Now and then comes a first book by a writer so young and possessed of unique voice and vision, his promise seems unlimited—that, despite its evident poise and skill, is unfortunately not the case with this highly derivative debut collection.
Of the 15 stories here, only two or three have any staying power. “Sleep on Stones,” about a man who plants 83 seedlings of the indestructible weed kudzu around the house of the woman who jilted him, has the potential to rise into fascinating metaphor, with kudzu serving as analogue for obsessive, possessive love. Or the potential to rise into high hilarity. It does neither. The 22-year-old McManus appears too obsessed with control to let his prose fly. And if these uniformly bleak stories are any indication, he has little inclination toward humor. The collection traces the periphery of the social order: a man hires himself out to be chained on the first floor of a house in the Salt Flats of Utah over a methamphetamine lab he never sees (“Desert”); a drug dealer comes to realize that Bruce, who seems to share his survivalist, white supremacist views, is actually a narc (“What I Remember about the Cold War”); a college student with something approximating agoraphobia spends his student loans to leave school and camp out alone on an abandoned copper strip-mine (“Gegenschein”). McManus’s treatment of these dramas is as ineffectual as the lives of those he chronicles; few of the stories cohere with any sort of frisson of insight for either character or reader. “The Feed Zone,” about a bicyclist’s obsession with winning and revenge, takes place during a grueling race, yet despite the author’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of bike racing, only the briefest of moments ever convey the rider’s passion or exhaustion. Much here reads as if McManus cannot quite decide whether he wants to be Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, George Saunders, William Faulkner—or whoever he’s mimicking at any given moment.
If it’s true that amateurs borrow and professionals steal, when McManus begins a truly larcenous assault on those he admires, he’s in for a promising career.