The idiosyncrasy of James McElroy’s prose has been a stumbling block for his readers, but his new collection, Night Soul and Other Stories, feels true to their author, every turn of phrase artistically sincere.
Joseph McElroy is not my friend. This thunderbolt felled me on page 49 of Night Soul and Other Stories, his new collection of short stories. A friend does not leave you gasping after his meaning while he gambols carefree in the forest of signs. A friend does not force you to recall vague references or struggle to interpret events with only a bare scaffold of hints, erected at some distance from the main action. Near the beginning of the fourth story, “Character,” in which the male narrator buttonholes a female co-worker and disgorges a long boyhood tale about carving a model whaleboat out of a hunk of reclaimed maple, I decided that McElroy was like the brilliant monologuist at a party: the man you admire but edge away from, even if the alternative is the piano teacher with cat breath. Imagine my surprise when I returned to Night Soul weeks later to write this review and discovered that I remembered these stories well and fondly. They had been incubating in my limbic brain all the while—oh, diabolical story master!—and even the hunk of reclaimed maple had acquired a homey patina.
“Character” has a kind of companion piece in this collection, “Canoe Repair,” which also centers on a totem boat and its aesthetic and symbolic hold on a male character. Zanes has escaped from the city to a house on a man-made lake. His wife’s first cookbook has unexpectedly attracted producers at New Hampshire Television and his teenage son is on the cusp of independence—two looming transitions from his small, intentionally circumscribed world into the unknown. In “Character,” we rarely leave the shed in which the boy is shaping his whaleboat, but “Canoe Repair” expands from Zanes’s lakefront retreat to the nearby small town and offers a larger emotional compass, as well.
McElroy’s recurrent theme in these stories is the yearning for human connection—most often through random encounters and the weird alchemy of the city, but also within families. “Marriage,” as he puts it in another story, “is putting two people face-to-face slightly of.” More direct is Zanes’s relationship with his neighbor’s Native American- made birch bark canoe. The obsessive focus on an object of beauty that felt claustrophobic in “Character” here feels like a love affair that includes the reader:
Which end was which? Ribs curved with a beautiful singleness up to the gunwales, and, out of the bent tension in which they seemed to grip and bow the ribs, as you ran your eyes over it and felt it the canoe developed a force of tightness and actual lift, as if the noble forcing of the ribs into the oval narrow form turned the weight inward into lightness. Zanes ran his fngers along a carved rib that tapered just below the gunwale.
Anyone sensitive to the English sentence will have noticed that magnificent example beginning “Ribs curved… .” At his best, McElroy’s sentences show astonishing facility and reach, as when he follows the fight of a boomerang at dusk in “The Man With the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne”: “More than once I felt it behind me, palely revolving, silent as a glider and beyond needing light to cross the private sky of the Bois, which for all its clarity of scope and logical forest is its own shadow and contagion within a metropolis of illuminations balconied, reflected, glimmering, windowed in the frames of casements.” Who would not love to have written that, with its soft explosion at “contagion” and word-shrapnel flung across Paris?
But the sentence will not stretch indefinitely. McElroy’s urge to load a world — or a meandering train of thought — between that capital letter and a period can end up feeling strained or arbitrary. The narrator of “Character” recalls:
“It was a particular day, expectant, unwise; I knew this piece of wood, and we were expecting an important friend of my father’s in the late afternoon and my father had left for an appointment in town but was coming back, an embarrassment of riches as I saw it and saw it then, and I was not a person with ever nothing to do, although my father had an opinion on that score who himself thought being holed up in a tool shed or finding a weasel’s, probably a marten’s, little S-curved scat on the far side of the river was OK for a kid or some other types but not greatly thrilling.
Most of these stories are free with chronology and tend to be heavy on voice and atmosphere, short on explication. This means that they open fully only to a second reading. The more demanding pieces are in the frst half, though, so the book reads like an obstacle course that rewards panting survivors with a cool, grassy run. The turning point comes with the brief but moving “Annals of Plagiary,” in which an unknown man with one book to his credit discovers that an acclaimed artist and environmental activist has appropriated some of his words — a single sentence, as it happens: “Water is always water — above, below, in food, trickle, rapid or sea, but the traces we leave in it last like our changing thoughts.” That we cannot own the best of ourselves is hard enough; much harder to accept that others can take it from us.
McElroy’s reviewers like the term “uncompromising,” which is code for “wouldn’t pull his reader out of a burning building.” I also like Garth Risk Hallberg’s apparently straight-faced remark in the LA Times that “McElroy makes few concessions to his readers’ limitations.” Clearly the idiosyncrasy of McElroy’s prose has been a stumbling block, as evidenced by the leaden response to what should have been seen as his masterwork, the 1200-page novel Women and Men (1987), now virtually unread. Certainly the stories in Night Soul feel true to their author; every turn of phrase seems artistically sincere. But they also feel private. “Uncompromising” means that you enter these stories as a voyeur, circling the artist at work. Beauties and wonders unfold, but on McElroy’s terms.