In his new collection of stories, Fox Tooth Heart, John McManus puts his arm around our shoulder and walks us out to the margin, calmly pointing out all the unfortunate souls who have stepped across the thin line. When he turns us away from the grotesque, toward the homes his characters can’t find their way back to, the familiar is dizzying in its sway.
All nine stories feature fatality—death by suicide, homicide, accident, and, of course, natural causes. If I were ticking off boxes on an existential score card, I might be able to make a case that the luckiest of the bunch is a ‘free-solo’ climber who on El Capitan recklessly hoists himself up on ‘fifty-fifty thimbles’, meaning the protrusions of rock that have a fifty percent chance of giving way, certain death a false hold away. He survives the odds of fifty percent of fifty percent of fifty percent, arriving at the summit able to affirm his newly regained singlehood by refusing the flirtations of a fine young thing—her reptilian brain jazzed by his throbbing muscles. But this state of well-being is temporary, as he plans further iterations of this feat, leaving us to contemplate how many times you can multiply your chances by point-five until they are effectively zero.
McManus frequently features a cause/effect inversion that subdues the significance of the most major of events—like in “Gateway to the Ozarks” the sudden death of the mother, which is disclosed as a complicating element in the main character’s attempt to find the source of the Y in his DNA. This character, Carl, intuits “that he wouldn’t be asking Marissa about the letter, now that she and Willy and two of their friends had driven off a cliff.” But the mind has to be occupied with something, and so his frustration at being unable to imagine his mother, or his close friend Silas (who died after asking Carl to kick him in the balls), in heaven causes grief to sublimate into apocalyptic fantasy. What else is there for Carl to do but resume old habits, including obsessing over the lost father, who turns out to be the genetic donor to four other boys, who turns out to be our father too, the “father of liberty.” That’s right, Thomas Jefferson himself. These ersatz stepbrothers prove to be a collection of snarky assholes, poor siblings indeed, and so only serve to reinforce Carl’s sense of marginalization. Denied this second opportunity at family, denied his second attempt at confessing to Silas’s mother his role in her son’s death, Carl contemplates his power to mutate history—not through the traditional fantastical mechanisms, like time travel, but through the manufacture of online encyclopedia entries—strangely reassuring, in that this seems a game we can all play to distract from our own terrifying isolation.
“The Gnat Line” is my favorite story in the collection, and the most structurally complex. In seven numbered sections the story shifts perspectives from one convicted sex offender to another, all of whom, because of a Georgia law stipulating they can’t live within one-fifth of a mile of places children might congregate, find themselves living together in a camp on a tract of public land. The most sympathetic of the offenders is a middle-aged gay man named Stephen who, with a grief-addled mind after the death of his lover, attempts to kill himself with cocaine, and then coffee. The resulting heat flashes cause him to open up the windows, and then, in what might not simply be a matter of bad timing, stand naked at his living room window, the December air cooling his body “ripe with sweat” while a school bus stops to drop off a girl.
Stephen’s response to a sudden murder/suicide at the camp and the resulting chaos, the story’s pivot point, shows us something about our glitchy limbic system—sometimes we fight, sometimes we flee, and sometimes we cope with the horror of violence by guzzling one of the dead men’s malt beverages and drunkenly passing our eyes over the words in a novel. I found myself rooting for Stephen to get out from under the weight of his grief, or at least energize enough to plant his fist in the “soft pudgy face” of a guy named Bruce who had just thrown his book in the fire, saying, “Somebody’s got to show you how it is.” Instead Stephen stands there staring at Bruce, wondering at why he exposed himself like he did—I assume weighing the cosmic justice he masochistically desired against his sins. “Show me,” Stephen says in the last line of the story, “replying to what Bruce seemed to have already forgotten saying.”
There is no language to account for some experiences in this world. Fortunately I didn’t have to feel alone watching this, as I could feel McManus’s comforting authorial presence, the squeeze of his hand on my far shoulder, nodding his head at what he knows I’m feeling.
At 22, John McManus was the youngest recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award. You expect important things from an author whose previous story collections and novel (“Bitter Milk,” 2005) have been widely praised. His first book in a decade, “Fox Tooth Heart,” will impress readers, I suspect, although its nine stories won’t please everyone.
