||Warren Machine Company, Inc.
||April 2, 2009
Highly Acclaimed Short Story Collection
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The Body of This
An elderly couple finally discovers the essence of each other after a lifetime together; a Sudanese immigrant uncovers the beauty in the simplicity of a new way home; a seminarian adrown in Guinness questions his calling; an eccentric muses on the existence of a prayer to a wound. These are but a few of the storylines in Andrew McNabb's ethereal debut story collection, The Body of This. With award-winning stories previously published in such esteemed and diverse literary venues as The Missouri Review and Not Safe, But Good (Best Christian Short Stories, 2007)(Thomas Nelson,) The Body of This is an exploration of beginnings and endings, of architecture, the human body and what comes next. McNabb is the rare writer capable of combining the literary with the spiritual, and one of a handful of today's emerging writers to watch.
"The Shape of Things," --The Portland Phoenix
We are shaped by what surrounds us. Our exteriors — meaning geographical locations, physical infrastructure, and bodies alike — affect our interior states of mind. At the same time, our interior landscapes influence the way we experience what's around us. So suggests West End author Andrew McNabb, whose new collection of stories, The Body Of This, was released this month by Portland publisher Warren Machine Company.
McNabb's brief stories (there are 28 total in this slim volume) are full of detailed physical descriptions of both interior and exterior terrains. The characters struggle to find their places, in the world at-large and in relation to other people. They are immigrants, elderly people, city mice gone country, and lovers. In many cases, they interact rather clinically, both with each other and with their surroundings. This is a collection that strives to dissect and distill, to remind us that disparate parts and individual sensations are the bricks that comprise the buildings of our lives. It's not a comforting read, but it still has something of a celebratory feel; it revels in, as one character puts it, "The beauty and surprise of pure human potential!"
To that end, McNabb takes a spare approach in describing the raw realities of the human body. A caesarean-section birth is "that second child being pulled through the hole they'd cut in her lower abdomen;" a breast — an enticing one, at that — is described as "a flat and dirty vessel." One entire story, "Extrusion," treats the unsavory topic of human and canine shit.
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"The paradox," the narrator muses. "The way something so dirty — the ultimate in physically dirty — could be so cleansing. Not just in the sense that it could be jettisoned, expunged, purged — extruded; but that it could be so grounding. God's reminder? God's joke? ... The great equalizer! Truck drivers; heiresses. The varieties of shape and composition and size ... All the hues of the dirtiest rainbow you would ever see. And the nuances, like snowflakes or fingerprints — no two exactly alike."
(When's the last time crap was compared with snowflakes?)
The most successful stories in the collection are those that merge inner and outer influences. The book's opening story, "The Architecture of Things," does just that, showing how the growth of a relationship depends on both internal and external structures, such as the parameters of a sexual relationship, the union of physical forms, or the hope that comes with a new home. But in the end, once that foundation is laid, the reader is left thinking that some relationships may transcend "all of that interconnected hardware."
In "The Artist," McNabb again blurs the distinction between animate and inanimate objects, anthropomorphizing a building, then giving its inhabitants many of the same traits. By breathing life into brick edifices, McNabb offers sharp contrast to the wishes of the story's main character, who announces in the story's second sentence that he wants to die.
For all this verbal exploration of shape and structure, McNabb's stories might be expected to experiment with form. They do not. These are relatively straightforward short-shorts, nuggets of realism presented in a way that reminds us that little incidents are what make up the larger stories of our lives.
And McNabb doesn't neglect what some would call the largest story of all. Spirituality features prominently in his work, leading the reader to consider how the concept of God relates to space, bodies, and architecture. Perhaps religion is just one more structure we use to order our lives.
"But let's leave these structures and all other structures within eyeshot because they have their own stories and to look at them too closely is to spend too much time, and to not study them is to not understand," he writes in "Compartments." "Just know that they are part of this symmetry of wood and brick, some compartment buildings, some not, all of them together making up this street, this area. Now, come inside."
"A Catholic Writer Who Does Not Turn Away"--Inside Catholic
In recent years, the phrase "Catholic writer" has become highly problematic. Some bestow it like a laurel on the brow of anyone who writes about pious Catholics who manage, through thick and thin, to follow all the rules. Others use the label in a nostalgic (and laudable) quest to find the next O'Connor, Percy, or Greene. Still others habitually track down Catholic "themes" in fiction by any author whom they discover attends Mass or was educated by nuns.
