Pinckney Benedict’s third collection of stories, Miracle Boy and other Stories, fearlessly merges Benedict’s well-established literary style with a darker, more “popular” approach to storytelling. Born to a family of West Virginia dairy farmers, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Benedict burst onto the literary fiction scene in 1987 with the release of Town Smokes and, in 1992 with The Wrecking Yard and a year later with Dogs of God (his first and only novel). Now, after an irksome 17-year abeyance, Benedict’s return marks a leap in his work, the stories of Miracle Boy dismantling the conventions of personal experience and literary fiction to create one unique, intricately shaped and entirely consuming world after another.
In “Pony Car,” a cross between ghost story and zombie-apocalypse thriller, a split-tongued crow channels the undead. “The Beginnings of Sorrow” depicts a hunting dog possessed by the salacious soul of his dead master. In “Joe Messinger is Dreaming,” we witness the folding of the high-altitude-affected mind of Messinger before he plunges in a space suit from a weather balloon at 120,000 feet.
It’s not just world-making and imagination that make this new collection a page-turner; it’s the chance encounters, missed opportunities and bizarre yet entirely real conflicts that compel the reader. In “Mudmen,” when a pig farmer learns of his wife’s adultery, he slathers mud across a skeleton of scrap wood and commands him to ,”Kill all vermin.” Once the mudman has killed everything in sight, he becomes the object of his own directive. Similarly, “The Angel’s Trumpet” is told from the viewpoint of the last surviving Goins, as he descends into the manure pit that recently took the lives of his family to limn his family’s heritage across the vat’s interior walls. “The Secret Nature of the Mechanical Rabbit” depicts Buddy Gunn’s decision to poison his boss’s dog-fighting dingo after collecting one too many puppies from The Classifieds for him to practice on. And, in “Zog-19: A Scientific Romance,” an ironclad alien from the distant future falls in love with the wife of Donny McGinty, the farmer whose body the alien possesses in order to procure information about humans.
The Miracle Boy stories are denizens of real time, slyly feeding readers finer details and necessary backgrounds as scenes unfold, rather than via exposition. In “The Angel’s Trumpet,” Benedict weaves into the narrative the thoughts of the main character’s brother, with elucidating quotes from reference books in his father’s library as the story otherwise unfolds in a linear direction. “Joe Messinger is Dreaming” collapses time altogether so that expository prose, scene and dialogue are one in the same.
Miracle Boy says something about our world as well. Horror, sci-fi and fantasy have always been the media of writers bent on examining what would happen if our nightmares, omens and myths materialized. This sort of augury oft manifests in ways purely fictional in Miracle Boy, but the realities of technology figure in as well. There’s the derelict radio telescope that acts as a small town’s confessional in “The Butcher Cock”; the weather balloon that allows for Messinger’s peregrinations through time while marking his doom; the exterminator suit of “The Bridge of Sighs” that transforms a loving father into a monster; and “the intricate machine built by men to show him a girl at the other end of space” in “Pig Helmet & the Wall of Life.” Miracle Boy also lacks heroes, the true nature of the conflicts within Benedict’s characters going largely unresolved. These stories often seem to suggest that humankind’s lust for technology and lack of providence in favor of dissemblance and demagoguery has doomed us to a whimpering end.
In a recent issue of Appalachian Heritage, editor George Brosi calls Pinckney Benedict “a gleeful writer”; aggressive, gun-slinging, and car-free might be more apt words for this fearless teller of tales. It took Mr. Benedict 17 years to write Miracle Boy and other Stories. It was worth the wait.