McManus’ characters are meth addicts, sadomasochists, registered sex offenders, even “teenage Satanist rest-area murderers.” Most of them live in the South — in Letcher and Pike counties, Kentucky, around Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in Atlanta, Yazoo City, Miami and Houston. They frequent gay bars and seek forgetfulness in the darkrooms of bathhouses. If underage, they hurt other boys for sexual pleasure or desire to be hurt. The book’s epigraph quotes a Tennessee Williams poem: “Cypress woods are demon-dark: / boys are fox-teeth in your heart.” The destructive impulses gnawing at McManus’ characters don’t ease until they black out from drugs and alcohol. Better to forget the past, they think. Yet in forgetting, they also remember.
In “Elephant Sanctuary,” Ike Bright Sr., a con man lying low near Texarkana, may or may not be involved in selling elephant tusks. It’s a hellish, rotten business where, among other things, a man offers his wife to Ike Jr., who himself may have left his cocaine-snorting girlfriend to die on a highway. Before blacking out (variations of the phrase appear over and over in the book), he tries to warn Gracie, the elephant, of what’s about to happen to her. Ike Jr., whose brain long ago “had ceased making new memories,” thinks that if he can save Gracie, then at least one earthly creature will remember him, for Elephants Never Forget. Perhaps Gracie is an alcohol-fueled illusion, though, a pink elephant.
In “Betsy From Pike,” a 12½-year-old lives with a sexually abusive neighbor who puts “her on Depo-Provera.” When the girl visits a veterinarian to inquire about her dog, she intends “to steal a shot of pentobarbital to use on” the molester. Like others in “Fox Tooth Heart,” she, too, suffers blackouts, hers caused by epileptic seizures. “All her life she’d been forgetting so much,” she thinks later in prison.
For McManus’ characters, remembering is the problem. Studying the elephants, Ike Sr. asks, “If you never forgot things, wouldn’t you want to die?”
A solution to the memory problem, the remembering, appears in redemptive moments near the end of “Bugaboo” and “Blood Brothers,” where self-acceptance and love hold the bad memories at bay.
McManus is a terrific writer. Regarding the “Southern decadence” in his stories, consider that Edgar Poe’s lunatics and sensualists also blacked out from opium, alcohol or fear; and that Tennessee Williams’ depraved neurotics, like the playwright himself, often ran from truths of the heart.
McManus (Bitter Milk) invites readers on an eccentric journey through Southern, Southwestern, and Middle America in this collection of wildly inventive short stories. Though they’re set in America, they exist in a meticulously crafted world, quite different than our own: a world in which rock stars communicate with elephants (“Elephant Sanctuary”) and clones of ex-presidents convene (“Gateway to the Ozarks”). In “Cult Heroes,” a teenage mountain biker seeking to emancipate himself from his parents attempts to bike the Grand Canyon. In “The Ninety-Fifth Percentile,” a Porsche takes center stage in a young boy’s coming of age in Houston. …McManus delves into the minds of his characters, allowing readers to experience their anxieties, delusions, fantasies, and fears.
McManus shows a quirky originality in these nine stories as he focuses on the outré and bizarre doings of his off-center characters. Along with creating a compelling cast, McManus shows himself a master of openings. “Elephant Sanctuary” begins with the following outlandish and compelling sentence: “The story of the creation of my elephant vampire songs begins on the December morning when I killed Aisling, heroine of our last album and my fiancée, in one Jaguar and fled Texas in another.” This sentence anticipates in miniature the unfolding of the rest of the tale as we learn that the con-man father of the songwriter narrator claims to have won an elephant sanctuary with a Dolly Parton (a nine-five combo) in Texas Hold ’em and the narrator has in fact murdered his fiancee. And these are not by any means the most oddball characters we meet in McManus’ stories. Another is Victor, in “Gainliness,” whose eccentricities include using needle-nosed pliers to pick his nose, swallowing toothpaste, and starting major journeys on his left foot. “The Ninety-Fifth Percentile” introduces a number of spoiled and privileged students at a Texas high school, all of whom have IQ scores in the 95th percentile. The story explores not only their sense of entitlement, but also their attitudes toward immigrants moving in on their territory (both geographical and intellectual), their commitment to fast cars and drugs du jour, and their explorations of both hetero- and homosexuality. With his strange cast of drunks, murderers, and the drug-addled, McManus fits comfortably into a tradition of Gothic writing, adding his own—dare one say peculiar?—twists.
