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A Review of Pinckney Benedict's "Miracle Boy and other Stories

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The Southern Literary Review, Novermber 22, 2011

A Review of Pinckney Benedict's Miracle Boy and other Stories

Pinckney Benedict's third collection of stories, Miracle Boy and other Stories, fearlessly merges Benedict's well-established literary style with a darker, more "popular" approach to storytelling. Born to a family of West Virginia dairy farmers and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Benedict burst onto the literary fiction scene in 1987 with the release of Town Smokes and, in 1992, with The Wrecking Yard and Dogs of God (his first and only novel) a year later. Now, after an irksome seventeen-year abeyance, Benedict's return marks a leap in his work, the stories of Miracle Boy dismantling the conventions of personal experience and literary fiction to create one unique, intricately-shaped, and entirely-consuming world after another.

In "Pony Car," a cross between a ghost story and zombie-apocalypse thriller, a split-tongued crow channels the undead. "The Beginnings of Sorrow" depicts a hunting dog possessed by the salacious soul of his dead master. And, in "Joe Messinger is Dreaming," we witness the folding over of time in the high-altitude-affected mind of Messigner before he plunges in a space suit from a weather balloon at 120,000 feet.

But it's not just world-making and imagination that makes this new collection such a page turner; it's the chance encounters, missed opportunities, and bizarre yet entirely real conflicts that compel the reader forward. When, in "Mudmen," for example, a pig farmer learns of his wife's adultery, he slathers mud across a skeleton of scrapwood and commands him to "Kill all vermin." Once the mudman has killed everything in sight, the farmer becomes the object of his own directive. Similarly, "The Angel's Trumpet" is told from the point-of-view of the last surviving Goins as he descends into the manure pit that has recently taken the lives of his entire family to limn his family's heritage across the vat's interior walls. "The Secret Nature of the Mechanical Rabbit" depicts Buddy Gunn's decision to poison his boss's dogfighting dingo after collecting one too many puppies from The Classifieds for him to practice on. And, in "Zog-19: A Scientific Romance," an iron-clad alien from the distant future falls in love with the wife of Donny McGinty, the farmer whose body the alien possesses in order to procure information about the human species.

The stories of Miracle Boy are denizens of real-time, slyly feeding readers the finer details and necessary background as scenes unfold rather than via sections of exposition. In "The Angel's Trumpet," Benedict weaves the thoughts of the main character's brother and elucidating quotes from reference books in his father's library into the narrative as the story otherwise unfolds in a linear direction. Likewise, "Joe Messinger is Dreaming" collapses time altogether so that expository prose, scene, and dialogue are one and the same. 

Miracle Boy has something to say about our world as well. Horror, sci-fi, and fantasy have always been the media of writers with a bent for examining what would happen if our nightmares, omens, and myths were to materialize. This sort of augury oft manifests itself in ways that are purely fictional in Miracle Boy, but the realities of technology also figure largely in these tales. There's the derelict radio telescope that acts as a small town's confessional in "The Butcher Cock," the weather balloon that allows for Messinger's peregrinations through time while marking his doom, the exterminator suit of "The Bridge of Sighs" that transforms a loving father into a monster, and "the intricate machine built by men to show him this girl at the other end of space" in "Pig Helmet & the Wall of Life."  There is also a lack of heroes in Miracle Boy, the true nature of the conflicts within Benedict's characters going largely unresolved. These stories often seem to suggest that humankind's lust for technology and its lack of providence in favor of dissemblance and demagoguery has doomed us to a whimpering end.

In a recent issue of Appalachian Heritage, editor George Brosi calls Pinckney Benedict "a gleeful writer"; aggressive, gun-slinging, and care-free might be more apt words for this fearless teller of tales. It took Mr. Benedict seventeen years to write Miracle Boy and other Stories. It was worth the wait.



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