Cowards and Cohorts
The Fear of Everything: Stories
by John McNally
Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2020.
$20.00 172 pp. paperback.
John McNally is one of those rare writers who might be considered a “writer’s writer” because his work is always structurally beautiful while his prose never draws attention to itself. He is in a tradition (mostly) of the mid-twentieth century American realism of Frank Conroy, John Cheever, and Richard Yates. But unlike those men, McNally’s characters are much more eccentric, humorous, and all around entertaining. His newest collection of stories, The Fear of Everything, celebrates the confusion and chaos of an uncomfortable world.
The opening story, “The Magician,” is pure McNally. Set in the Chicago suburbs of the 1970s, McNally spins a classic coming-of-age narrative dealing with the disappearance of a young girl. But this is far from a police procedural and works more with ambiguity than with crime. Told in a collective voice of first-person plural, “The Magician” has small echoes of “A Rose for Emily,” and parts of The Virgin Suicides. A lesser writer might try to zero in on the tabloid aspect of a missing child, but McNally focuses on the turmoil of the boys at her school, which makes the narrative concentrate on mystery, uncertainty, and wonder. At one point, McNally writes, “We, on the other hand, became haunted and obsessed, meeting on the blacktop before school, huddling in the cafeteria during lunch, walking slowly home after the last bell rang, all the while going over what we knew and didn’t know.” McNally can summon the mindset of teens and young people better than most, and his focus on the boys’ anxiety muddled with angst and hormones is honest and gripping.
The book’s title story switches gears as far as characters, but McNally’s trademark wit is consistent. “The Fear of Everything” focuses on a middle-aged man who has recently been widowed and is having a sort of mid-life crisis without harming himself along the way. The protagonist, Larry, shaves his head, grows a mustache, buys a sportscar, and eventually meets up with the curious Zoe, but Zoe is far from being a manic-pixie-dream-girl trope. She’s married and wants to swing. Her husband is described as “heavily bearded and eyebrowed.” On top of that, Zoe experiences pantophobia—or a fear of everything. This complicates things in unexpected ways reminiscent of the early stories of Ethan Canin. The arc of the story is simple but satisfying, and the themes of fear, love, memory, and forgiveness vibrate through the entire collection.
However, my favorite story out of the nine would easily be “The Blueprint of Your Brain.” It is difficult to describe what makes this story so amazing without spoiling any of the wonderful twists, but at its core, “The Blueprint of Your Brain” is about a friendship between a boy and an old man. As the boy, Jimmy, learns more about his friend, he tries to emulate his older sense of style, swagger, and confidence. He begins wearing a hat and using slang from ’30s and ’40s. He wears blue Florsheim shoes. Though there are complications and reversals along the way, the journey is riveting. McNally keeps the tension and humor taut, but he also manages to create wonderful worlds where boys discover dangerous truths while old men reject ideas of redemption.
Ultimately, McNally’s The Fear of Everything is wonderful collection in the tradition of T.C. Boyle. From the sidewalks of the Midwest to the isolated villages in the 1830s, McNally has captured a world all his own. I am positive any fan of short fiction will devour these humorous and haunting pieces.
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Writer living in Central Texas.