out from a dark hole that was dug by the pronouncements of the so-called minimalists, whose influence is still felt strongly in some writing classrooms which are full of unhelpful, restrictive proscriptions such as “show, don’t tell” and “write what you know” and “Hemingway’s iceberg” or whatever. (Show and tell and do a tap dance, I say. Write what you want to know and go find a way to know it. Send a team of divers under the water and bring the report to the surface.)
In order for writing and culture to move forward it needs to be pushed and examined by those who understand it, both critically and in writing. I think Minor achieves this and it is perhaps the glowing undertone of everything I liked so much in Praying Drunk. I’m thankful for where we’ve been in literature, I love it endlessly, but writers like Kyle Minor make me excited about where we are going.
Praying Drunk, February 2014
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer