Review: In the Devil's Territory by Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor's book of secrets
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  February 25, 2009

HARSH TRUTHS In his debut collection, Minor explores the mystery of human cruelty.

In Kyle Minor's dark debut collection of stories, personal secrets always exact a terrible price — sometimes worse than the events that motivated them. In the novella "A Day Meant To Do Less" — violent, agonizing, and the centerpiece of this collection — nine-year-old Franny gets assaulted in the tobacco fields near her Kentucky home. She is chased, pushed, pissed on, forced to take her older cousin's penis in her mouth. She grows up, tells no one, buries it deep. But as Minor shows in fantastic, horrifying detail, buried truths can bubble up in strange, nightmarish ways.

Issues of denied identity are at the center of "A Love Story" as well. The narrator, a popular Southern Baptist pastor in West Palm Beach, suppressed his homosexuality and got married. Marianne recalls Andre Dubus's women — resigned, resilient, patient, wise. More than 10 years into the marriage, the pastor acts on his urgings with another man, then tells his wife everything. She asks whether he'll leave her; he says he doesn't know. She responds: "Take your time and make your decision, and then I will decide to forgive you, one way or the other. . . . I will forgive you, and let me tell you, it will be the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, because right now I hate you." A year later, he has still not made a decision ("I have never given her an answer"), even as he ponders "the peace that passes all understanding" for his next "Sunday message."

In "goodbye Hills, hello night," a quartet of teenage boys go "rousting," and Jim Bailey bludgeons a homeless Indian to death. The story is told in the voice of one of the participants: "Here's the plain truth of it. I never killed no one. You want to talk murder, talk to Jim Bailey. He didn't mean to, neither. He's the one done it."

Beyond the murderous lack of control ("didn't mean to"), there's a subtler, more pervasive sadism afoot. "Jim slapped his ear with his hand cupped shape of a C. If you slap someone's ear like that it rings for hours, and Jim knew how to do things like that. . . . Jim Bailey knew how to hurt people a hundred ways and more."

Minor has known such viciousness first-hand. In his autobiographical essay "You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace" (anthologized in Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers), a bully "slaps my ears, hard, with his open palm . . . Drew McKinnick knows how to hurt a person a hundred ways and more."

You could argue that, grave as their scenarios are, Minor's stories too often lack closure. Of course, that renders them all the more unsettling: they end with Chekhovian question marks. ("The Navy Man" is tagged "After Chekhov.") The pastor is left with the mystery of his wife's strength and grace ("the peace that passes all understanding"). The witness to the Indian's murder takes responsibility for his friend's crime, even as he tries to paint over the blood-stained evidence of the event. Looking up, he sees "a little tiny sliver of moon, and the stars all shining." The mystery of human cruelty in the context of a greater mystery.

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