Bitter Milk will challenge many readers with its continuous narrative (no chapter breaks) and tricky parsing of a 9-year-old’s reality. But McManus has chosen not to offer up a glib version of a child’s tortured quest for truth. Rather, he burrows deep inside his character to create a fresh, unforgettable portrait that is both firmly rooted in its Appalachian setting and universal in its appeal.
Bold in conception and shrewdly deployed, the voice that first-time novelist John McManus has invented for Bitter Milk is inspired. …Loren is nothing less than a pudgy, pre-adolescent Odysseus, both strong and cunning in his own sad-sack way. …But what is most remarkable about this novel is not Loren’s transformation, but that we learn everything about it courtesy of Luther. Luther, who is not even real. …Luther is more than a fiction, and more than a sprite born of verbal brilliance and the Southern literary tradition. Luther is more a necessary expression than he is colorful commentary upon the nature of storytelling. Luther is, in fact, the knowledge most adults keep secret from themselves brought to consciousness, brought to life. Read Bitter Milk and you’ll find yourself often catching your breath in anticipation that Mr. McManus’ feats and agile contortions are but a prelude to a great, climactic crash. How initially strange, then, that the book should conclude with the softest of landings. That is: what a relief, and what a disappointment. But maybe that is just the ghoul in us all, and its impulses are best thwarted. A novel functions according to its own how and why. Also, in the most outstanding novels, this how and this why are one in the same. Bitter Milk is an outstanding novel.
A southern gothic novel for the twenty-first century. …The writing is powerful and original, but a lot like a train wreck—you don’t want to look at it, but you can’t help yourself.
From the first page…the story moves along like a fast-moving train.
I’m often asked, ‘What’s the best book you’ve read lately?’ Today I would say Bitter Milk. It’s the most original, refreshing look I’ve encountered lately. …McManus writes with genius.
Bitter Milk is filled with steel-edged moments that penetrate the balance of power and love between parent and child. …Mary McCarthy described The Catcher in the Rye as less a piece of fiction than an act of ventriloquism. That sleight of wit applies to Bitter Milk.
In his two collections, Stop Breakin Down and Born on a Train, John McManus writes visceral prose that explodes within the tight boundaries of the short story. These narratives possess a graceful internal logic and feature a wide range of gritty characters rebelling against an indifferent and often brutal world. McManus’s first novel, Bitter Milk, features similar writing, effortlessly sweeping the reader into the story with its highly detailed and captivating characters. …McManus’s intricate dialogue and sympathetic narration make for compelling reading. …Bitter Milk evokes a group of characters who are self-aware but unable to change, and in a vision both disturbing and memorable, the murky depths of the Garland family reflect the malaise and mystery of the land.
A beautiful first novel. …In Bitter Milk, McManus has created a character you will want to take home and cuddle up with. You will want to keep reading, in order to keep an eye on him.
McManus does a splendid job of portraying the characters that people this novel; while their actions and their speech can be amusingly preposterous, they remain believable. …This poignant tale of a troubled youth is heart-wrenching and funny, and showcases the talents of a young author who has won previous praise for his collection of short stories Stop Breakin Down. Here, he gives us a novel full of rich characters and dialogue.
Just because John McManus comes from the South (raised in Blount County, East Tennessee) doesn’t mean we should compare him with Faulkner. Just because Bitter Milk, his first novel, takes place in the South (in the shadow of Blount County’s Chilhowee Mountain), and just because it has that fetid Southern feel, fecund like a dammed-up creek, and just because the writing and the setting and the characters feel different from those of the pristine North, with its Updikes, Cheevers, and Salingers, doesn’t mean McManus is a Southern writer. To regionalize his writing is to belittle its universality. When the 26-year-old McManus published his first book of short stories, Stop Breakin Down, in 2000, he was barely old enough to buy a drink. The collection earned him the $35,000 Whiting Award; he was the youngest-ever recipient. His second collection, Born on a Train, was also lauded for its energy and grit. But these collections didn’t announce the arrival of another over-hyped Hot Young Thing so much as they gave promise: here was a writer practicing. The practice has paid off: Bitter Milk makes good on the promise. …The author depicts a mournful hardness specific to this cranny of the world. But mournful hardness exists on the back streets of Brookline as much as in the backwoods of Blount County, and McManus expresses the process of coming to know and understand that truth in a way that transcends locale.
