The Body of This Transcends the Surreal
Something in the atmosphere of the Redwood Library — and Newport more broadly — taps into subconscious wells of historical and artistic instinct for the writer. The greats feel somehow near amidst the stacks, and conversation among literary fiddlers seems only slightly less grand than the exchanges that one imagines upon a Berkshire evening between the likes of Hawthorne and Melville. When I attended the library’s Third Thursday Writers’ Group sessions regularly, in the first half of this decade, we would sit around an old table and critique each other’s work, and none should doubt that the aging portraits around the room made their own contributions, as well.
Chief among the evidence that we undertook no mere extracurricular task were the offerings of Andrew McNabb. Such were the power of his written voice and the allure of his tales and characters that the rest of us felt as if the purpose of a given meeting had hardly been fulfilled unless he’d produced something from his folder. Certainly, we felt a wisp of trepidation when we ventured to criticize it.
Well, if I have a criticism — now that Andrew has offered his work to the public in a book of stories and sketches titled The Body of This — it derives from my desire for continuation and reprise. In the years since life swept me from the practice of regular writers-group attendance, during which time Andrew has transplanted to Maine, my book reading has been mainly mechanics and action: physics (to edify), project management (to advance), Robert’s Rules (for politics). Body of This felt like a return to intangible substance, not the least because that is the underlying sense of Andrew’s writing.
What makes his style resonate beyond the vast body of surrealistically tinged modernism is his sensibility as an even-on-weekdays Catholic. The imagery and subject matter lead one to expect a certain secular cynicism — doubt, scorn — that intriguingly isn’t there; his sketches are moments of faith as it’s lived. The churning stickiness of simultaneously budding sexuality and spirituality in the altar boy of “Blemished” doesn’t stand as a mockery of religious superficiality, as it would for the zealous materialist, but as an honest confession of human nature.
As readers should expect from a mature writer, this pervasive theme manifests even in Andrew’s strategy for description. One sentence painting the setting of “Their Bodies, Their Selves” reads like a clue to the whole collection: “If you took the building just for what it was — one level, three rooms — and ignored the dunes and the puffins and the sea grass and the few small pine-treed islands just offshore you wouldn’t have much.” So is it for Andrew’s vignettes, wherein the typical fantasist of the surreal might find hollow meaning in the foolish striving of hairless monkeys. So is it in life, which taken as a series of things to do and places to be doesn’t leave us with much. If we look beyond the what, to the where and how and why, we find ourselves to possess an infinite canvas of full and rich life.
That is the origin of my sole complaint: One longs to see Andrew’s well-drawn characters in multiple settings, even if scarcely related, throughout the book. Similarly, those of us who’ve been privileged to read the magnificent longer-form shorts by Mr. McNabb can only wonder at their absence.
Perhaps, though, this mild disappointment can blossom into hope that The Body of This is most directly an introductory work, presented on Andrew’s first night in our circle — an initial taste of his self revelation over the years to come.
Andrew McNabb will be in the Rhode Island area this week, giving readings from his book.