- American Masculinity
China Grove Press
188 Pages; Print, $21.95
Set in a world where Jesus Christ is spoken like a first and last name on a class roster and where hoarders’ troves consist of stereo wires, computers, pigs’ blood, and speaker parts in wilderness basements and bedrooms, The Deep Code plunges the reader into the headspace of many memorable characters in interesting circumstances. The stories flow between different genders of speakers, levelling the the playing field for an exploration of unsatisfying and challenging relationships. Parents are sometimes shadowy figures, absent like a black hole; or they embody the negative voice in the head or life of the main character—still all too alive, unresolved, and persistent. Henley’s stories explore American masculinity and humanity in the bright glare of stadium lights and Klieg lights while staying grounded in the driven characters who guide us. This is character driven narrative rooted to vividly painted places on the edge of society. The masculine image, silhouetted by the rising moon on the soft matte and mottled cover of the collection shows readers they will enter an exploration of American masculinity with a sensitive and complex guide.
This strong debut collection opens with the titular story told in first person by Randal, an anemic and dampened man presented with a tenuous chance to get things right with his son. The story is structured so that the reader has to understand Randal’s childhood before we can understand the bad day that comically and tragically unfolds before him; it turns out Randal needs to come to terms with his childhood too. Placement of this story first in the collection is an engaging one because we experience Henley’s wry humor, clear and uncluttered prose, and beguiling voice before things get increasingly weird.
“The Golden Horde of Mississippi” switches to a third person female protagonist home from college unexpectedly attending the funeral of her cousin. “To be fair, Jessica Sue was wearing a ratty pair of Dickies jeans and a faded Megadeth t-shirt. She knew perfectly well that wasn’t proper funeral attire. But she hadn’t come home expecting Bobby to slide his Harley Davidson up under that eighteen wheeler.” Henley uses the funeral as a super collider for the two worlds Jessica Sue straddles: the biker band and the atom bomb-loving, First Baptist world of widowed Grandma Lucy. We see Jessica Sue struggle to do the right thing for everyone on their terms as she begins to discover her own sense of self, separate from this place. Henley’s descriptions and ability to create hilarious visual tableaux is evident here, particularly in the shrine of funeral urns at Grandma Lucy’s. His characters’ spot-on dialogue propels us from one vivid scene to the next.
“Pick up your grandpa,” said Grandma Lucy“What?”“Pick him up,” she said. “Don’t he feel light to you?”“Light?” Jessica sue picked up the pewter urn. She hefted it a few times as if to judge.”
We hear the Southern weariness and worry wrapped in a lilt in Grandma Lucy’s voice and see Jessica Sue’s incredulous attempts to understand and appease her grandmother by her actions.
When Southern writer Barry Hannah died in 2010, President of Grove/Atlantic Inc., Morgan Entrekin described his style as “Southern gothic-gonzo” and the term fits here, particularly in regard to “In the Valley of Dried Bones.” “Billy’s teeth were enough to frighten anybody, coming out of his gums at a bunch of odd angles. His smile looked like the busted-off end of a ham bone. But Billy didn’t growl or sneer. He just held his watchman’s cap, because he knew if they saw the chicken bones it was all over.” Henley’s playing field for this story is high stakes Southern high school football lit by stadium lights and fueled by insanity and greed. He explores what it means to be male, Southern, and daddy to a boy who is not the sports hero through the eyes of the damaged boy, Billy.
“Escalation Dominance” told in...