Bitter Milk will sting you like a blast of rock salt packed into a sawed-off 20-gauge. …Loren’s eccentricities are rich enough to make him nearly as compelling as Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. You’re going to read a number of comparisons to Faulkner over the coming years, maybe to Cormac McCarthy too, and if Bitter Milk has shown anything it’s that McManus has the talent and the smarts to live up to them.
Reviewers of John McManus’s short story collections, Stop Breaking Down (2000) and Born on a Train (2004), compared his work favorably to that of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. As dismaying as it may seem, such praise is neither hyperbolic nor misplaced…Like his short story collections, McManus’s first novel, Bitter Milk, is possessed of the formal and substantive trappings that drew comparisons to those aforementioned literary masters: a beautifully-realized, history-haunted rural landscape (the Smoky Mountain foothills of Blount County, Tennessee); vivid, memorable characterizations; a distinctive, self-conscious prose style enriched by a varied yet unwavering ear for dialogue; and subject matter that often bears the clawed, bloody imprint of the grotesque. All of these elements are here in abundance, yet their deft arrangement and deployment conspire to make Bitter Milk much more than a tired formula, a familiar shadow, of earlier Appalachian and Southern works. Rather, the novel makes use of traditional regional literary concerns, plays upon them, while humming all the while an invisible tune both mysterious and new.
McManus has so many things working for him in Bitter Milk, it is easy to say that he has fulfilled the promise recognized by the Whiting Writers Award for emerging writers five years ago. …The story sails along on the winds of quirky incident; sharp, sometimes raw, sometimes absurdist humor; and the tension of Loren’s relationships. Ultimately, it’s about the hope of self-empowerment. McManus exhibits two of the main characteristics of a great writer: the ability to find true voices and a strong sense of playfulness.
The narrative moves toward a kind of liberation. …The result is a densely atmospheric, propulsive tale.
That [Loren’s] weird perspective eventually seems normal and rings true may be the beauty of this work, which seems to promise great things for this debut author and even holds the promise of better days for the young boy. Recommended.
Pat O’Brien would seem like small taters to Dr. Phil after a counseling session with the Garlands, the no-collar, fishbowl-dwelling family fixin’ to punch each other’s lights out in John McManus’ debut novel, Bitter Milk…. The proximity of the Garland family members to one another—some by choice, some by fate—creates a sense of friction that McManus makes the most of. …Overflowing with…talent and ambition.
Offbeat and entertaining.
Thought-provoking…McManus is a writer who has stepped out of the box to write life as he sees it, as unusual as that life might be.
One big, crippling thought that makes you wonder how long John McManus has been waiting to confide it. …Loren doesn’t so much come of age as come to anger, and Bitter Milk—which heretofore has felt like waking up in the woods after sleepwalking on a particularly hot afternoon—becomes less about its chapterless, quotationless structure and dialectal authenticity and more about the weird ways we get a hold of ourselves. Or don’t.
Profoundly moving and dizzyingly intense.
Oprah would ignore the shit out of a book like [Bitter Milk]. But that doesn’t mean you should. …John McManus has a great sense of place and story momentum, and he knows how to keep chipping away at your heart until it cracks down the middle.
The dialogue, rich with non sequiturs and hilariously off-key, is some of the best in fiction since Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Although it takes place during the Reagan years, it seems, like much of the best Southern writing, to be set in a time and place far behind the rest of the world. McManus laces the whole freewheeling plot with humor and a cool, dispassionate look at one of America’s more interesting backwaters (if you don’t have to live there, of course). …McManus has managed to create an impressive first novel.
[McManus] evokes a sense of grayness to life on the mountain—every scene feels overcast by a dark cloud—but many shreds of humor pierce through. …Bitter Milk is a quick, entertaining read written in a fluid, seemingly effortless prose style.
