March 17: “The End of the Straight and Narrow” by David McGlynn

Wait, it’s St. Patrick’s Day? Really, I didn’t know that until Karen came home from class this morning, saw our son eating breakfast before school, and wondered why the heck I didn’t have him wearing green. I was all like, “Huh?” and then “Oh.” I don’t teach on Thursdays, wasn’t planning to go out and get drunk on green beer, and don’t like either corned beef or cabbage, let alone the combination of the two. I guess I don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but did wear my lime green Crocs today, just to keep people from pinching me.

All of this is probably a little bit odd to those of you who have been paying attention, as I’ve already made special note of some minor Polish holidays this year, reading Stuart Dybek for  Pączki Day and Mark Wisniewski for Casimir Pulaski Day. But do I remember the ethnic holiday that everyone remembers? Nope. Just wait until St. Joseph’s Day, which in Poland is the closer equivalent to St. Patrick’s Day than either of the days I’ve described. Leslie Pietrzyk and your new collection, I’m looking at you.

So along with throwing on my Crocs, I also altered my Story366 selection, having read someone else last night, preparing to write about them for today. That person is more French-sounding, so on Bastille Day, I might go back to him. Instead, I scanned my unread book piles and picked out the most Irish-sounding name I could find, David McGlynn. Karen is Irish, and Scottish, and I asked her if “McGlynn” is more Irish or Scottish, and she said Irish. So, today, for St. Patrick’s Day, I read from McGlynn’s The End of the Straight and Narrow, out in 2008 from SMU Press.

I really debated which story I was going to write about, as I read a few. One, “Moonland on Fire,” I published in Mid-American Review and revisited, along with a couple of others. “Deep in the Heart” is a really interesting and well written story, which does things with point of view and narration that I could talk about, but it’s about a kid dying from cancer, and I’m not feeling kids with cancer tonight ( … ). Instead, I’ll defer to the title story, which I like to do, anyway, and has its own set of interesting techniques to discuss.

“The End of the Straight and Narrow” takes place in Houston during Hurricane Glenda, which I’m pretty sure is made up. After reading, I checked the Internet and there were two Hurricane Glendas, in 1963 and 1969, and then I was thinking, Wait, did this story take place in the sixties and I missed it? I went back to look for clues to date the story and noticed the use of an ATM card, which I’m pretty sure weren’t around in 1969. Houston has experienced a lot of storms, being on the western Gulf Coast, but to be clear, this is a hurricane, in Houston, which is a very real thing, but just not specifically so.

Anyway, “The End of the Straight and Narrow” features a teenaged kid, Rowdy, as its protagonist. Rowdy and his family are preparing for Glenda to hit, doing all the things that families do like emptying the fridge, taping the windows, and filling as many containers with water as they can. Something else is amiss, though, as Rowdy’s younger sister, Jill, is writing letters to a woman named Kay, who has moved away, whom she wishes was her mother. The kids’ mother is still around, though, helping to prep for the storm, so immediately, there’s dual conflicts going on, the storm, plus another storm, coming in the form of another woman.

McGlynn is sly as he doesn’t reveal much of anything too soon, in most ways. We don’t know who Kay is for a while, nor do we know that the kids’ mom, Cordelia, is blind, not right away. This helps to build the tension, to make the narrative interesting. At the same time, McGlynn flashes forward a couple of times, using the future tense to immediately reveal the oucome of a situation, to resolve a particular thread. It’s an interesting technique—and it works because the rest of the story is told in past, so narrator Rowdy knows everything, anyway—one that he uses in “Deep in the Heart” as well.

Once Glenda passes, Cordelia asks Rowdy to drive her somewhere. They leave, Jill standing in the street and watching them go as they pull away, and Rowdy’s curious as to where they’re going. “South,” Cordelia answers, and when Rowdy points out that there’s just been a hurricane, his mother reminds him that hurricanes don’t circle back, that they’ll be driving away from the storm. That doesn’t account for all the damage and flooding they’ll encounter, but hey, Rowdy’s sixteen and he does what he’s told.

This is around the time the full details of the story start to come out, that we hear the word “affair” uttered for the first time, confirming Kay’s role, find out the nature of the events. As it turns out, Rowdy and Cordelia aren’t just going for a ride: She’s reacting to her husband’s infidelity. First, they stop at a bar and Cordelia allows herself to be picked up, which Rowdy prevents (more or less). Then they head down to Galvisten Island, to Cordelia’s parents’ cabin. As it turns out, she’s come here to stay. She and Rowdy weren’t going for a drive: She was leaving his father, and Rowdy was her ride.

“The End of the Straight and Narrow” is the last story in McGlynn’s book, which got me thinking about the nature of the story, how details are revealed later than usual. I took a peek at some of the stories leading up to it, and sure enough, Rowdy and his family populate the last five. Further inspection of the table of contents reveals that the book is cut into halves, parts I and II, the second half all about this family, a cycle that ends with Cordelia leaving (and someone else leaving the family, too). I’m not saying the stories can’t be read alone—again, I like the effect of McGlynn’s patient rate of reveal—as all of them were published individually in good lit mags prior to the collection’s release. I do recommend that when you read the book—and I certainly do recommend it, as it’s fantastic—that you read it in order, at least the second half. I’m kind of glad I didn’t, but I wonder how I would have reacted had I been more informed going in. Either way, McGlynn is a talent.

I see a lot of my friends on FB now, posting pictures of themselves wearing green, out at bars, drinking green beer. I might split the difference and get some Peanut M&Ms soon, focusing on the green ones (and then the others). That counts, right?

David McGlynn

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