This Week’s Hot Reads: February 18, 2014

This week, from a preacher-turned-novelist’s meditations on death to the power struggles and engineering breakthroughs that lead to America’s first subway.

Praying Drunk

by Kyle Minor

Repetition—of words, phrases, and entire thoughts—is what gives prayer its force, so it’s only fitting that in Praying Drunk, preacher-turned-novelist Kyle Minor uses repetition to deepen the power of his sad, soulful stories. “The Sweet Life” focuses on one specific scene, a funeral with a tone-deaf sermon; “There is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville” identifies the boy, his mother, and his father. They’re variations on the fractured family of “The Truth and All Its Ugly” (only that story is set in 2024, a time when technology gives a grieving father new ways to try to mask his pain by re-living his son’s childhood through a bot). The same boy—or one very much like him—is buried once again in “Lay Me Down in the Blue Grass,” the collection’s final story. If the reader wasn’t mourning him yet, she surely is now.

Part of the reason repetition is so effective in Praying Drunk is because the scenes, characters, and moments that flash past again and again are so searing in the first place. “Another suicide,” is the first sentence of “There is Nothing But Sadness.” But there’s really more than one suicide in that story, and by this point in the collection the reader has watched more than one of these characters die before. Minor’s writing evokes the circling habits of memory itself—the mind’s inability to resist picking up the jagged fragments of a tragedy for inspection again and again.

Fittingly, some of the most marvelous moments in this collection are shaped more like sharp memories than full-on stories, like “First, The Teeth,” in which the narrator visits his dying grandfather in the hospital and struggles to paste in his false teeth. Several stories are built around the recurring character of the menacingly named school bully, Drew McKinnick; in “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth With Peace,” and in “Suspended” he antagonizes the narrator again and again. When Drew McKinnick is nowhere in sight, his brother takes his place. When no McKinnick is around, a snarling cop with that same glinty smile takes up the same role in the narrator’s eyes. The lesson is clear: the habits the mind takes up long outlive memories of the experiences that built those habits in the first place. Better pray.

The Race Underground

by Doug Most

When Alfred Beach described the idea of an underground urban train system in 1849 in Scientfic American, he was ridiculed. “It’s better to wait for the Devil than to make roads down into hell,” as one critic put it.

Nearly fifteen years later, when London’s Underground opened in 1863, Americans still weren’t entirely taking the idea seriously. An underground train system seemed like a useful—and lucrative—proposition, but no one had managed to muster the leadership or funding for an equivalent system of transportation in the United States.

Still, it was clear the existing modes of transportation simply weren’t working. In New York, the traffic from horse-drawn carriages clogged the streets at all hours. When the great blizzard of 1888 trapped steam trains from Baltimore to Montreal and stranded 15,000 New York commuters across the city’s elevated train lines, city leaders began to think that an underground train track might be a necessity after all.

Doug Most’s detailed history of the journey to build an American subway primary follows the fates of two influential brothers of the era, Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York. But these men weren’t the only ones who devoted their time and passion to the project. Others included New York piano factory-owner William Steinway, engineers like Frank Sprague (who developed an electric motor), financier August Belmont, and politicians like President Grover Cleveland and New York’s Boss Tweed. Today, urban life in Boston and New York without underground public transportation is difficult to imagine. But as Most makes clear, it took massive breakthroughs in both politics and in engineering to finally bring city commuters underground.

Bark: Stories

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by Lorrie Moore

No one wields self-deprecation with more dexterity and panache than a character in a Lorrie Moore story. “Maybe I should cut the whole hand off. And send it to her,” says newly divorced Ira in Bark’s first story when his wedding ring won’t come off. “She’ll understand the reference.” Ira is classic Moore; his travails feature her signature blend of absurdity and desperation. For example: “Observing others go through them, he used to admire midlife crises, the courage and shamelessness and existential daring of them, but after he’d watched his own wife, a respectable nursery school teacher, produce and star in a full-blown one of her own, he found the sufferers of such crises not only self-indulgent but greedy and demented, and he wished them all weird unnatural deaths with various contraptions easily found in garages.”

The dark humor of self-deprecation (paired with a strong drink) is the best weapon of self-defense for characters this observant—trapped in lives so freighted with decay. Nowhere is this more so than in “The Juniper Tree,” when the narrator misses a final chance to visit her friend Robin in the hospital the night before her death. What makes the pain bearable is a memory of Robin, at lunch, when she suddenly smashes a lemon meringue pie into her own face. “I’ve always wanted to do that, and now I have,” Robin says. “What the fuck?” says the narrator, affectionately.

It goes without saying that friendship is the other salve in Moore’s world; a self-deprecating joke is only any use if there’s someone to laugh at it. “Any faux pas?” the wife of a character named Bake asks him after a fancy dinner. “Beaucoup faux,” Bake tells her. “Uttering my very name was like standing on the table and peeing in a wineglass,” he says, but his wife doesn’t quite believe him. Moore’s characters repeatedly reach for intimacy, but more often than not they fail to connect. Still, hope drives them on. When Ira does get his wedding ring off with soap and water, the sight of his hand without it spooks him so much he puts it back on.