Book Review: The Body of This

Katy Carl

Andrew McNabb, The Body of This
Warren Machine Books, 2009

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.

Katy Carl, the editor-in-chief of Dappled Things, is an editor and writer in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Her freelance writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register and in St. Louis magazine, among other publications.