McManus’ talen is undeniable. At its best, his prose presents powerful insight into brutal realities and the inner workings of disturbed minds.
Bitter Milk is…full of quirky characters and interesting adolescent musings.
An extremely impressive debut.
Told with exacting detail, McManus makes the hills of backwater Tennessee come alive. The gorgeousness of the setting, the emotional and intellectual limits of the characters, the sheer inevitability and sadness of their lives…these details have the sheen of a murky Tennessee lake.
A hallucinatory, chapterless set-piece. …Heavy-duty? Yes. …You’re interested in reading one direction in contemporary American fiction? You’re open to fresh possibilities of narrative? You’re patient with a proven writer making his way into broader territory? You’re ready for a novel that ends with one of the more affecting closing statements of the year? See Bitter Milk.
With his debut novel, Bitter Milk…John McManus, all of 27 years old, has created something fresh and entirely original in the genre, a gritty tale of a boy’s life with overtones from psychology, epistemology and theology. It asks the question: what is a 9-year-old boy to do when he is seriously obese, quite possibly gay, living in an oddly divided mind and questing after his mother, who has abandoned him with gender dysphoria of her own? …[McManus] succeeds brilliantly, and the story never flags. …The story is a more than passing riff on the Book of Job…Still, ambiguity among the characters runs deep, and the book is far more than an allegorical retelling of Job’s story…The effect of McManus’ wizardry is to leave the reader with a Rubik’s cube of variations on Job’s theme, and an immensely interesting book. McManus…is a first-rate writer, and Bitter Milk is an exceptional piece of work.
In a first novel of originality and a dazzling intensity, John McManus brings us young Loren Garland, the next of kin a long line of bastard relatives. Weird, funny, and poignant, Bitter Milk is one of the most distinctive novels of the season. Although part of the tradition of great, dysfunctional Southern fictions, it is in the end entirely itself.
This mysterious, almost phantasmagoric, debut novel is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper in its precociousness. McManus writes with a wisdom and empathy that belies his youth. Bitter Milk signals the arrival of an important new voice in Southern literature.
An impressive follow up on his two striking collections of stories, the brilliant, mordant Bitter Milk consolidates John McManus’s place as one of the most powerful and original American writers of the twenty-first century.
Born on a Train, then, is not cheerful. But it is held together by the dogged determination of the author, who at once insists that this is what life is ‘like,’ and holds his vision together with a tightly controlled series of recurring images—of drugs and dead leaves and sorry dogs and shadows. This is a shadow world, the ‘dark’ side of America, and like a shadow you can’t get rid of it. That shadow glides out from all the church suppers and movies in mini-malls and houses with lawns and middle-class heterosexuals tucked up in bed watching the 11 o’clock news. All you have to do to find that world is take a look.
This is McManus’s genius: depravity, tender and effortless. These are people he obviously knows well and is fond of, and it is their stories he tells most clearly. …His subjects are so plain and awful, we need the occasional literary flourish to reassure us it’s fiction, but the toughest things he shows us don’t need adorning—how hope gets passed along like a mean streak that won’t breed out; people muddling after something that might finally make sense, and the sick confusion they feel, and hide, when that eludes them.
McManus’s sensibility is that of a Tennessee Williams writing about impoverished hillbillies instead of fading Southern gentlefolk. He has an ear for punchy, pungent dialect which contrasts starkly with the lush imagery of his authorial voice.
[McManus’s] inclination to experiment and push is also what allows his stories to burn on in your memory. He can turn the simplest words into something resonant. …Although McManus’s universe is pierced with startling lyricism (discounting the fly carcasses and other earthly delights), his version of humankind endures in cold isolation.
A powerful portrait of the invisible forces waiting to engulf us all.
“The spirit of his Southern-powered work (Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, and Breece D’J Pancake come to mind) [is] acting natural. Speaking for itself. And people are beginning to hear it, like you sometimes hear a low, distant howl getting closer.
McManus’ stories often reveal young people who want their youth taken away because life has already rubbed them raw. They’re tired of feeling. When they talk, their words have a crude, primitive force because they are the words of the dying who no longer know where the words are coming from.