Every now and then the real thing comes along: a Catholic writer who writes well enough to satisfy literate readers who judge fiction by the canons of fiction, not theology. It's a bonus when that Catholic writer occasionally peoples his narratives with familiar characters -- like the sexually confused ex-seminarian or the young, excessively certain priest. You recognize him not by his profession of faith, or his attention to clergy and rituals, but by his well-crafted works of imagination infused with a sacramental intelligence.
Such a writer is the 40-year-old Andrew McNabb, whose first book of short stories is titled The Body of This: Stories.
McNabb's name should ring a bell among well-read Catholics: Yes, he is related to the famous Dominican Rev. Vincent McNabb, who rivaled his friends Chesterton and Belloc as a stylist. "He was my great-grandfather's father's brother, Patrick, one of eleven, who came to the States," McNabb told me on the phone from Portland, Maine, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and their four young children.
Both of McNabb's daughters suffered strokes before they were born and now have cerebral palsy. Working at home, writing early in the morning and late at night, he is the primary caregiver for all the children. "I started writing fulltime ten years ago, ever since I married Sharon," he told me. McNabb had struck it rich in his 20s, living in New York City and working for a Russian trading company that shipped millions of dollars of poultry and beef to Russia. "Everyone wanted a piece of us," he told me. His success allowed him to move from Greenwich Village to the affluent East 59th off Sutton Place -- where he suddenly decided to give it all up.
McNabb took a seven-month break in Ireland, where he started writing, something he knew he wanted to do since he had studied for his MBA at NYU. Upon his return at age 30, he married his wife, who was then a junior partner at Smith Barney. They moved to Newport, Rhode Island, so she could work in Providence, they could begin their family, and McNabb could continue to write. After nearly four years, the McNabbs moved to the West End of Portland, where many of his stories are set.
It wasn't a stretch: McNabb grew up not far from Portland, in North Reading, Massachusetts, where he was one of five children (including two who were adopted) in a practicing Catholic family. He studied business at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before leaving for his eight giddy years in New York. Always a devout, practicing Catholic, McNabb admits to having "been more sinful than the next person -- sex, drugs, the kind of people I kept company with." When I observe that some of this experience shows up in his stories, he comments, "This has been my experience. To write any other way would be wrong."
McNabb's stories are not going to be read aloud on EWTN anytime soon. Impure thoughts abound -- not just sexual, but violent and spiteful. Take this description of a man fuming with rage as he watches a woman, a widow he knows, waiting for her dog to leave an "extrusion" in his front yard:
This wasn't the Balkans where neighbors turned murderous overnight, but Portland, Maine, where it was the case, as with any other place humans lived, that at a moment's notice you could circle in and find what was easiest to despise about just about anyone.
Note the totally unexpected meditation that follows, as the man decides to go out and clean it up:
The widow and the others -- the cowards who came and left under the cover of darkness, the hypocrites who bagged only when someone else was about -- they provided for him this necessary task, this debasement, this penance, and for that he felt the tiniest bit of gratitude.
This is typical of McNabb's stories; what makes them so involving and moving is his attention to moments in life where many of us instinctively look away or simply turn off our thoughts to get through unpleasantness.
Most of his stories are short -- some as brief as 500 words. "This is just how it happened for me," he explains. He finished two "crappy novels" but is working on a memoir, Daddy's Hope, about being a stay-at-home father with kids who have health issues.
Many of McNabb's characters are frail, sickly, and elderly. One of the most touching, almost haunting, stories -- "Their Bodies, Their Selves" -- alone makes McNabb's collection of thirty tales a must read, and there are many others that rise to its level. "It's What It Feels Like," the only long story in the volume, about an estranged husband who has won the lottery, has an ending worthy of O. Henry. "The King of the Tables" follows an elderly man with a schoolboy crush as he competes for his beloved's attention while serving meals in the parish basement.
McNabb's stories juxtapose the pure and the impure, the violent and the tender, the body and the spirit -- yet there is nothing in them suggesting a Gnostic dualism. The unity of his stories is achieved by drawing our attention to a dogged mortality we would rather ignore. The Body of This is a sustained, poetic meditation on one character's message to her injured husband: "There you are, and here I am."
