Green Hills Literary Lantern




Life, Death, Dread:

Robert Garner McBrearty's Let the Birds Drink In Peace

Conundrum Press, 2011. 156 pps.

ISBN-10: 0971367825ISBN-13: 978-0971367821


First in writing workshops where I was a student, and then any number of times since, when I occupied the facilitator’s chair, the question has arisen, and in various forms: is it possible to write a serious story with a life or death conflict?

The answer is of course, of course.

So why are those things frowned on in workshops, and rare compared to conflicts of desire and personalities and relationships? Let’s not pretend it isn’t so.

I was present when someone put that question to one of my teachers – a very good writer and instructor, and (as it turns out) one of Robert McBrearty’s mentors as well. I won’t name him, since I may be half fabricating his response at more than twenty years’ remove, but as I recall it went something like this:

In the first place, the life or death conflict, or LDC, is the sriracha sauce of fiction. It’s the natural enemy of the subtle and the nuanced. If your readers are really engaging it, it’s hard for them to think about anything else. The mature cook, who has learned restraint and the light hand, may be trusted with it.

In that regard, it’s kind of like sex, though people are hardly hesitant to bring that into serious fiction. But significantly, in the workshop (and in reading submissions to GHLL) we patrol sexual content for cliché, for evidence that a given scene owes more to mass media conventions than to lived experience. We’re wary of the inauthentic. And life/death conflicts are even more liable to that vice. In fact, that there is so much death in our genre entertainments, and that it is so surrounded by convention, may make its presence the functional equivalent of a teddy bear: domesticating the ferocious and fearsome.

But the deepest reason why LDC stories have a centripetal tendency towards the generic and untrue is because by their very nature they invite us to root for the protagonist to avert death, and that cannot be done. Delay, stall, postpone, deny, sure, but what story has the rousing conclusion where the protagonist gets an hour’s forebearance? At the heart of the LDC is at least the potential for willed self-deception, a betrayal of all the constitutional warrants for serious fiction. The atmosphere of the generic LDC is suspense – will our hero(ine) escape? What compels our much more serious engagement, the big brother of suspense, is dread. If suspense is the transitory doubt that Something Very Bad can be avoided or averted, dread is the certainty that this game of dodgeball will end, and the knowledge of how it must end. A capacity to work with dread rather than mere suspense has been one of the earmarks by which I recognize a student writer entering upon her mature powers.

All of this is a long windup for the pitch: the emotional true north towards which our emotional compass keeps swinging back in McBrearty’s collection is dread. Now if it’s overdone, if it’s unrelieved, well dang, that’s just morbid, neurotic, depressing. Nobody wants to hang out with Wednesday Addams. McBrearty’s strength is the ability to work in full seriousness without becoming grim or ponderous. There’s a credible, earned joy that’s in fact strengthened by the sustained awareness of all the things attentive adults know are working against it. And some of the stories are downright whimsical, playful. Considering the inevitable heat-death of the universe.

Not all of the thirteen stories are literally about the possibility of losing physical life, but a much higher proportion of them invoke that conflict than I think is common for high-end collections. Sometimes the seriousness is undercut, as in the case of “Back in Town,” where the narrative clichés of Western novels and films are deployed to an effect that seems sometimes like Magic Realism – the extraordinary draws no special notice – and at other times hallucinogenic, even a fever dream; the technique is meant to call attention to itself, as this story is followed immediately by another highly stylized narration in which the speaker’s reactions are completely at odds with what we know to be appropriate – a dishwasher takes every signal of the boss’ or coworkers’ dissatisfaction with his work as affirmation, and conducts himself as if he were a highly skilled performer in a demanding job. What’s left for us to wonder is whether this elaborate joke is the sustained existential sarcasm that gets so many of us through awful jobs – just developed to an extraordinary degree, and amounting to a kind of triumph – or the author’s own grim humor: we have all been counselled – most of us have probably blithely counselled others – to take pride in our work, no matter how lowly. And if that is the case, a humiliation awaits this simpleton.

