"Fidelity and monogamy are not the same," a married Anglican priest tells his mistress in the sixth of the seven stories in T.M. McNally's superb new collection of tales of the heart. "The body has a mission," he continues. "God knows that."
"Hell," he finishes, "a man will fuck a goat." Hardly romantic words or exemplary clerical counseling--especially after his mistress has told him that she used to attend his church services to hear him preach, and that she'd longed to befriend his beautiful wife who'd served her coffee during the social hour. And that she'd realized the sermon he preached on forgiveness was directed specifically at that beautiful wife.
Contemporary life is complicated and contradictory.
There's something about reading these stories about infidelity that makes you feel like you're sitting in on a sermon on forgiveness. You almost look around for the beautiful, gracious wife for whom it might have been written. Arizona State University creative-writing instructor T.M. McNally is no stranger to literary acclaim, and The Gateway continues his tradition of art in craft. Comfortably, coolly ironic, he brushes enough of a wash of spirit and genuine feeling over these narratives to warm them--if only glancingly, and never sentimentally.
At root is the sense that something is cracking--relationship, sobriety, faith, health. These are character-driven stories, and their conflicts relate to the pain of trying to hold together internal, emotional fissures. In "Bastogne," the opening story, the ragged relations between the early-middle-age narrator and his disagreeable World War II-vet father are central. An unassuming computer programmer living in Europe with his brilliant wife and young son, the narrator makes a pilgrimage to the site where his father lost his leg--the frozen Bastogne in 1945. The cracks run between the father's lost first love and his disinterested wife; between son and father (who'd mutter "might is right" as he unbuckled his belt to beat his son); and ultimately through the narrator's body, just found to be ill. Playing with themes of time ("time past ... is time present") and fragility (the narrator's wife's specialty is in identifying ancient porcelain), McNally has his character imagine his father as a young soldier. It wouldn't be giving away too much to say that a measure of reconciliation in this affecting piece comes in the form of McNally's melding the generations. His toddler son might grow up to be a doctor, the narrator speculates. He might become a famous scientist. He might even change the world. As such, "might--or possibility--does make right." The third piece in The Gateway, "Skin Deep," combines several of McNally's recurring themes: the nature of "family"; the rupture of parents from children; the phenomenon of new lives rising from the ashes of previous ones; the notion that more painful than sin or addiction is living with it afterward; and--possibly most importantly--the harmful disconnect of the body from the soul. In "Skin Deep," McNally uses a river-rafting sunburn to suggest renascence. A young landscaper--a recovering drug addict and ex-prostitute--needs to decide whether to accept a college scholarship. As she struggles to break from the self-destructive family mold, she's helped from two directions--"above," from a powerful (mob-related) lawyer, and "below," from a younger, drug-addled prostitute she meets on the street. Part of her healing involves recognition: "When skin burns," she observes, "at least you know it isn't dead yet." As taken as one can be with McNally's character crises and his wry, often playful/punning tone, a little hard to swallow is his rationalization of the traditional mind-body dichotomy: the recurring contention that men inevitably philander, that they'll "fuck a goat," but that their affairs are insignificant.
Nonetheless, that's a core premise of one of the most breathtaking stories in the collection, "Open My Heart." It doesn't open with the two main players--a 30-something burn-unit nurse and her older executive husband--but with a catalyzing character, a 17-year-old boy in her unit whose lower half has been incinerated. The couple's "open" marriage is now thrown out of balance by conflicting yearnings--his, to continue his serial affairs; hers, to have a baby--just as both of these options seem cut off for the boy.
But it also provides the opportunity for healing. As the nurse says to the once-handsome boy: "The body is not the essence. It's what protects that essence. ... So you can nourish it and give it back to others."
This advice--to give back, to open the heart and reconcile the spiritual with the physical--proves the recurring route to redemption in these tales: It's the touching of "the essence" that permits forgiveness.
Makes you want to whisper, "Amen." Goats and all.