John McManus's long awaited short story collection encompasses the geographic limits of America, from trailers hidden in deep Southern woods to an Arkansas ranch converted into an elephant refuge. His lost-soul characters reel precariously between common anxiety and drug-enhanced paranoia, sober reality and fearsome hallucination. These nine masterpieces of twisted humor and pathos re-establish McManus as one of the most bracing voices of our time.
The son of an unknown father and an ostracized mother, and the next of kin in a long line of bastard relatives, nine-year-old Loren Garland lives a life of subtle mystery beneath the shadow of an East Tennessee mountain. It is on his family’s broken-down estate that Loren’s imagination grows, and with it, the extraordinary voice of Bitter Milk, a young boy named Luther who may be Loren’s imaginary friend, his conscience, or his evil twin. And yet outside the puzzle of Loren’s brain, there are the darker goings-on of his family—his mother who wishes she were a man, his new uncle who plans to develop the Garland land into real estate, and his withered grandfather who holds the clan together through truculence and fear. When Loren’s mother disappears, he must set out on a quest of his own devising, tossing aside the trappings of youth in order to discover the truth of the world.
Two years ago—at twenty-two—John McManus captivated writers and critics with his first story collection and became the youngest recipient of the Whiting Writers Award. Now McManus returns with a collection of stories equally piercing and visionary: stories about the young and old, compromised by circumstance and curiosity, and undergoing startling transformations. In “Eastbound,” a car driven by two elderly sisters breaks down on an elevated highway: Beneath them lies the lost country of the South, overrun with concrete and shopping centers but still possessing the spectres and secrets of the past. In “Brood,” a plucky young heroine moves with her mother into the home of the mother’s online boyfriend: She will use the Audubon Guide to Birds, and her own wits to survive the advances of the boyfriend’s teenaged son. In “Cowry,” two backpackers in New Zealand race to witness the first sunrise of the twenty-first century.
Treading a line between pain and passion, adventure and menace, Stop Breakin Down tells various stories of people driven to the brink of endurance and survival. In the title story, a group of youngsters commit themselves to a drunken car chase around the Baltimore beltway; in another, a student abandons his campus life to submerge himself in the desolate wilderness of the Smoky Mountains. All of McManus’s characters are desperate for something beyond their ordinary lives, and every one is absolutely unforgettable.