Claustrophobic first novel about an embattled and haunted Southern boyhood.
As he did in his story collections, Stop Breakin Down (2000) and Born on a Train (2002), Whiting Award-winner McManus employs familiar Southern Gothic conventions (a conflicted dysfunctional family, gender confusion, a hurt sense of time passing and landscapes changing) in relating nine-year-old Loren Garland’s hesitant efforts to escape the twin prisons of his loneliness and his morbid obesity. Loren’s single mom, Avery, has turned her back on both motherhood and womanhood, preparing for a sex-change operation while hiding in a mountaintop retreat (the story is set during the 1980s in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains). Loren’s recently bereaved grandfather (“Papaw”)—a mordant amalgam of Faulkner’s Flem Snopes and Al Capp’s Pappy Yokum—“writes” tuneless bawdy songs while reluctantly selling his sterile farmland to a greedy developer. And Loren suffers the abuse of relatives he’s sent to live with, the taunts of heartless schoolmates and a hysterically paranoid schoolteacher, and the “advice” of invisible companion Luther, who is, variously, the twin that died when Loren was born, the voice of his embryonic conscience or a hallucinatory “component of his memories.” The narrative moves toward a kind of liberation, as Loren makes a separate peace with Papaw, foreseeing the shape of his hitherto occluded future—and Luther, like Shakespeare’s Ariel, sensing his mission accomplished, seizes his freedom. The result is a densely atmospheric, propulsive tale (presented without chapter breaks) that doesn’t quite work, because McManus can’t seem to decide who or what Luther (the sometimes obtrusive, sometimes concealed narrator) is; and because Bitter Milk contains numbingly top-heavy echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper; Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and (especially) Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café.
The work of a young writer still seeking his own voice. When McManus finds it, the results may be spectacular.