Those polar potentialities are held in tension, one might infer from another idiosyncratic tale of the lower end of the working-stiff’s life. “First Day” also achieves a dreamlike narrative, its sad sack of a protagonist running a Kafkaesque gauntlet of functionaries whose only apparent function is to frustrate. His sysiphean efforts are taken up by an otherwise unspecified Big Thing he must move, tipping us off to the opportunity for allegory without inviting any particular assignments of details in the fiction to corresponding entities in the world outside the book. The only thing we know is that things are not going to end well for this Everyschlub. A similar mood governs the entirely realistic “Houston, 1984,” where the speaker’s role as a private-eye in an overheated city invokes a world of noir and hardboiled conventions – of which McBrearty does not take enough notice even to defy them, with the necessary result that we become more intensely aware of them as conventions, and are left to consider what’s left in a narration which has dropped them.  The answer would be something like “love,” “friendship.” There is in this deceptively simple story, as in so many of the rest, the redeeming and realistic recognition that human connections and decency eternally rescue something from the impending and eternal night.

The collection pivots on “The Acting Class,” a conventionally realistic narrative of a love affair that doesn’t exactly go bad – it never actually got good. McBrearty lets us know from the beginning: these things happened to the speaker when he was twenty-three; we know only that all this was long ago. Each step of the relationship is marked by a note on how it represented a kind of false springtime. Her eyes flicker admiration, then go dull – she was momentarily distracted, rather than attracted. Her tenderness is undercut with the acknowledgement that “later I discovered she could be quite coarse. ‘Let’s ball,’ she’d say in the middle of watching television.” And yet we want love to live, like we want those we love to live; in the end, well, it ends.

Even when Death does not eventuate, Doom is still a presence, a character, though to say so could create a very false impression of these subtle and darkly playful yarns. In “Hello Be Thy Name,” there’s something of Sartre’s Huis Clos, maybe of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath, certainly of Crane’s classic “The Open Boat,” at once absurd, serious and at a certain point uplifting, via a moment that is unabashedly sacramental. It takes balls to steer that near to sentimentality, and skill to veer off so neatly.  There are moments of genuine overcoming – in “The Edge He Carries,” the protagonist accomplishes something quite remarkable and admirable, though what’s most moving about it is the way he views his deed not as a personal victory or even evidence of virtue, but as instrumental to accomplishing a kindness for someone he loves.

Dread is a palpable figure in two narrations connected with the Alamo – along with the Titanic, the idiocy at Balaclava, or the more remote, celebrated and extended folly at Troy, a metonym both for doom and the heroic acceptance of a duty to behave as if what one did mattered, the one way to rescue dignity from absurdity. One story dares to imagine some of the figures as less lofty than mythologized history holds; the other is a dream-visio or somnium of the sort familiar to medievalists (the  Dream of Rhonabwy comes to mind): the speaker is caught up with the dramatis personae of his own life, all unstuck in time, although it could as well be the tangled cognition we find in “The Mind,” where the inevitability of all sorts of decay is put before us in the kind of narration that asks readers to sort out what’s delusion, and what’s actually going on.

Accidents happen in these stories, random events, or at least things uncaused by the people affected. The title story appears last, and it feels like a culmination, or at least it retrospectively puts the preceding stories in thematic order. It has the startling whiplash of pace-changes that made the final movements of The World According to Garp so unsettling. Although I’ve been free with spoilers in this review (there’s not much hope for the kind of fiction that loses all interest once one knows whodunit) I’ll leave readers to discover for themselves the meaning of the cryptic phrase, let the birds drink in peace, how it applies to the children at the center of the narrative, how it serves as an epigraph for the spirit of the entire collection. Suffice it to say: birds do what they do, with little awareness of what awaits, and that is a mercy.




Adam Brooke Davis teaches folklore, medieval studies, writing and linguistics at Truman State University.  He has published fiction, poetry, essays and scholarship, and serves as managing editor of GHLL.