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Practice makes perfect
John McManus moves from stories to the novel

Just because John McManus comes from the South (raised in Blount County, East Tennessee) doesnít mean we should compare him with Faulkner. Just because Bitter Milk, his first novel, takes place in the South (in the shadow of Blount Countyís Chilhowee Mountain), and just because it has that fetid Southern feel, fecund like a dammed-up creek, and just because the writing and the setting and the characters feel different from those of the pristine North, with its Updikes, Cheevers, and Salingers, doesnít mean McManus is a Southern writer. To regionalize his writing is to belittle its universality.

When the 26-year-old McManus published his first book of short stories, Stop Breakin Down, in 2000, he was barely old enough to buy a drink. The collection earned him the $35,000 Whiting Award; he was the youngest-ever recipient. His second collection, Born on a Train, was also lauded for its energy and grit. But these collections didnít announce the arrival of another over-hyped Hot Young Thing so much as they gave promise: here was a writer practicing. The practice has paid off: Bitter Milk makes good on the promise.

McManusís best stories are the ones that deal with children, so he did well to make a kid the focus of his novel. Loren Garland is a chubby nine-year-old. He doesnít have a father. His mother wants to be a man. They live in the hills, in the woods, where the roads are "spread across the land as if someone had spilled a can of worms," land about to be sold off to developers, with a dysfunctional extended family all around them. Mother and son are trapped, trapped in their bodies ó he in too much flesh, she in the wrong sex ó and trapped in a place where no one understands them. Bitter Milk is the story of Lorenís transformation from docile, oversensitive observer to hardened cynic. He goes from a kid with a flower garden, 230 books, and an endearing addiction to peanut butter to a kid who rips saplings out of the earth, who curses and drinks and learns to fight.

His way of interacting with the world starts to change when his mother disappears to have a sex-change operation. She doesnít tell him what sheís up to or whether sheís coming back ó she just leaves him in the care of his hard-drinking, arm-wrestling aunts and uncles. Throughout, Loren is shadowed by Luther, the imaginary friend, ghost, angel/devil perched on his shoulder who narrates the novel. At first, Luther is intrusive and overbearing; itís easy to imagine him whispering insidious things into Lorenís ear. Luther justifies these things: "I thought maybe I could toughen him up, because Blount County was a backwards ignorant place where he needed to be tough."

After Lorenís mother leaves, however, Luther becomes a protective older brother. "Iím not trying to control anyone," he muses. "All I want is for people to be happy. In this particular valley, between these particular mountains, Loren has the best chance of it." To be happy in these hills means understanding how the world works. Loren sets out to find his mother and is hardened by his quest. "In another life heíd have asked Papaw about birds, but in his new way of engagement he felt like letting out a string of random curses for no particular reason."

McManus writes about these people ó backwoods, uneducated, bordering on poverty ó without stereotype or condescension, from grumpy, stubborn Papaw, grandfather patriarch who writes dirty songs, to Lorenís Nintendo-playing cousin Eli, who teaches him how to drink and fight, to the wretched, vile Delia Sledge, girlfriend of Lorenís uncle, to Loren himself. The author depicts a mournful hardness specific to this cranny of the world. But mournful hardness exists on the back streets of Brookline as much as in the backwoods of Blount County, and McManus expresses the process of coming to know and understand that truth in a way that transcends locale.

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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