It’s a rare thing for me to love a book unconditionally, so why can’t I stop myself from trying? Sometimes the best I can ask for when a friend lends me one of their favorites is to walk away unoffended. Similarly, the few times I bought a text based on its interesting cover or another blurb from the likes of The New Yorker … well, you know the cliché about book covers, right? Go ahead and add to my list of grievances that I rarely read a book out of the order in which I received it, a process that had until recently taken the form of a book tower in the corner of my bedroom. My goal? To spend a month linearly breaking the tower down until there was nothing left but a dustless rectangle – right up until that very point where even if I hadn’t found my fiction “soul mate,” I could at least say I tried.
I tell you this because my auto mechanic forcefully lent me Pinckney Benedict’s Miracle Boy and Other Stories after a routine oil change. Keep in mind that my mechanic has serviced my cars for over a decade. Include the caveat that her copy contained the author’s inscription, a lovely personal note commending her friendship and business integrity. Two issues here: the book held baggage, the kind you can only get from a loaner – notable because I am a page-frayer and cover-bender – and because a quick read was prerequisite. What if, for example, my slave cylinder finked on me again (a now twice recurring issue), or my clutch burned out after its nearly 130,000 miles of abuse? Surely my mechanic would want the book back as soon as any of the aforementioned failings occurred.
Thus, I grudgingly began what would soon become an all-out consumption. I admit that I expected Benedict to play it by the literary playbook. I looked for quiet moments and subtle exchanges between major characters that carry all the aplomb of a nasty stare from a significant other over dinner. Sure, icy girlfriends had the power to frighten and amaze me, but I cannot claim to recall the exact moment my chowder went cold. Or were we eating salad? Indeed, Miracle Boy is comprised of many such moments, if only to employ silence as a reprieve from a pervasive tension that infects every page. Likewise, I can remember every story for their images, their innovative plots, and their cryptic, hypnotic use of dialogue; I can’t make the same assertion about an instance where I was on my way to the dog house.
Perhaps most notably, the collection showcased all the thematic weight of a novel without forgoing the standalone power of a story. Every story pushed me further into thematic territories that required me to pay attention, learn, and grow as I continued to read. As the premises grew more complex, I too found myself compelled to see the collection for the sum of its parts, certain that the payoff would prove essential to my tasks as an avid reader.
Each of Benedict’s fourteen tales, at the very least, exhibit an inventiveness seldom encountered in literary fiction. Take for example, “Zog-19: A Scientific Romance,” a mishmash of science fiction and romantic tropes. On the surface, this is a tale that covers concepts as broad as time travel and planet-wide annihilation. But consider the protagonist, Zog-19, who steals the body of a West Virginian farmer in order to attempt the prevention of his species’ impending extinction. Zog-19’s is an omniscient alien race that can foresee the earthlings depleting the Zoglings of their sentient gas (their blood, essentially), to fuel future space travel. The plot, however, focuses on Zog-19’s effort to wear the rural-farmer’s face effectively. The extraterrestrial learns to assimilate to human expectations, gains knowledge of how to properly run a farm, and even makes love to the farmer’s wife (she is, of course, suspicious that he can no longer operate a stick shift, but ultimately none the wiser). Through his labors to become a better man, Zog-19 uncovers the value of human existence. The reader roots for Zog-19’s successful subterfuge, but wonders if his utility eventually causes his planet’s demise.
Or take the collection’s title story, an aftermath narrative which follows a young boy after he loses both his feet in a freak wheat silage accident. His father finds the boy’s feet, and has them stitched back to his severed ankles. This story uses the Miracle Boy to explore the cruelty of young boys, particularly the three who strip him bare to see his scars. At the height of their cruelty, they even toss his shoes onto a towering power line. The assailants eventually see the errors of their actions and redress the crippled boy, but his shoes dangle too precariously high to be retrieved safely. What follows is a tale of redemption and guilt, one which does not merely placate its protagonists and antagonists, but forces them to confront fear and forgiveness in a culminating scene at the top of the power line. Will the cruel boys find solace in risking their lives? Should I spoil the ending? I will allow you to spoil it for yourself. “Miracle Boy” sets the tone for the stories that follow, incorporating oddity while allowing themes like redemption and guilt to richly provoke a reader’s sense of insane humanity.
In sum, Miracle Boy and Other Stories changed the way I read. After I returned the copy to my mechanic, I promptly went home and knocked my tower down. I would stop seeking a book to love and instead let it find me. Nuts to the next book on my list, I thought, and I have never looked back.
– Charlie Edwards