One big, crippling thought that makes you wonder how long John McManus has been waiting to confide it, this naturalistic first novel from the former Michener fellow and author of the short-story collections 'Born on a Train' and 'Stop Breakin Down' takes place in late-Eighties East Tennessee at the base of a ridge in the Smokies
by John McManus
Picador, 197 pp., $13 (paperback original)One big, crippling thought that makes you wonder how long John McManus has been waiting to confide it, this naturalistic first novel from the former Michener fellow and author of the short-story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down takes place in late-Eighties East Tennessee at the base of a ridge in the Smokies. Nine-year-old Loren Garland, obese, bastardized, and, not surprisingly, outcast, nonetheless has "his own flower garden in the backyard, ten imaginary friends, two hundred and thirty books, and basically everything he could want," explains Luther, our narrator and an ostensible figment. It is as bright an outlook on Loren's life and times as we'll receive for quite a while, and about as bucolic as this rural-set dirge will get. After all, is there anything more aching than a life that should be limitless instead finding limits in every direction? The answer is yes, of course, when that life is led anywhere near Appalachia. Loren's "ignarnt" extended family has all but eliminated his mother from their own lives, owing mostly to the fact that she has decided to become a man, and when she heads "up the mountain" which Loren, a smart kid (McManus is either not cold or bold enough to completely roadblock his character), assumes to mean the Top of the World mental hospital he shuffles unhappily among his uncle, his aunt, and his grandfather, a recent widower. "He considered the notion that Papaw and Cass and Ruby were right, and Mother was wrong," McManus writes through Luther. "Papaw and Cass and Ruby only wanted him to be thin, for his own sake, and if he was stuck in this body for the rest of his life, they wanted him to learn to be a man and stop wanting impossible things. They'd all stopped wanting impossible things long ago, if they had ever wanted impossible things at all." Eighty pages later, though, "[t]hings were beginning to happen." These things begin to happen on a journey, but Loren doesn't so much come of age as come to anger, and Bitter Milk which heretofore has felt like waking up in the woods after sleepwalking on a particularly hot afternoon becomes less about its chapterless, quotationless structure and dialectal authenticity and more about the weird ways we get a hold of ourselves. Or don't.
John McManus will be at BookPeople on June 14 at 7pm.