It’s hard to pass up a book by someone with the irresistible name of Pinckney Benedict, and you shouldn’t. His 14-story collection, Miracle Boy and Other Stories, is something that will stay with you a long time. (“Miracle Boy” was made into an award-winning short film—trailer). I came away with a strong sense of the people, animals, and the not-necessarily-explainable happenings in his narrow, timeless Seneca River valley setting, an oasis where myth, history, modernity, and even the future exist side-by side. Other readers have been similarly entranced.
The following quote, from a boy talking about how he copes with the world, demonstrates the deceptive simplicity of Benedict’s prose: I could usually get along by just looking them straight in the eyes and smiling and nodding and making little noises like I understood [what they said] and I thought what they were saying was just great. (“Bridge of Sighs”)
How many of us have faked it just like that?
Several themes (no doubt many more than my weak skills can identify) pervade many of these stories. The possibility of falling, literally and symbolically, is a strong one. It appears in the eponymous story, in “Joe Messinger is Dreaming,” and in the jet crash of “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil”: The wet soil of the field looked soft as a featherbed. It seemed inviting, as though it wanted him simply to loose his hold on the ladder, to spread his arms, and drop down sprawling onto it. (“Mudman”)
The close melding of humans and their animals weaves throughout. Benedict’s dogs are not the bright, cute fellows cocking their photogenic heads at us in our friends’ Facebook posts. Animals can be victims, when an epizootic plague strikes the valley’s farms, or aggressors in stories of dog and cock fights. They can take on (distressingly) human qualities and tend to look out for #1 (not you). Feel the speed and powerful movement in this passage about a pack of wild dogs chasing a downed aviator: He shoved his way forward in the pack, striving for all he was worth, until there were no dogs in front of him. He flew through the forest, and the frontrunner’s howl broke from his throat, and the dogs behind him took it up adding their voices to the awful wail. (“The World, The Flesh, and the Devil”)
The river valley’s isolation nurtures altered mental states in which interpersonal connection falter and sizzle out: For a brief instant (my father) stood still, motionless as I had never seen him. It was as though a breaker somewhere inside him had popped, and he had been shut off. (“Mercy”)
I ordered this book because of an interesting interview with Benedict in Glimmer Train, and feel quite smug that I ordered it from his independent publisher, Press 53 of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, not Amazon. At the time I ordered, Press 53 was engaged in its “Books for Soldiers” campaign, and because of my purchase, mailed a book to a deployed or recovering U.S. soldier at no additional charge. Nice!