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Wednesday, 03 August 2011 13:32

A collection of dark plots and twisted characters

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Back in 1987, a young West Virginia writer, Pinckney Benedict, published a highly lauded collection of short stories entitled Town Smokes. In some instances, the critical response was a bit excessive.

Benedict was hailed as a “new voice in Southern literature” who was destined to produce astonishing works. Joyce Carol Oates reviewed the collection for the New York Times and announced that the author had “exceptional gifts and promise.”

A few years later, Pinckney produced a second collection, The Wrecking Yard, which was also well received. However, the author’s first novel, The Dogs of God (1995) got mixed reviews with some critics expressing concern about Benedict’s penchant for surreal (and sometimes nightmarish) atmosphere.

Then came a troublesome silence. Except for an occasional short story or a critical essay in a few prestigious magazines, the man who had once been called the “new voice of the South” seems to have vanished down the hallowed halls of academia. (He is now a full professor of English in Southern Ohio University.)

During this time, Pinckney’s wife, Laura, received considerable praise for her novels (Isabella Moon, Calling Mr. Lonelyhearts, and her Surreal South series.)

What happened to Pinckney? What happened to the man who wrote such short story masterpieces as “The Sutton Pie Safe” and “Pit,” which are still anthologized in college textbooks?

Now, almost twenty years after The Dogs of God, comes Miracle Boy and Other Stories. Benedict has returned to the short story format of his early works, and this masterful collection demonstrates that the author still has “exceptional gifts and promise.” However, there is a vital difference. Whereas Pinckney’s early works could be characterized as “gothic” tales that pulsed with dark humor and were comparable to the best of Flannery O’Conner and Truman Capote, there is a disturbing shift in Miracle Boy and Other Stories.

Although Benedict’s characters still reside in the remote coves and abandoned farms of the Blue Ridge mountains, many of them have severed any ties that they once had with “the real world.”

There is a great deal of pain in these stories. Many of Pinckney’s protagonists occupy their own personal circle of hell ... frequently, a place filled with demons (real and imaginary) in which the natural laws of the universe are suspended.

Animals speak, the dead return and ancient gods move through the mountains of West Virginia. The maimed child in the title story has lost his feet to his father’s cane-cutting machine, but a team of surgeons have reattached them. Now his playmates torment him daily, demanding “to see the stitches.”

Many of the characters in Miracle Boy and Other Stories have undergone psychological and/or physical torments that renders reality untenable; consequently they create an alternative world. In “Joe Messenger is Dreaming,” the speaker creates a world in which he can perform heroic feats (a fall from 100,000 feet before he opens his parachute, for example, or the ability to move at will through time).

As the narrator of “Pony Car” tells marvelous stories about his Uncle Rawdy and his talking crow named Slow Joe Crow, the reader begins to realize that everyone in the story is dead — possibly including the narrator — as victims of a terrifying  wreck resulting from a race between Uncle Rawdy’s ‘70 Dodge Challenger and a train.

“Mudmen” and “The Beginning of Sorrow” appear to be parodies of famous literary works (Kafka). “Mudmen” bears a distinct resemblance to the old Jewish legend of the Golem, a creature of mud that is sent into the world to avenge injustice.  However, Benedict’s mud man has a wasp nest for a heart and is motivated to destroy “vermin” — a written order that is placed in his mouth by his creator.

Both the mudmen and Hark, the dog in “The Beginning of Sorrow,” envy their creators and devise plans to take their place; Athelstan, the narrator of “The Angel Trumpet” is the sole survivor of an accident (methane poisoning) that killed his entire family. Athelstan, who is guilt-ridden by his survival, ponders the fact that he has always been treated with a kind of diffident respect by the family.

He decides that he has survived so that he can memorialize his family by painting a gigantic mural on the walls of the manure pit (the place where his father and three brothers died). Athelstan’s inspiration comes from the ancient Lascaux Cave Paintings and the narrator intends to create his masterpiece while in a state of ecstasy induced by chewing the seed of the Trumpet Flower (Jimsen weed).

Arguably, the two most remarkable short stories in this collection are “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” and “Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life.”

The former, which deals with a downed aviator’s frantic attempts to evade a pack of feral dogs as he runs through the ruins of an abandoned leper colony acquires a frantic pace — especially when the action is described through the eyes of the leader of the dog pack.

“Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life” probably deserves to be read so that the reader can resolve the meaning of the title. Suffice it to say that Pig Helmet wears a helmet made from a wild boar. In addition, he is a veteran mercenary and contractor who has returned from Iraq to find work with law enforcement.

When a bail-jumper throws acid in Pig Hemet’s face, Pig Helmet’s mutilated features become even more grotesque. Despite the bizarre subject, this story is deeply moving — especially in the concluding scenes at the local carnival where motorcycle-riding preachers racing around “The Wall of Life.”

It has been some 15 years since we have had a major work from Pinckney Benedict. During that interval, his world view seems to have changed considerably. Where he was once whimsical and ironic, he is now surreal and dark.

I suspect that many will find some of the stories in this latest work to be offensive. Admittedly, this reviewer decided not to comment on several entries because they dealt with topics (the massacre of animals, for example) that are too painful to read about or discuss — at least for me. Despite these painful (and graphic) details, however, Pinckney Benedict remains a masterful writer. Anyone who doubts that should read “The World, the Flesh and the Devil.”

 

Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict. Press 53, 2010. 244 pages.

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