Often we paint a portrait of faith as pure, guileless and vibrant … a depiction as dishonest as Dorian Gray’s. It does faith a disservice.
Faith is not a pretty thing, because life isn’t simple. Even if faith does float across the surface of life—buoyantly carrying us down the river—it still bobs and weaves through flotsam, occasionally pinned between rocks or pulled under by the tide. The truth? We wrestle with our faith as much as any other part of our messy lives, and the outcome often lies in doubt.
Every story in Kyle Minor’s collection, Praying Drunk, takes faith by the horns.
Minor does not grant us a soft entry into his struggles. He starts by unraveling: “We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin?” We enter his labyrinth. We tumble down a rabbit hole with the narrator, trudging through his grief, rifling through the past for an explanation of an Uncle’s sudden and violent suicide.
Minor walked us around the park with ideology before. His first book, In the Devil’s Territory (Dzanc Books, 2008), fearlessly approached heavy topics (dementia, rape, oppressive government regimes) often avoided by peers. He found large conflicts to tackle, ambitious for a freshman effort and intentionally so, since they kept the conflict at arm’s length. His debut collection’s shortcoming lay in its intentional reserve, the characters untenable, at times two-dimensional.
Now, in this sophomore collection, Minor bravely rotates the lens towards himself, closer to his heart. Fiction and autobiography commingle; neither wavers in authenticity. Death, grief and faith, subjects the author has intimately experienced, form the core of most stories. Out of his own witness, the writing blooms.
In a recent interview with Michele Filgate at Buzzfeed, Minor remarked, “This is the most honest possible document of 10 years of my interior life … what unites them is that they are cumulatively a portrait of the teller.”
The writing directly reflects Minor’s own upbringing, a childhood bookmarked with dogma, with years spent memorizing portions of the King James Bible in school and taking part in Southern Baptist traditions. As he grew, Minor struggled with the realization that the dogma directly conflicted with his own personal beliefs … and disbeliefs. Praying Drunk resulted from his internal dispute and his resistance to conducting life according to any doctrine other than his own internal one.
Also, as stated in his interview with Filgate, “The only person, now, who can grant this power, is me. So I stopped granting it. I walked away, and what I lost was a community, but what I gained was a life.”
The calamitous and dark stories of Praying Drunk bring a death toll, highest in the most candid story, “There Is Nothing But Sadness In Nashville.” Seven die. They range from a college friend to multiple family members … even a kitten.
Through this carnage, Minor follows a narrator and his most beloved brother, a dreamer in Nashville struggling with family expectations that he abandon musical dreams for an office job, a stable life. The narrator, a dependable pastor with a wife and steady income, envies his brother’s devotion to his dreams.
After so much loss in the story, the narrator seeks solace: “I drive into town to call my brother, but the battery [of my cellphone] runs out, and none of the local convenience stores sell the right charger. So many times I have called him because I was worried about him, but this is the first time I have called him because I need him to be worried about me.”
In the volume’s second story, “You Shall Go Out With Joy And Be Led Forth With Peace,” a 29-year-old man reflects on his bullied and dogmatic youth. For comfort, he repeats Isaiah 55:12, the verse from which the story takes its name. The narrator muses on how, at age 12, he struggled to fully understand the passage, which now offers him a false sense of righteousness: “...between Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and New Testament disciples is that the joy in those old Jewish writing always rises from the deepest of darkness, and there is no gloss on the darkness. No purpose for the darkness, except sometimes testing, sometimes judgment, sometimes spite, all this attributed often enough to God.”
The narrator as a 12-year-old could not make sense of the oppression confronting him, mostly the beatings and humiliations from bully Drew McKinnick. In Isaiah’s prophecies, the youngster finds a notion of permanent respite and relief. He imagines himself grown and righteous, using stories of his own struggle to relieve others. Then, reflecting at age 29 after a dear friend passes away, the narrator remembers the childhood beatings. Grief prompts him to abandon his pulpit and his faith. He does not look back.
You’ll sense this collection offers nothing for the weak of heart. Even comical moments leave an aftertaste, a heartache. In “The Teeth,” a narrator watches at the bedside of his ailing, elderly Grandfather. When asked to slip in his Grandfather’s dentures, he panics, unnerved by human decay.
In “Seven Stories About Sebastian of Koulèv-Ville,” a missionary in Haiti befriends a notorious con artist, Sebastian, who attempts to take advantage of the minister. Time after time, con man fails to corrupt man of the cloth. The playful rivalry suggests Sebastian as Satan tempting a malnourished Jesus (Matthew 4:1 – 4:11).
Minor easily navigates environments, formats, and perspectives. His prose, succinct and direct, packs punches of conviction. We find a theme of devotion … devotion to hope, to faith, to family … threaded through all 13 stories. These suggest that valor and reward can be found in holding to faith.
Laura Relyea is a Managing Editor of Scoutmob and the Editor of Vouched Books.