Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Review: Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict

Pinckney Benedict's Miracle Boy and Other Stories is a collection of short stories that holds nothing sacred except the written word. With his roots in Appalachian culture, Benedict draws on an unusual cast of characters for his stories.

From the opening title story about a young boy whose feet are severed in a tractor accident, the reader knows he's under the control of a master short story writer. A simple tale of a boy with reattached feet who is bullied in school by three classmates, "Miracle Boy" is about one of the bullies rather than the boy with reattached feet. One of the bullies throws miracle boy's shoes over power lines, special shoes he needs to walk as nearly normally as possible. Over the weeks, the shoes hang on the power lines, thereby causing the bully pangs of conscience. The resolution is heart-warming without being sappy. Benedict wouldn't know how to write a sappy ending if his life depended on it.

Move from "Miracle Boy" to "Bridge of Sighs," and you move from one microcosm to another. In "Bridge," an epidemic swept through the rural highlands killing cattle, sheep and pigs. Poultry barns went up in flames with all the birds inside. A young boy watches his father and an extermination man discuss the number of cattle that should be in a barn. Four are missing. The boy sneaks away to where the missing cattle are hidden. After the cattle in the barn are shot, the extermination man follows the boy into the wilderness. In a show of kindness, the extermination man determines the hidden cattle are healthy. He does not shoot them.

And then there's "Zog-19: A Scientific Romance." Zog-19 is a metallic alien who has been sent to earth to learn our customs. He replaces a farmer, almost fools the farmer's wife into thinking nothing is wrong, and struggles with the customs. Zog-19's planet is failing. He is sent to see if Earth will be a good colony. While Zog-19 learns Earth's customs, a space ship lands on Zog. The astronauts discover a planet made of metal with a core of a sentient gas that makes their spaceship travel farther and faster. Mining the gas from the planet seems like the only logical thing to do. Unfortunately, all Zog residents have the same gas inside their metal bodies. Before long, there are few residents on Zog. The planet is dead. Zog-19 isn't.

Benedict's language is strong, almost muscular, yet it is strangely poetic. He takes out his magnifying glass and examines humanity and the hardscrabble lives his characters survive. His stories are best when Pinckney is being Pinckney, letting go of whatever conventions that might restrain him. Fourteen stories, each a gem, combine to present a necklace of images both unexpected and exciting.

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