Sunday, December 26, 2010

On "A Picture Book of Hell and Other Landscapes" by Thomas McConnell **

McConnel's Picture Book is a set of stories in three parts. The first group of stories focuses largely on the past--and on how it affects our present. Notable within this section is the title story "A Picture Book of Hell." The tale is one about a man who comes back from fighting in the Great War. Like the characters in various contemporary movies who return from fighting in Vietnam or Iraq, the soldier come home has difficulty adjusting again to civilian life--the horrors he's seen are too great deal with and too great to express. In this mix is the soldier's niece, who is curious to know about the war and who frequently questions her knowing uncle. None of this bares much fruition, however, as the uncle descends into madness. The stories in this section demonstrate McConnell's great command of the language, as do many of those in the last section.

The last section of the book seems the most random, though a good number of them circle around the theme of death. In readers watch as a homeless man nears his death and as another man takes his spot, as a man goes to visit a prostitute, as a body of men fights a fire, as people attend wakes and funerals (two stories), and as men ride in a bus and discuss what death and life mean. This section seems, in some respects, to be the most philosophical, with some stories feeling almost plotless, most focused on ideas.

The middle section of the book is the one I enjoyed most. Here McConnell's characters come to life and the stories seem full fledged. The language, while not as wrought as in the other two sections, seems more in keeping with the relatively simply first-person narrators. This section, called "Diptych" consists of just two stories, about two friends, one from each friend's point of view. One is a sensitive thinker nicknamed Aquinas, who lives alone in the woods in the first story and whose primary habit is reading. He falls for girls hard and with little success. Brock, his friend, is his opposite. Fresh from the army, Brock is action not thought, not reading. He carries girls away like free mints offered at the end of a visit to a restaurant--they're great to enjoy but never does one hold any particular unique hold over him. And he has a drinking problem, one that threatens often to get him into trouble. In the first story, Brock, after sending a letter noting that he's out of the army, comes to visit Aquinas, and the two go out to have drinks and to find some girls, who they take into the woods to make out with. Typical of Brock, when bored, he's up and out. Aquinas expects never to see him again. In the second story, Brock receives a letter from Aquinas, only the circumstances have changed much. Aquinas, sunk into a deep depression, has killed himself, and not it's Brock's turn to consider what it means when a friend leaves. I could have read eight more stories about these characters, so well did McConnell draw them--these are the two stories I'll remember from the collection.

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