Monday, September 19, 2011

On "The Complete History of New Mexico" by Kevin McIlvoy **

Much of what gets published in journals comes down to there being some sort of gimmick. The gimmick gets people's attention, and if you're not a known, respected writer already, sometimes attention is what you need to get people to actually read what it is you've written. Different is good. Different is interesting. Sometimes different is as strong or stronger than traditional. And sometimes, traditional is enough.

McIlvoy's Complete History reads like a set of gimmicks, one after another after another. The stories contained in this collection include chain letters, wills, monologues, stories based on lyrics, and--the title story--drafts of student essays. It is the drafts of the student paper on the complete history of New Mexico that make for the most-entertaining reading in the collection. They are funny and absurd, though I'm not sure how the various drafts improve on one another such that the student's grade gets higher each time he tries. And there's a poignant backstory trying to work its way out of all the reflection on prostitutes and mules and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and reversible jackets. Somewhere down here, a kid's friend dies. But it's swallowed up in pseudohistory that seems to wander farther afield from any semblance of reality with each draft. Parts of these three stories made me laugh (if one can call them stories--rather than just grade-school reports so bad that they're good).

The rest of the collection didn't speak much to me. Some of the stories include repeating characters. McIlvoy tells a tale of a white trash family destroying their house (or really one member of the family doing so), one of whom shows up in a later story--a rant about piano moving. He tells a tale of a family who owns a giant rhino that it paints and whose mother is dying and doesn't get to see the rhino, and so lives to hear what stories the family will tell about it--some of whom show up in a later story about a wedding.

The most moving tale to me ("Permission") involved three bar employees and a magician who wants to be hired on for entertainment. Late hours, at or after closing time, he performs tricks for the three bar workers. There's something mysterious here, some essence that is hard to explain. The three of them all want the tricks done on them, want to be the subject of the magician's main attention, just as, on some level, the three of them are also involved in some kind of contest for each other's attention. It's a pitiful situation, the narrator tells us, and in some hard-to-define way, the pity comes through to the reader.

No comments: