There’s a terrible, long-in-the-tooth Doberman who appears in Episode, the title story in Colorado writer Robert Garner McBrearty’s funny and touching new collection. The dog serves to complicate matters as the narrator and his father attempt to coax Len, the narrator’s delusion-prone brother, into coming home. McBrearty writes:
“I help my father up and we hurry after Len to the fence in time to see the Doberman, old Jeeter, seventeen now, go into his Hound of the Baskervilles’ act. With the guttural snarl of an enraged drillmaster, he staggers stiff-legged across his turf. He’s a horrid looking thing, with scabby patches of orange-tinted medicated fur. The old dinosaur moves on memory. One last glorious mission. One last neighborhood ass to chew.”
Although Len and his brother have returned to the neighborhood in which they grew up and they are following habitual patterns, everything has changed. Jeeter has lost his ginger, their mother has died, and their father is growing old, less equipped each year to handle Len’s episodes. Jeeter could serve as the mascot for McBrearty’s characters, who often try to motivate themselves into attaining a semblance of past glory, but never quite make it.
McBrearty, who lives in Louisville and teaches at the University of Colorado, won the prestigious Sherwood Anderson Foundation Grant in 2007 for three of the stories in Episode. He writes with great heart and can play all the notes on the scale of humor, at times achieving the zaniness and over-the-top personalities of a T.C. Boyle story, at other moments working in the wistful sad-funny key of Thomas McGuane, and including some amusing experimentation reminiscent of Donald Barthelme.
Sports, plumbing, and family life are themes that unite McBrearty’s stories, but each is surprising, and apt to begin with an arresting opening: “I’m not after excellence in the Tai Chi classes I teach. I’m happy if nobody falls.” (“Excellence”) “The murderer held a gun to my temple.” (“The Murderer”) “The call came unexpectedly. I recognized the voice. Phlegmy. Breathy. Too many years of chewing tobacco. Too many years of spitting hard. Coach’s question was simple: ‘Can you still hit the fast one?'” (“The Comeback”).
McBrearty excels at capturing the feeling of a dream that is just out of reach, the opportunity barely missed, and the longing for contemplation and connection amid the busyness of people’s lives, as in this passage from “The Final Conversation” about a middle-aged history teacher who has taken up boxing and whose amateur psychiatrist is pressing him to imagine the final conversation with his dead mother that he never had:
“I’ve got three boys, ages six to thirteen, and we fill in the time with bike rides and baseball and swimming and squirt gun fights…sometimes I imagine that during the course of the day we’re all going to have this great conversation. We’re all going to sit out on the deck, and one-by-one we’re going to talk about what we believe and what we want out of life and how much we mean to one another, and we’re going to be very open and non-judgmental and full of unconditional love, and I’m going to offer all these wry insights into life…
But it’s never like that, I guess. I’m crazy about my kids, but it’s always chaotic, somebody’s always pissed off at somebody, or gets his feelings hurt about something, and sometimes I just say Come at me, and we tumble into each other and roll around on the deck wrestling.”
McBrearty’s characters often undergo transformations, as in “The Bike,” where the narrator’s wife trains at cycling until she becomes sleek and begins to move past her husband physically and emotionally, or in “The Comeback” in which the middle-aged narrator attempts to whip himself back into the ballplayer he was as a youth. But one of the most amusing instances of transformation is in “The Real World,” in which a squeaky-clean family ends up covered in sewage. The story begins, “One early afternoon in May, my friend Tom Donahue, owner of Flushright, a one man sewer and drain cleaning company, called to ask me if I would help him on a job.”
The narrator is out of work, living in a friend’s garage, and he reluctantly accepts the job. Tom offers to apprentice him in the plumbing trade, which turns out to mean that the narrator is stuck doing backbreaking labor while Tom relaxes and enjoys beverages with the family for whom they are working. Things do not go well, and the story ends with the two would-be plumbers hightailing it out of the pleasant neighborhood after the house fills with sewage, the man who’d hired them raging and threatening a lawsuit. You get the sense, in the world of McBrearty’s fiction, that there are some people who live neat, orderly, excellent lives, until they have the misfortune of encountering one of his characters, who unleash chaos and disorder.
Often times these opposing forces of chaos and order are found within a single marriage, as in “Excellence,” in which the narrator, who teaches Tai Chi to elderly patients at a community hospital, succumbs to the old plot: “Man goes to seed. Loses his wife and kids. Man goes to more seed.” The narrator and his wife met in a Tai Chi class, and the exercise called “Push Hands,” in which “the idea is to keep your own balance while pushing your partner off balance, using as little force as possible” becomes a beautiful metaphor for their marriage:
“She’s always had the edge, the natural softness and root. My back muscles stiffen, the old hard force rises up. But then I drop my tailbone, turn my waist. I yield. I follow her lead until it becomes a kind of dance, her leading, then me leading, rocking back and forth, turning our waists and hips, until you can’t tell any more who’s leading and who’s following until we don’t know where we’re gong or where we’ve been.”
The reader is left with some hope that this couple will survive, though it’s going to be complicated. Complicated survival, leavened with humor, seems to be the definition of life in the world of McBrearty’s wonderful stories.