In the Devil’s Territory
by Kyle Minor
Dzanc Books, 2008
220 pages / $16.95 Buy from Dzanc Books
With In the Devil’s Territory, Minor writes primary characters who are to a one religious, but none who testify to supernatural events and miracles in their own lives, in part (it seems) to depict certain of them as areas of as much suffering as anywhere else, and where the traditional Christian lifeline, perceivable congress with God, has been cut and redirected through churches and church schools. He favors a multi-part story that shifts between perspectives to attempt “real story” triangulation (“A Day Meant to Do Less” and the title story). Characters each see a small part of a larger story, and the coordinates to which their narratives point is where the reader gains understanding they lack. Minor has a mind for simple, effective arrangements, which occasionally require narrational contortions to suit.
The first paragraph of “A Love Story,” about a homosexual attraction lasting decades between two churchgoing men who have lived outwardly as if hetero, begins on an inherently problematic note with the narrator’s claim that nobody abused him as a boy. He had a “normal” childhood, he means, as if, for him to be attracted to a man, by default someone must have “touched or fondled” him, or he must have stolen or “laundered” his mother’s “underthings.” That gamble is standard blah for quick exposition that establishes the lack of a first-person narrator’s confidence in the ensuing narrative—let me start with a qualifying statement about how the past has nothing to do with what you haven’t read yet so that you won’t disbelieve me—but in this case it also forces me into a defensive or apathetic posture. This narrator believes he must first discredit an assumption (his own) that homosexuality begins with abuse, with an aberration, and wants to explain (to someone) that his attraction to a man did not begin that way. It’s purer than gayness-by-trauma, in other words, which claim more or less gives you his coordinates. But he narrates in first-person past, which means he still holds to that after the events of the story. If I’m game at all, as a third party in the [narrator/reader/critical phantasm created by narrator] setup, what set of images am I dealing with, whose experiences? Maybe the phantasm and the reader are the same, as far as the narrator (or Minor) is concerned. I get the basics: the narrator desires a man but is ashamed of that desire, and the story probably will be annoying and ambivalent about it. I wondered whether the “love” in the title really is between the two men instead of between the churchgoing homosexual and his constant persecutor, not God, not his (weirdly understanding) wife, but his own creation to whom he feels impelled to justify his sexuality. Whatever it is, he also must contort himself to accommodate the structure, which, whether or not it’s “his,” is a mobile prison.
Minor offsets sad crooked characters with direct sentences that rarely bend back on themselves, even when they last half a page. Sometimes a scene will flit, mid-sentence, to another location (an interview in an office, now a tour of the gymnasium), but that device stands out from generally stolid prose that calmly moves forward to the end of a section. The writing is difficult to fault, which is to say Minor takes few risks with his words. He explores “proven” structures by limiting himself to their angles and proceeding to their terminus.
Another thing I’ve been orbiting: the principal of a Florida Baptist school uses a series of neckties to illustrate his color-coded demerit system. The initial absurd image (7 ties on a rack signifying 7 levels of student misbehavior), followed by a sudden location shift and something new, the smell of “the bodies of boys even though school would not begin for two weeks,” in sequence with the ties, the moron principal, the school itself, something that boys smell up and fuck in and exit, to become adults who smell and fuck and exit: bleak, but resurrection happens elsewhere.