[Texas Review Press; 2022]
We are a nation haunted by its past. A past which is everywhere, which is “not even dead. It is not even past,” as Faulkner wrote. And we are also a young country, whose brief, tortured history has produced a long legacy of mourning in our writers, some idolizing false pasts, some grieving lost ones. Thomas H. McNeely, a former Stegner fellow and Houston native, has been writing about the past and its pastness for two decades, through to his latest collection, Pictures of the Shark.
McNeely’s first novel, Ghost Horse, follows the young Buddy Turner and his two friends, struggling to make sense of the rapidly changing landscape of 1970s industrial Houston and their place in it, as race and class become ever more salient with the onset of adolescence. McNeely’s newest collection continues to examine the childhood of Buddy Turner and his own. Pictures of the Shark is comprised of eight stories, five of which deal explicitly with Buddy’s childhood years in Houston, and three of which feature Buddy, now referred to as “Turner,” in his late teens and early twenties. At its best, the collection plunges into the wonderful, disturbing, and heart-wrenching depths of Buddy, the Turner family, and Houston, a testimony to decades of work on these subjects. But there are limits to such dedication, as it became clear to me by the end of the collection that McNeely might simply know his characters too well for their plights to yield much in the way of aesthetic pleasure or discovery.
To see McNeely at his best is to see character revealed not in long, internal monologue but in the smallest of details, scattered through the prose like dew on the tips of grass. He knows his characters so well that he can tend more closely to the surface, allowing the dark underbelly to show only when absolutely demanded by the story. The titular piece of the collection is a master class of such work. Buddy is taken to Universal Studios to see Bruce, the mechanical shark from Jaws, which is his favorite movie. As the story opens, we are greeted with the image of Buddy’s father’s car making “heartbeats” on the road. The sound of the tires is the soundtrack to the trip, reminding Buddy of the music in Jaws that signals the approach of the shark, “grinning, deadly, a silent friend” that follows him the whole way there.
Jimmy, the father, drives, Buddy sits in the back, and Jimmy’s serious-but-secret-type of lover—her presence is unbeknownst to Buddy’s mother, Margot—sits in the front, typically Buddy’s seat. Exiled to the back, Buddy is “wedged next to suitcases his father had lugged out of the woman’s apartment.” We don’t know who the woman is yet, but we can feel Buddy’s coldness for her in this first description: “All the way from Houston through Dallas, her thin, breathless voice had fluttered over road signs and billboards, license plates and historical markers, circling what a good time they were going to have together on their trip.” McNeely does not need to dress up his prose to make it sting or explain through some long, tired exposition. How Buddy feels about her is clear in the mention of her being in his seat, the long, exhaustive sentence about her voice that leaves you breathless by the time you’ve finished it, the silence he later replies with when she asks if he thinks they’ll be special friends, and in the refusal to name her.
So the simple image does all the work. It gives the context for Buddy’s anger, which has everything to do with Jimmy’s absence, the secrets he makes Buddy keep from his mother, and the promises he never lives up to. These facts lurk like ghosts, like the shark, haunting the white space on the page as much as they haunt Buddy himself.
Perhaps the richest, though simplest, ghostly detail is that Buddy goes by Turner in his early adulthood. The change is never explained or justified, so it’s left to us to imagine the moment Buddy, caught up in self-loathing, demanded to be called by his last name. But beneath the surface of Buddy’s name change lies a tragic irony: In the attempted escape from himself, from the pain and trauma he has inherited, he runs not forward but backwards toward his patrilineage, toward the very thing that haunts him. It is unsurprising that the stories are dark themselves. We see in the Turner stories a young man racked by alcoholism and depression, living in filthy conditions, while his father lurks in the wings.
In “Ariel,” Turner is a junior in high school and begins dating a girl, Ariel, in the year above him. They rendezvous at night in the garage apartment on his father’s property, where Turner has built a nest for himself with castoff furniture from the main house. The first liquor Turner gets hooked on is pilfered from his father’s stash while “his [father’s] girlfriend of the moment and he slept.” Turner recreates in miniature the lifestyle of his father, except he does so with the added excess and angst of adolescence, which leads to colossal self-destruction. He becomes obsessed with Ariel, binge drinking to numb the pain and loneliness when he is not with her, distancing himself from his family, and driving himself to the brink of death. There are flashbacks, but they are told almost as throwaways, as if Turner doesn’t want to believe in their hold on him. Turner mentions the sadness at seeing his father’s new house after his separation from Turner’s mother Margot, when he “still haunted my mother’s house, spending nights with her on weekends.” He tells us that part of the reason he is drawn to Ariel is that she is kind, and since his father moved, he has been looking “for kindness everywhere.”
While the darkness of Turner’s life is explicit on the page, it is the small details—the name change, his search for kindness—that transform a dark, unfeeling story into a tragedy. There is a Gothic element to the story in the haunting paternal figure from which our young, maverick hero attempts to escape, but who, in the process, becomes ensnared in that figure’s most corrupting compulsions. That McNeely can tease so much out of Buddy’s name change suggests his mastery of both surface and depth of character.
The Gothic impulse is apt for McNeely and his subject matter. And while the dedication to the impulse has yielded great results in his fiction, I sensed, by the end of the collection, that the well of Buddy Turner and his ghosts had run dry. Why, for example, must we be treated to the repeated image of Buddy overhearing his parents having sex in another room? It gets recycled three times in the collection, and more than six times if you include Ghost Horse. McNeely uses the phrase “dead green eye of the TV” four times in the collection, and it’s also a favorite repeated image in the novel. This is not about nitpicking. For these tired and repeated images are the smoking gun to the unresolved—or, for that matter, resolved—dilemmas of Buddy’s childhood that get replayed in the same fashion: the departure of his father to Detroit, the reason why Margot and Buddy did not follow him there, the question of reconciliation with his mother, the resentment Jimmy’s mother feels toward Margot for apparently tricking Jimmy into marriage. These are complex issues that merit deep investigation. But what has happened in this new collection is that the ghosts of Buddy’s—and McNeely’s—past have lost their most important quality: mysteriousness. Why is Buddy plagued by self-doubt? Why does he struggle with the expectations of gender? Why is he so angry? McNeely answers these questions with the thoroughness of a psychiatrist, giving concrete diagnoses to his patient’s problems. By clearing away the smoke of mystery, McNeely misses the opportunity to develop different, deeper, and more urgent questions, which might animate the work to newer and greater heights.
I want to stress that I am not arguing that the dedication to a single subject is itself misguided. But the great Catch-22 for McNeely is that his mastery over Buddy’s family and the world of Houston—a mastery that makes for vivid character portraits, tense, intricate relationships, and controlled language—brings with it the central problem of the work. Put simply, he knows them too well, and his knowing is a problem. The collection clearly demonstrates McNeely’s talent for language, detail, and surface, but you can’t tell a ghost story whose mystery is solved from the start. It is time now, perhaps, for McNeely to put those talents toward different depths, different characters, and different stories that will yield new mysteries.
Gus O’Connor is a writer and bookseller currently based in Chicago.
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