by Mark Massaro
John McNally’s decades of writing experience and his well-honed craft are abundantly apparent in his newest collection of short stories, The Fear of Everything. This isn’t a surprise, as McNally’s credits include novels, previous short story collections, essays, and even a book on his own craft, Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, which has been taught in university writing courses every semester since its publication in 2013. It’s also been on the required list for my own writing course ever since I’ve been teaching. This is a writer whose ability to engage the reader is constantly evolving as he connects the subjective with the universal, the commonplace with the bizarre.
The nine stories in this collection seem to take the reader on a roller-coaster ride: They’re full of eventful highs and somber depths — and you can’t get off once you start. Each character is relatable, based on their struggle with their fallible humanity and their unconscious hope for something better — and the details are subtly powerful, with each story having its own distinctive tone.
The first story in the collection pulls the reader in through the shared perspective of a group of grade-school boys and their idealization of one Katy Muldoon, a schoolmate who, McNally states, “rais[es] her hand for every question, as though all the answers to all the problems were merely floating in front of her eyes.” This idealization of the girl gives way, with a crash, to unflinching awareness when the narrator’s eye turns towards the boys: “We were a pitiful lot of boys that year …. We learned how to shoot milk through our noses, to peel back our eyelid …. We started growing hair in places we hadn’t had hair before, and we didn’t know what to think of that.” The reader can’t help but become a part of the group, pulled in by the universality of puberty, the claustrophobia of suburbia, and nostalgia for the girl just out of reach, which all comes crashing down by the last page because of the actions of a magician.
Some stories in the collection are experimental in nature. They subtly break from convention, but are never totally outlandish, because McNally makes the ordinary humanity of the characters so recognizable. For example, in one story, unconventionally, a rotary telephone is the frame for a character’s life as he investigates his past and lineage, and yet all the while he is doing something ordinary and recognizable: having some beers at home. In another story, a lawyer talks at a potential client, in a stream-of-consciousness rant that lasts for a few pages, yet, unlike the poor woman in the story who is stuck listening to him, the reader finds each tiny detail and digression in the rant utterly intoxicating.
The Fear of Everything also has the capacity to break readers’ hearts. There is an empathetic depth in the story of Katy Muldoon — whose name will live on in readers’ minds after they finish the collection — and also in another story, about a social outcast living in a culture that is in the grips of a Salem-witch-like hysteria. This outcast, an innocent girl, seems to be a mirror for the immoral culture that she is a part of, and the residents seem to project all of their self-hatred and wickedness onto anything considered “other” by their societal standards.
McNally is a master at interweaving emotional details with environmental descriptions, an approach that builds scenes as well as characters. For example, when a young character wakes up from having his tonsils removed, McNally writes, “Dougie had no idea what time it was. He passed the hours thinking about Nurse Jill, who had long, straight, blonde hair like Susan Dey in The Partridge Family, and how she had rubbed her hand over his hair and said, ‘I know girls who’d kill for those curls.’” This simple description of childhood experience seems to embody all of it. In another story, he says, “The hedges on either side of Larry’s sidewalk, untrimmed and almost touching, like the fingers of Adam and God in an endless and surreal foliage version of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, obscured the presence of Mufeed until Larry was almost on top of him.” The attention to the sensory details in this passage quietly constructs the imagery within readers’ minds, allowing them to experience the mundane and ordinary as romantic.
Most of the stories explore the basic need for human connection, the consequences of self-sabotage, and the battle to move forward — and this is done with skillful grace. It’s often been said that a person needs to be healthy themselves to be in a healthy relationship, and this is apparent in these stories, whether they’re about a boy longing for his mother, a girl struggling as an outcast, a widower searching for…something, a man meeting new women after being separated from his wife, or a character recognizing that the elusive woman he is dating is the same person whose picture he had seen on a “Missing” poster (and developed a crush on) in his childhood. All these characters embody the idea that hopes springs eternal.
McNally, already an established storyteller, is at the top of his game with this charming collection. After absorbing these stories, I went back and reread his debut collection, Troublemakers, and ordered his other previous collection, Ghosts of Chicago, in an effort to have his voice continue on in my mind.