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It All Grinds Up In His Brain

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 5, July/August 2013
p. 24 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0103

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This short story collection is made whole by the obsessions that drive the disparate protagonists We travel across the U.S., to China, France, Peru, and elsewhere: a global sensibility permeates the collection in its various settings and diverse content, but Roy Kesey’s characters all share an intensity of thought, feeling, and circumstance. The language spins out of their consciousnesses, unreeling in repetitions and long, unwieldy sentences, or short abrupt thought. It is about grieving, about sickness, about the self-destructive, about murder and survival. Kesey finds his characters in a moment of time where their sins are catching up to them, or where their love is at its limit, or where the missing pieces of their stories are filled in—and the language precisely follows these cues.

In the story “Levee,” Kesey gives us a line that can stand-in for the no-limits approach he takes towards content. A first-person narrative that follows a puppeteer and his father (who suffers from dementia) as the puppeteer comes to terms with the death of his mother in his childhood (a death initiated, but not necessarily carried through by the father—read to find out!). Going over the different puppets he creates, he writes: “I’ll make anything you can dream up and many things you can’t, but what do people want? Clowns and nurses and farm animals, pathetic.” It stands as a condemnation both of the unadventurous reader and the clients of our puppeteer, but it also points wonderfully to the array of circumstances which Kesey takes up in this book, and also, the often pathetic and broken personalities that occupy it. Indeed, we have alcoholics and kidnappers, and abusive fathers, and conmen, and loud, obnoxious neighbors that keep the reader awake with anxiety.

Aptly, story-telling is central to these characters—the way in which they order the world both a condemnation of their self-destructive behaviors and obsessions and a gorgeous insight to empathy. In the story “Stillness,” we have a close third-person view of Garrett, a hard-working good ol’ boy who is brother to an alcoholic, uncle to a socially awkward graduate student, and son to a denying but loving matriarchal figure. The story focuses on a hunt he takes his nephew on (his brother gone on a bender), but the story is more accurately focused on the act of story-telling, on getting the words out right and on gaining knowledge and insight through the telling. It is important to Garrett to tell stories “as well as he can,” though there are large gaps of information he is often missing. It is, for Garrett, the stories of hunts past and joking that ends a “good hunt” well. Garrett knows the reactions he’s looking for from the stories and when he tells Aaron (his nephew) of the first deer his deceased father shot he is dismayed by Aaron’s reaction: “Aaron shakes his head at the end but doesn’t smile, and Garrett thinks maybe he didn’t tell it very well.” The coming penultimate moment of “Stillness” focuses on what is missing from Garrett’s knowledge, and therefore from Garrett’s story. A breaking point of revelation that demonstrates it is the connective tissue of narrative that is at stake for both Kesey and his characters.

Generally, the characters are the originators of their own problems: the title story in particular plays on this theme—bad people doing bad things and getting what they “deserve.” A very close third-person story, “Any Deadly Thing” ends with a repetitive, meandering, and haunting sentence, and the words “this yes this pain is exactly right.” Kesey brings us to that “exactly right” moment, and whether the character is deserving of love or pain it is often the image we end on. And this is how obsession works in tandem with storytelling, because as obsessive as their thoughts and lives may be, it is what is misunderstood, obscured, and out of the realm of their knowledge that leads them to inaccurate and unjustified actions. Their predetermined conclusions are based on incomplete narratives that might allow them to understand and to become better should they...

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