Visceral prose that explodes within the tight boundaries of the short story. These narratives possess a graceful internal logic and feature a wide range of gritty characters rebelling against an indifferent and often brutal world.
John McManus’s Born on a Train delivers a dozen pitch-perfect tales…all packed with yearning, dark humor, and a gorgeous poetry of love and loss.
The stories in John McManus’s Born on a Train are powered by radiant prose.
John McManus writes like he is inventing a new language on pure guts. Here is life raw and edgy and visceral. Here is the accident of beauty. Other writers have laid claim to this world—the ragged-out American South—but nobody that I can think of has done it with such desperate grace.
John McManus’ nervewracking prose has great pitch and daring, andEastboundhas to be one of the best, most mournful end-of-the-road stories ever written. He’s a wildly talented writer.
These are stories that hit hard enough to bloody your nose. I wish I wrote half so well.
[McManus’s] depiction of mostly burned-out post-adolescents, losers and outcasts, leading unfocused, futureless lives is deftly portrayed with passion and authenticity. He is particularly adept at capturing the moody lethargy and barren, clichéd dialogue of his characters. McManus is undoubtedly an extremely talented writer and Stop Breakin Down a singular achievement, an impressive debut.
Things are going fast for John McManus. His writing career seems to be moving almost as frenetically as the characters he creates—losers and outcasts who motor and pedal and wander great distances without getting anywhere.
The Future Is Orangefeatures a frustrated burst of rage that is utterly believable because of the time taken by the author to set it up,Vlad the Nefariousdetails a troubled teen’s constant need for stimulation, andGegenscheinis an eerie tale about an encounter in the woods. Full of gritty detail.
McManus’s consciousness flows not like a stream, but a flash flood. His characters all live on the ragged edge of physical and emotional crisis, often dulled by intoxication but always on the verge of a moment of clarity. McManus straps them into a screaming, circular drag toward nothingness in what seems like one long, breathless take.
Impressive in its reflection of intense life experiences. …McManus…writes unpredictable, accomplished stories; and his language is rich with playful southern accents.
These stories will have young adults nodding their heads and parents shuddering…McManus weaves dark and light into images that beg for our empathy.
Here is rage on the page. …It’s a whole environment, with a new food chain, and yes, I want to know about it. McManus is all ears.
Electric…McManus has a complex and assured structural sensibility and a mastery of shifting frames of consciousness and points of view, in the manner of Faulkner and Joyce, and writing at 22 makes you wonder whether he is a naïf savant…. He has a remarkable talent, and it is difficult to imagine how far or to what place he will take it.
A phenomenal talent blazing up suddenly on the horizon. …Precise, brilliant language that evokes without ever having to explain. …His transcendent vision gives us devastating glimpses. …He may be in Denis Johnson and Thom Jones territory, but the arresting music he makes there is all his own.
Promising. …captures the inarticulate without resorting to it.
John McManus’s short stories are the literary equivalent of drive-by shootings…McManus is either going to become the next Celine or self-destruct before he turns 30…but what this young author knows is as impressive as how he writes.
McManus impresses mainly with his manic vision and with the vibrant and unrestrained energy of his exciting new voice.
Precocious. …His writing is technically exquisite, and his narrative voice is controlled and assured. …An impressive debut—gritty and stark, accomplished and assured.
Fast and furious. …[An] exhilarating read.
McManus straps [his characters] into a screaming, circular drop toward nothingness in what seems like one long, breathless take.
Would I be happy to have written these stories myself? I wish I could have written them.
As one of John McManus’s searching narrators says, ‘It’s midnight but yes there is brightness.’ Stop Breakin Down is full of sickness and hope, ugliness and love, as its people are only beginning to realize.
Fierce, vivid, and disturbing, these stories rupture our expectations at every wild turn. John McManus knows a world where grandparents lie and curse, seduce and terrify—a world where friends who want to win a bet are prepared to betray or kill you. Hold on! If you’re ready to ride, the fearless language of Stop Breakin Downwill leave you shaken and exhilarated.
John McManus writes fast, scary, crackling prose—so good that only afterwards, when our heartbeats have slowed, do we realize how deeply and brightly his stories have burned. In the afterimage, we realize how much and how clearly we’ve seen.
McManus’s stories surprise, excite, and delight. I loved them.