"Book Review: The Body of This"--Dappled Things
With this first story collection, due out in April, Andrew McNabb deepens the mystery of finding ourselves, as spiritual beings, embodied. Through thirty central characters, his short-short stories and flash fictions provide thirty different responses to the mystery, all with a common thread: Our physicality points to truths that go beyond it. At the same time, in itself it is a beautiful thing.
The stories’ length demands a different pace of reading. Each detail carries narrative weight. If you miss the character’s last name or the color of her shirt or the shape of his stomach, you risk missing something vital. There is a corresponding risk of oversimplification and of caricature where such apparent trivialities mean so much, but McNabb avoids it deftly. On the contrary, he elevates the tales to a plane where every smallest thing shows. This is achieved by careful craft on the sentence level: “Here, in my area, at a thousand feet, there is rapture. On a cloudless day, mountains to the west, one great explosion above all others, white-capped no matter the season, and green, green trees, and cold ocean to the east. . . .” This is an author who has taken to heart the dictum that one who is faithful in small things will be entrusted with great.
More evidence of McNabb’s Catholic sensibility is the way he makes good characters not only appealing, but interesting. Expressive of the truth that all evil is eventually banality, his stories show a penchant for exploring the lives of ordinary people thrown into radical situations. Surprisingly often—but not surprising, really, for someone who rejects the Protestant theory of total depravity—the characters find radical, unusual solutions. Often these are the simplest solutions, engaged in a countercultural way. In this way McNabb’s characters show that they never really were ordinary to begin with, that there is no real “ordinary” when it comes to the dignity and uniqueness of the human person. As often as these characters fall and struggle, they change and grow; they encounter actual grace. With the full weight of their bodies they slam up against the truth, and if they are broken, they are that much closer to knowing they need healing.
Consider Lazarus, the Sudanese immigrant hero of “Dead Man Walking.” Notice the suggestion in the name: he escaped death in a refugee camp; he lives amid the sterile suburban landscape of big-box stores and little fast-food diners; yet his presence denotes resurrection. When Lazarus decides, stuck without transportation at his Target job, that he will “quite simply walk” home, he reclaims this most natural but neglected capability of the human body. Or consider Lydia Carmona, the Mexican fashion major in “Body by Body Glove,” whose designs embrace her unconventional shape: big breasts “like overripe bananas,” “wide, wide hips.” These are small challenges to the culture of manufactured ease and exclusionist beauty, but together they lend heft to the idea that this culture needs challenging. They may make us uncomfortable, but not out of a sense that discomfort is somehow good for us. This is not “medicinal fiction.” It is healing, but more in the mode of exercise and a healthy diet. Think of it as resistance training for the imagination.
Speaking of discomfort, as McNabb himself notes, his stories are not intended for all audiences. While they do not glorify wrong behavior, they do not flinch from its description in ways that are appropriate to the narrative. “Evocative” would be a better word for these descriptions than “graphic,” as McNabb seems not to be so much interested in the sensory experience of sin, but in its effect on a character’s interior life. Still, he takes seriously his responsibility to create a believable sensory environment. As a result, we have Frank Ianonne, “The Hunchback of Munjoy Hill,” hobbling in front of his apartment window, dropping f-bombs and racist remarks in crotchety anger over the presence of immigrants outside. We have Billy O’Sullivan getting sloshed in his storage building and agonizing over an array of neatly arranged, unused nails and hinges and tacks. We have Muhammad Ali, who sells out the respect of his overweight teacher for a laugh at her expense, and Barbara Morrin, who nourishes herself on news of tragedy in a vampiric way. These moments are comical or poignant, wistful or wry, mischievous, painful, sometimes all of the above—but never salacious or gratuitous. Returning to the metaphor of exercise for the imagination, these stories may raise our heart rates, but they will not exhaust us. They will leave us with more energy than we had when we came to them.
Oh, and one more thing: All thirty of these stories take place in McNabb’s town of Portland, Maine. It’s perhaps not a conscious decision on McNabb’s part to echo, in fictional form, the localism of his great-uncle, the famous American Distributist Fr. Vincent McNabb. But the echo resounds, and the Catholic world can be glad once again that some things run in the family.
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