The End of the Straight and Narrow by David McGlynn

Posted: June 29, 2009 in Book Reviews
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Straight and Narrow - bk coverDavid McGlynn’s debut collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, opens with a story about people who desire to overcome and redeem themselves from their troubled pasts.  In this story, “Moonland on Fire,” Gary attempts to reconnect with his estranged son, Nolan, after sins of the flesh and soul tore him away from his family.  Nolan, who sacrificed a summer job to save his sister from joining him on this trip, tries to repair his father’s damaged house while wildfires loom on the horizon.  In the face of disaster—whether these flames are an act of God or nature—Gary puts himself in harms way to be with his son.  Meanwhile, Rhonda—Gary’s girlfriend, and the woman with whom he cheated on his wife—is willing to denounce her faith in light of what she lost before meeting Gary, and because of what she could lose if the fire reaches their home.

This first story sets the tone and introduces major themes and subject matter, which bind together the rest of the collection.  The result is a series of tightly woven stories, exploring people’s motivations and actions, while testing their faith in God, nature, mankind, and even themselves.  McGlynn invites readers into the lives of characters so fully developed, it’s hard to think of them as anything less than real people.

In “Landslide,” a preacher recounts an anecdote he has used to deliver several sermons on TV.  Only this time, he focuses in on the details left out in church—namely, his relationship with an old friend.  “Deep in the Heart” tells the story of a boy with osteosarcoma, whose last wish is to shoot a deer.  The boy’s father engages in destructive behavior, while the mother struggles to cope with the impending loss of her son.  After the drowning of his best friend, the main character in “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second” grows closer to the widow and begins mentoring a troubled boy.  The events that follow help him discover his true feelings for his deceased friend.

Each story contains multiple layers of internal and external conflict, structured in a way that avoids overwhelming the reader with too much information of which to keep track.  Surface level conflict is presented early on, which propels the plot forward and keys in the reader as to what’s at stake.  But as you continue to read, additional insight from the characters—their regrets, desires, and hesitations—along with information about their pasts not only adds to the primary conflict, it makes you want to find out what will happen to these people and how they’ll react.

Five linked stories comprise Part II of the collection.  Here a Texas family is confronted with adversity from all sides: a blind mother who has a tendency to wander away and become lost, a caretaker who sacrificed the chance at having her own family to watch over this one, a father who finds sanctuary in the arms of the caretaker, and a son who blames himself for his mother’s blindness.  While this family has difficulty avoiding disaster—blindness, infidelity, a hurricane—each character has his or her own way of trying to figure out what it all means, hoping to find redemption.

Not to leave out the writing itself, the prose is sharp and lyrical.  McGlynn provides thoughtful insight—sometimes hopeful, sometimes tragic—from the minds of his characters, and he packs his scenes with vivid sensory detail:

The guests twirled beneath a cosmos of artificial stars: the oak trees in my grandparents’ backyard wrapped in miniature white lights…The glowing skeletons of the trees reached and grabbed at the dark, and leaves fell between the lights, as though from nowhere, landing on the tables and lawn the checkerboard dance floor. (from “The Eyes to See”)

and

As she crosses the high point of the suspension bridge, the water below brown-green and streaked with sand, Kay feels the wind whistle through the floorboard of her Toyota and drum against the soles of her sandals. (from “Sweet Texas Angel”)

The last short story collection I read that combined compelling plot with characters possessing such depth was Dan Chaon’s, Among the Missing—a finalist for the National Book Award.  This is a book that deserves to be read and reread several times.  If you have yet to add it to your summer reading list, make sure you include it at the top.

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